“Sir” Salman Rushdie 25

I can talk about Salman Rushdie’s honour with a certain earned hauteur, having in the course of my life turned down three honours myself (LVO, OBE and CVO, since you ask). I have never understood why people accept honours when there is so much more social cachet in refusing them.

People in the FCO always imagined I turned them down because of a vague egalitarianism. Actually it is because, as a good Scot, I felt no need to accept anything from a provincial German family notable for lack of intellectual distinction. The Queen asked me, in Warsaw, why I refused, and I replied it was because I am a Scottish nationalist. She replied “Oh good” with a charming smile.

On two occasions I received a very pleasant personal gift from the Queen instead – a solid silver armada dish, and a piece of Linley joinery. This is in practice a much better deal, because with the higher awards, when you die you have to give them back (honest – there is a little label on the back that says so). The gifts, you can sell – and as I am now completely on my uppers, I am going to. Any offers?

I do have one honour – I am an Officier de l’Ordre du Mono.of the Republic of Togo. This was given me by the late President Eyadema, who as far as I know was the only recent Head of State who strangled his predecessor with his own hands. It was for my role in a surreal – and terrifying – peace negotiation with the Sierra Leonean rebels, which will turn up in a future volume of my memoirs. I would have refused the medal, but the FCO ordered me not to as, in the unusual circumstances, it might give unhelpful offence. In thanking President Eyadema, I asked him if the next up was l’Ordre du Stereo. Whether he understood my joke, made in bad French, I don’t know, as he replied, memorably, that I should drink coconut milk to make me piss. That may be a Togolese insult.

Anyway, back to Rushdie. I am afraid I believe that if people wish to insult religion, they should be allowed to. Freedom of speech is vitally important. Those Muslims shouting against him have every right to be offended, and every right to express their view, but must acknowledge Rushdie’s right to express his. If the Muslims are right, Rushdie will get his come-uppance eternally, which should be enough vengeance for anybody. You can’t make eternity last longer by killing someone quicker.

But I am astounded at the decision to give him a knighthood. Why? His corpus of work is just not that good. Midnight’s Children was readable, but a bit formulaic. Rushdie’s prose has all the cutting edge of a damp cloth. Satanic Verses may be shocking, but has little else to recommend it.

Who nominated Rushdie, and why? If we really felt the need to create a new literary knight, why not Alexander McCall Smith or George MacDonald Fraser? Both of them are much more original and prolific writers than Rushdie. Both actually live in this country, unlike Rushdie.

McCall Smith, certainly, has devoted a significant proportion of his time and his literary earnings to charity, something one could never accuse Rushdie of. If Salman Rushdie has an interest in life other than Salman Rushdie, it is not readily discernible.

Rushdie simply does not deserve to be elevated above a score or more of other writers in this country who are not knights. I am having dinner tomorrow in Dundee with Phillip Pullman and Jacqueline Wilson, both of whom I prize above Rushdie. This is a political, not a literary, award and Muslims have a right to be angry about that. But the answer is a political response, not violence. If Lord Ahmed is genuine, he should jump off the New Labour gravy train.

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25 thoughts on ““Sir” Salman Rushdie

  • Randal

    "If the Muslims are right, Rushdie will get his come-uppance eternally, which should be enough vengeance for anybody. You can't make eternity last longer by killing someone quicker."

    Exactly right. I've often thought that those people who claim to be religious and yet clamour for ever more vindictive punishments are thereby betraying an underlying lack of faith. After all, what does religious faith imply, if not a certainty of ultimate justice no matter what occurs in this material world?

    I suppose they would respond that it's a matter of deterrence (although I think the evidence strongly suggests it's likelihood of getting caught rather than severity of punishment that matters there), and doubtless the muslim issue with Rushdie is basically political, rather than religious.

    I also agree with you on Rushdie generally – not a great writer (a bit of a nasty piece of work generally, imo), and although we have to support freedom of speech, the award of a knighthood was neither deserved by him on his literary merits, nor a sensible decisiion politically.

  • felix

    Craig, incidentally,why were you offered 3 honours? For doing your job,like millions of other unrewarded Britons? For preserving,until then, the status quo? or…?

