By way of an ‘I told you so’, here’s a little news item from yesterday I’ve just stumbled across, in which John Reid defends the award of a knighthood to Salman Rushdie. One of the most interesting passages is a quote from the Home Secretary: “we take the approach that in the long-run the protection of the right to express opinions in literature, argument and politics is of over-riding value to our society”. So Salman Rushdie has been set up as a cause celebre for British liberal values seen as locked in an ideological struggle with ‘extremist’ Islam. Quote from my blog entry about the knighthood from Tuesday now: “the government has probably thought it could use Rushdie as an exemplar of a Muslim who has fully embraced ‘British values’ of liberalism, moderation and freedom of speech”.
And it’s clear from Mr Reid’s words that the government did plan this out with at least this effect in mind: “We’ve thought very carefully about it. But we have a right to express opinions and a tolerance of other people’s point of view, and we don’t apologise for that”. So the inner circle of government have discussed this knighthood and thought it through, have they? So much for the award being to do with ‘services to literature’, which – as far I can tell – people in literary circles regard as a total joke. And it’s apparently about teaching Muslims a bit of a lesson about tolerance: the award itself is an instance of British tolerance towards a point of view that might be hurtful to some, like the Life of Brian was hurtful to some Christians. Naive of those over-emotional Muslims not to appreciate this finer point of our civilisation, really! But that’s all rather a twisted way of putting it: Rushdie’s views aren’t merely being ‘tolerated’ but rather they reflect what many of the evangelists for British liberal values themselves feel about Islam.
OK, so should we see Rushdie as a champion and martyr for free speech, which we all hold dear? Different people will draw the dividing line in different places. One thing that’s clear, though, is that Rushdie’s was an exercise of free speech without what could be called due regard for the most sacred beliefs and feelings of many at whom it was directed. In this, it’s akin to racism, Islamophobia and what might be called ‘culturism’: prejudice and offensive behaviour towards another culture. Because the comparison with the Life of Brian simply doesn’t hold up. In our culture, most people just thought that film was a bit of harmless nonsense; even most Christians thought those who were offended made themselves look a bit silly. However, in Islamic culture, what Rushdie did in The Satanic Verses is basically a ‘mortal sin’, to translate it back into Christian cultural terms. In other words, it’s as grave a wrongdoing as rape or murder.
Now, while in Britain, we don’t think such things are punishable by death, in many Muslim countries, they still do. So who are we to say that, in their terms, they are wrong? And yet we still preach to them about tolerance.