News that Salman Rushdie is to get a knighthood has been met with mixed emotions. Some elements in the Islamic world have condemned the award outright – a spokesman for the Iranian foreign ministry said that to honour “an apostate and one of the most hated figures in the Islamic world” indicated that Britain supported “the insult to Islamic values”.
I wish I knew enough about Rushdie's work to make a relevant comment. I don't.
What is interesting is the remarks by Jack Straw and Margaret Beckett. Jack thinks Salman's books a bit too difficult to read (and he has a large Muslim population in his constituency); whilst Margaret says she is “sorry” if any offence has been caused.
I think the word I'm searching for is hypocritical. Yes, hypocritical wimps fit rather nicely.
Let's be clear. What debate there should be about an honour for Salman should be about the literary merit of his work. I'd be happy to hear reasoned argument about the quality of his writing. I'd be interested to know about his views concerning the writing process and how he communicates with readers. I'm not really interested in his views about Islam (if he has any).
It is clearly wrong and clearly ill-liberal to denounce Mr Rushdie because one of his books may offend some members of the community. That's what writers do. It's part of their job. It's probably in their job description, somewhere. If not – it ought to be.
This is not the whole story.
Media commentators have queued up to defend Rushdie. Voltaire (a very dodgy Frenchman) has been dutifully trotted out to declaim again - “I disapprove of what you say, but I will defend to the death your right to say it”. It's all very western liberal politico-correctico. It's all very predictable.
Unfortunately, the powers that be have left out an important part of the argument. We are not free to say whatever we want to. We cannot publish anything we like. We would be extremely foolish – if not criminally insane – to insist that blaspheming against Allah is a really good thing to do. It clearly is not. Nor should it be.
Some have tried to submit that a Christian outcry against Dan Brown and The Da Vinci Code is on a par with Muslim fury over Satanic Verses. They are being foolish or disingenuous. Dan Brown's book, which I have read, is an entertaining mystery story and Jesus' divinity is not questioned by the author. Christians may think it a bit crazy – but even if Jesus did marry and father children it would not affect the basic tenets of their beliefs. My understanding is that Muslims believe that to question the divinity of the Prophet is not only blasphemous but also an act that is prescribed punishment. If that is the case, then it is patently unfair to expect Muslims to forego that part of their beliefs that the rest of us may find offensive.
In a week where the death of Bernard Manning has brought legions of critics out of the woodwork to declare that no only was he not funny but he was also a racist and a bigot, it seems oddly perverse to “defend” Rushdie simply because his racism and bigotry is aimed at people we currently don't particularly like. We are not free to preach racial hatred. We are not free to incite violence against others of a different faith or creed. Therefore; we cannot demand that everyone else follows our lead. We must allow other faiths to judge for themselves what is right and proper. Even is we don't like it.
Mr Rushdie is entitled to be honoured for his writing. He is not immune from being censured by religious leaders. Some Muslim leaders should realise that dragging up the past and re-living old wounds is counter-productive. They simply pander to the prejudices of the right-wing conspiracy theorists.
I really must read The Satanic Verses.