    My only theory is that Salman was awarded his honour because he was involved in the David Kelly cover up…well, everyone else got a gong.

  • Foddy

    I enjoyed the Togo story. When can we expect to see the next volume of your memoirs?

    By the way, if you manage to improve your financial condition and ever get over to Japan, dinner's on me!

  • Sabretache

    A cracking post Craig. I love it!

    I have only read one of Rushdie's books (The Satanic Verses). I bought it purely out of spite for the the Fatwah and have never been able to understand why it caused such offence. I found it dense almost to the point of unreadability, with the alleged offense-giving passages concerning the Prophet very mild indeed (and in any event merely the content of a central character's dream).

    On the subject of Honours, I'm impressed – with your position that is. I also agree that, to the extent that the honours system has any real merit, Rushdie is a very suprising (and in my opinion undeserving) recipient of anything at all – let alone a knighthood. But, as you say, it has to be 'political' in some byzantine fashion which frankly illudes me.

  • kazbel

    He's not my favourite writer but I do take him seriously. He's liked by people whose taste I respect. My enjoyment of magic realism doesn't go much further than Borges and Angela Carter so perhaps it's a matter of literary preference. The arguments around The Satanic Verses seem to result from an incomprehension of the literary conventions employed in the novel. I don't see that any deliberate offence was intended.

    There are other novelists who are probably as significant or more significant – James Kelman, Hilary Mantel, A.L. Kennedy, Alasdair Gray, Caryl Phillips for instance; these haven't been honoured but would perhaps turn the honour down. Their work too generates controversy but not murder.

    I defend Rushdie's right to write and publish according to his own aesthetic and ethical judgment – whether he's a nice person or not doesn't enter into it. But a knighthood is a political honour and pretending it's anything else is stupid. I can't believe that no-one foresaw the reaction. That people die for free speech is bad but perhaps unavoidable. Now I fear people will die so that one man can be called "Sir". It's not worth it.

  • David Blackie

    I gather Whitehall says Rushdie got the honour because of "public demand". I have to say that's something of a relief as I found the only book of his I tried to read unreadable. And it's good to know that the government is so closely in touch with what the public really want.

  • Pete Jordan

    I've enjoyed most of what I've read of Rushdie's novels; indeed, Midnight's Children lurks somewhere in my all time favourite novel list. On the other hand, I can't see any non-political reason why he should be "honoured" at this time and entirely agree with your analysis and advice to Lord Ahmed.

    As to The Satanic Verses, my suspicion has always been that the real source of offence was not any possible insult to the Prophet, but the thinly disguised and deeply unsympathetic portrayal of Ayatollah Khomeini during his exile in London.

  • oulwan

    "His corpus of work is just not that good."

    That's what I'm hearing from the majority of people I've discussed this with. Which begs the question, was it done only to be provocative?

    What other reason can there be?

    And if it was downright provocative, it's downright bloody scary too.

  • Drumcondra

    As a muslim I agree that Rushdie had every right to publish his book. For those who don't realise what all the fuss was about, he repeated a medieval libel against Muhammad. But that's his right.

    The best thing we could have done as a community was to have ignored his book. Instead we gave him publicity and sales that the book didn't merit. The best thing we can do now is to let this knighthood pass without making a fuss.

    Of course the knighthood is politically motivated. But it's not directed at muslims, or Islam, but rather at Iran. The purpose is to get Iranians out on the streets making idiots of themselves to soften up Western opinion prior to bombing them.

    Poor Iranians. When you walk around wearing so many buttons marked "Do Not Press" you shouldn't be surprised that someone WILL press them.

  • KateJ

    I bet if Philip Pullman had been offered an honour then he'd turn it down too.

    Like you, I'm puzzled about Rushdie. A good author, but by no means the best or only good author we have around.

