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.
The price of political courage is well known in the Middle East. Both Egypt’s Anwar Sadat and Israel’s Yitzhak Rabin were murdered by native extremists in their own countries. Less well remembered is a religious fanatic’s near fatal stabbing of Naguib Mahfouz, to date the only Arabic writer to be honored with a Nobel Prize. Mahfouz and Rushdie are both novelists, but generalizing beyond this would be to force a comparison, except to point out that the gentle and stately Mahfouz and the rollicking and protean Rushdie share a sacred commitment to their art and their individual visions. It is a measure of the complexity of their world-views that the more traditional Mahfouz showed little sympathy for the more secular Rushdie’s plight.
Individual vision and artistic integrity form a kind of threat that is hard for us in the United States to grasp. We know that acting on that threat is common in nations such as China, North Korea, and Cuba. It is growing in Venezuela and is again resurgent in Russia. Among our putative allies, Pakistan and Saudi Arabia, it is, respectively, soft but widespread and hard and all-inclusive. But whatever form such oppressive action takes, it is an affront to the human spirit.
In the weeks and months to come, it will most likely become apparent that Prime Minister Brown plans to withdraw support (read: troops) from President Bush’s disastrous Iraq War. If — or when — that time comes, Rushdie’s knighthood might offer a fig leaf of protection for Brown’s exit plans. We suspect that withdrawing from Iraq is something that Rushdie, a man of the left, would applaud.
Little remarked upon in the wake of Rushdie’s knighthood is the fact that he was born a Muslim. Therein lies an irony that should remind chauvinists in the West that no culture has a monopoly on art, which is, by its very nature, pluralistic. At the same time, it should remind those who seek to minimize the vast and growing intolerance in international Islam that the clash of civilizations is very real.
The Ayatollah Khomeini pronounced his death sentence on Rushdie 12 years before terrorists attacked Manhattan and Washington with hijacked planes. The interval between these events is insignificant; they sprang from a perniciously common impulse. Rushdie deserves our thanks for allowing himself to become, this time consciously, the embodiment of a precious ideal that soars above intolerance.