Rushdie’s courage

Why Sir Salman’s knighthood matters
By EDITORIAL  |  June 20, 2007

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Salman speaks. By Peter Kadzis.

From the Boston Phoenix, May 6, 1999.
Bombay-born Salman Rushdie, educated at Rugby and Cambridge, is now Sir Salman Rushdie. The author of several novels — including the internationally acclaimed Midnight’s Children (winner of the Booker Prize, Great Britain’s equivalent of the Pulitzer) and The Satanic Verses (the book that sent Rushdie underground for years, after an Iranian religious leader called for his death) — was honored by Queen Elizabeth, presumably at the instigation of the government headed by new Labor prime minister Gordon Brown, for “services to literature.”

As approbation goes, it does not get much better than this in the United Kingdom — short of ennoblement, that is. The honor these days is more fusty than feudal: delighting friends and relatives, annoying rivals and critics, and giving the celebrated an added edge with headwaiters at smart restaurants, who, while they may not be as grand as the queen, do exercise a very practical sort of social power. Still, an honor is an honor. The élan of knighthood proved too powerful for rock and rollers such as Paul McCartney (one-time cherubic cut-up) and Mick Jagger (former satanic majesty) to resist.

Rushdie’s honor, however, is more significant than most. Like it or not, today the cultural is the political. By honoring Rushdie, Britain reaffirms the commitment it made to artistic expression more than a decade ago when it granted Rushdie government protection to save his life. Some in England say the honor is belated and would have been more significant had it been granted while Rushdie — now living more or less openly in New York City — was in hiding, trapped in a claustrophobic internal exile of Kafkaesque proportions. They are not incorrect.

Most recipients of honors from the Crown are beyond controversy. The bulk of their rank is drawn from the files of the already great and good: retired generals, senior civil servants, esteemed academics, and doers of good works. Acceptance is a matter of social grace, though in the feline, status-conscious world of London, where one’s parentage can still be thought of as more important than one’s achievement, the charge of social climbing can sting the thin-skinned.

But Rushdie’s knighthood — and his acceptance of it — is in a special class. Once an inadvertent victim of medieval-minded Islamists who perceived blasphemy where others saw art, Rushdie exhibited active courage in assenting to his honor. Amid the general applause with which Rushdie’s knighthood was met, the Muslim Council of Britain reacted with “contempt,” underscoring the hard reality that a significant portion of Europe’s Muslim population is willing to accept the material benefits of living in the West while rejecting the philosophical basis of the civilization they choose to call home. A government minister in Pakistan suggested the award could justify suicide bombers, reminding the world that radical Islam has spawned a death cult. And, most menacingly for Rushdie himself, Iran’s Organization to Commemorate Martyrs of the Muslim World offered a bounty of $150,000 to any successful assassin of Sir Salman. Knighthood may be a bauble for some, but for Rushdie it is a noble and dangerous affirmation of his art.

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