  • Sabretache


    The 'medieval libel' (Blasphemy is probably a more appropriate word) to which you refer was part of a dream of one of the characters in the book. It was made in the context of that individual's struggle with evil and his own inner demons. I seriously doubt there can be many devout believers of ANY religion that have not had similar struggles. Had Rushdie repeated the 'blasphemy' as a personal insult against Islam, then I could understand the outrage. But to demand that any literary exploration of such struggles be forbidden is another matter entirely. How Sharia law is applied in Countries like Iran is a matter for its leaders and general population. But in this country Christians, for example, have to put up with far worse (from their point of view) on a regular basis. British Muslims would be well advised to learn to do likewise.

  • ChoamNomsky

    I'm all for the comedian Mark Thomas' proposal to directly sell honours.

    He believes that if you are going to sell honours, which is current practise (although Illegal), then you should make it accessible to the masses. He proposes a "Pound a Peerage".

  • Drumcondra

    Sabretache – I don't have a problem with what Rushdie wrote. Even if he *had* intended to attack Islam or Muhammad, he i spercfectly entitled to do so. Any muslim conversant with the history of Islam knows that the Prophet received far worse vilification in his lifetime and did not retaliate. He personally pardoned someone who had killed his uncle and eaten his liver. He was pelted with stones at a town where he had gone to preach and prayed, with blood in his shoes, that as long as God was happy with him it didn't matter.

    I've tried leafing through Salman Rushdie's books but nothing's grabbed me enough to make me want to buy one. The whole Rushdie affair was nonsense from start to finish, a useful outlet (in their rulers' eyes) for repressed people to let off steam.

    You're right – we all need to accept criticism, contrary views, and even hostility towards what we hold dear. I would rather that we muslims didn't raise the temperature by responding in kind.


  • writeon

    It's not so much the actual content of Rushdie's novel or his personality that's important. It's the position of the book and the man in "the great scheme of things". Rusdie and his book took on enormous symbolic value; for both Muslims and the West, in the cultural war between the two sides. Usually, the cultural war precedes the actually war by years or even decades.

    For many in the West Rushdie became a symbolic icon of freedom and our most cherished values. At last we finally had something worthwhile to stand up for! Freedom of speech! Defending our standards and beliefs against at outlook from the Middle-Ages!

    Perception may well be nine-tenths of reality. Many Muslims perceived Rushdie as a direct cultural attack on their most deeply held beliefs. Our response seems to be; but we have the right and duty to attack these absurd beliefs if we choose, and you must accept this, and not only that, recognize our right to offend, if you want us to respect you as civilized, modern and democratic!

    Seen in this perspective, the Rushdie affair, like the Danish cartoon provocation, are symbolic skermishes in the wider cultural war directed against Muslims and Islam. This is an enormously complicated subject so I'm using a rather broad brush for the sake of brevity.

    It appears that people get angry about Rushdie because they feel that on top of everything else; we now feel the need to insult, denegrate and piss on their religion, its symbols, holy texts and prophets.

    This is not happening by accident, more by desire and need. The West needs to justify its wars of agression against the Muslim world and in crusade, one needs ones own heroes and holy texts: Rusdie provided both, probably without even realizing the true scale of the game he was a part of.

  • ummabdulla

    Randal: "and doubtless the muslim issue with Rushdie is basically political, rather than religious"

    Can you explain what that even means? My issue with Rushdie – aside from the fact that he's not very impressive and very few people actually get through his books – is that he deliberately set out to insult the Prophet and his wives (making them prostitutes, and it doesn't really matter that it was a literary vehicle that high-brows can admire, while Muslims are supposedly too simple-minded to understand).

    Pete, the vast majority of Muslims are Sunni. They wouldn't care about any insult to Khomeini.

    But Drumcondra probably has it right – it's an attempt to stir up the Iranians.

    Writeon is right on! Only when Muslims are insulted does freedom of speech become the most sacred virtue in Western "civilization"…

  • hoagy

    Some group with the initials -PEN- were the nominators. Their nomination was passed to the "Arts and Media" committee who presumably were the one's who recommended it?. The chairman of the "Arts and Media" committee is Lord Rothschild.

  • Craig

    I am surprised – PEN are a really good group who campaign for imprisoned writers.

    Re the honours I was offered, they get doled out with the rations to diplomats.

  • just john

    For me, _The_Satanic_Verses_ was a revelation in ways to use the English language.

    For that, I'd say he's at least as deserving of "sir" than my cousin Elton.

  • Randal


    "Randal: "and doubtless the muslim issue with Rushdie is basically political, rather than religious"

    Can you explain what that even means? "

    It is based upon the suggestion that, for a man of real faith, insults to God can safely be left for God to deal with in his own good time. As Craig pointed out, doubtless true Muslims will expect Rushdie to suffer considerably more in due course than they could ever inflict upon him, and it really isn't going to make it any worse for him by rushing him to meet his maker.

    However, such insults have a political dimension as well as the obvious one. It may be that Rushdie intended his writing to damage Islam as a belief (I don't know either him or his works well enough to be sure, myself, but I've heard plenty of people claim that to be so – though Sabretache above suggests an alternative explanation). In any case, it appears many Muslims interpreted it that way.

    Responding to such a verbal attack is political in motivation, imo. Moreover, the need to respond at all is based upon whether or not you feel threatened. There is no doubt that muslims generally have felt somewhat under siege for decades, now (with some justice – there is huge pressure for Islam to suffer the secularisation fate that befell Christianity in the west). In Iran in particular there may well also have been more specific political issues, as pointed out by Pete Jordan above.

    I pretty much agree with what writeon wrote above, too (and I think it supports my suggestion that the strength of the muslim response should best be explained as political rather than religious per se, in origin.)

    That is broadly what I meant. I hope it makes sense to you (whether you agree with it or not may be another matter). This is not, and is not intended to be, an anti-muslim point.

  • ummabdulla

    Thanks for the explanation, Randal. Not to go too far off topic, but I often hear people say that wearing is a political statement, and I've never gotten anyone to explain to me what that means either, which is partly why I asked about your statement.

    But you're right – I don't agree. Personally, I wouldn't go and kill Rushdie, but I do think that what he wrote was a deliberate attempt to insult Islam and make Muslims angry.

    I don't know if it was an attempt to "damage Islam as a belief". For Muslims, it's not the kind of thing that would make them question their beliefs; for non-Muslims, the vast majority of them wouldn't understand the references anyway.

    There may have been political groups who manipulated the situation, but the reaction of most Muslims to insults against their Prophet (like the Danish cartoons) is natural and crosses political boundaries. I think if we want to analyze the Muslim reaction, there's also a difference between the two situations: the original publication of the book, and the UK deciding to honor him for it now.

    Muslims might believe that it is up to God to judge us, but that doesn't mean that someone who is causing trouble shouldn't be prevented from doing so in this life, so I don't accept that argument. Rapists, murderers and thieves, for example, aren't just left alone because we expect them to be punished in the Hereafter.

  • ummabdulla

    Sorry – I somehow deleted the word "hijab". That should be "I often hear people say that wearing hijab is a political statement".

  • Randal

    "Rapists, murderers and thieves, for example, aren't just left alone because we expect them to be punished in the Hereafter. "

    We are entitled to use force to constrain rapists, thieves and murderers because such people are themselves using force to breach the basic rights inherent to human beings.

    There is no similar inherent right not to be offended (and the widespread existence in our woolly-minded modern society of the mistaken idea that there is such a "right" does not make it so), nor does expressing an unpleasant or offensive opinion constitute a use of force, justifying force in response.

    As you indicated above when you pointed out that "only when Muslims are insulted does freedom of speech become the most sacred virtue in Western "civilization"", there is a lot of hypocrisy around on this point in the west. Noone who tolerates "hate speech" laws, or "holocaust denial" laws, has any right to claim the sanctity of freedom of speech in defence of Rushdie and his ilk (though they might still be entitled to object to the brutality of those who demand his death for giving offence).

  • Garrett from Wishtan

    Hey Craig,

    Good piece here. We just released an article on Rushdie and the importance of protecting free speech in our magazine Wishtank: Journal of intellectual freedom. It can be found at http://www.wishtank.org.

    I'd be curious as to what you think about the comments The New York Times made that likened the protection of free speech to religious acculturation. Feel free to email me at [email protected] if you ever want to share anything.


    Garrett Heaney

    Founding Editor

    Wishtank magazine

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