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no bauble for free speech

bergens tidende, 29 june 2007

The Queen's Birthday Honours list is one of those quaint little feudal customs that still survive in modern Britain. It is usually used to reward retired politicians, community workers and the occasional sporting or literary star. Usually few people pay any notice. This year, though, the decision to turn Salman Rushdie into a 'Sir' has become a matter of worldwide controversy. And the response from all sides has had more than a touch of magical unrealism about it.

On the one hand, Rushdie's supporters have hailed his knighthood as a blow for free speech. The novelist Ian McEwan thought it sent 'a message to the book burners and their appeasers' while the critic John Sutherland believed the award was a form of apology from those who failed to support Rushdie clearly enough in his hour of need 18 years ago. On the other hand, critics have portrayed the knighthood as an insult to Islam. According to Mohammed Ali Hosseini, a spokesman for Iran's foreign ministry, it showed that 'insulting Islamic sacred values is planned, organised, guided and supported by some Western countries'. Pakistan's religious affairs minister, Mohammed Ijaz ul-Haq, suggested that the knighthood justified suicide attacks on Rushdie.

As a republican, I have little time for Britain's honours system. There is nothing to admire in the sight of a hereditary monarch rewarding people by making them 'a Knight of the British Empire'. The honours system should swept away just like all the other remnants of Britain's feudal past, such as the House of Lords and the monarchy itself. But given that such a reward system does exist, Britain has every right to offer the bauble to Rushdie and Rushdie has every right to accept. The idea that Britain should only honour those that don't cause offence is absurd, as is the suggestion that Rushdie should have declined the knighthood to prevent further controversy and bloodshed.

In any case, the claim that Rushdie's knighthood has offended all Muslims is untrue. The announcement certainly caused uproar in Pakistan and Iran, though hardly on the scale provoked by the original publication of The Satanic Verses or even of the Muhammed cartoons in Jyllands-Posten in 2005. The response had as much to with internal Islamic politics in these countries, and the attempt by certain politicians to gain political credibility, as with Rushdie himself.

In Britain there has been little reaction from Muslims - and many figures who might have been expected to create trouble have in fact been quite sanguine about the knighthood. The controversial Muslim academic Tariq Ramadan, who is often thought to have links with the fundamentalist Muslim Brotherhood, believes that Rushdie's award 'is not a serious issue'. Inayat Bunglawala, of the British Council of Muslims, who took part in the protests against The Satanic Verses back in 1989, even regretted his original hostility to Rushdie and accepted that people should have the right to give of offence.

Such emollience reflects the changing relationship between Muslim leaders and the British state. In the late eighties, Muslim activists such as Bunglawala exploited the Rushdie affair to gain political credibility within Muslim communities and to put pressure on the British government. That was how they came to be accepted as the voice of the Muslim community. Today their aim is to maintain their privileged relationship with the government, so they are keen not to create too much fuss. Ironically, secular liberals seem far more hostile to Rushdie's knighthood than do British Muslims.

If the idea that the knighthood has offended all Muslims is implausible, equally so is the claim that Rushdie's bauble represents a defence of free speech. The British authorities now honouring Rushdie are the same British authorities that over the past two decades have accepted that Muslims (and other minorities) have the right not to be offended and that free speech has to take second place to multicultural sensitivities. More than most, the outgoing administration of Tony Blair helped institutionalised these ideas through laws such as the banning of incitement to 'religious hatred'. Far from being champions of free speech, successive British government of all political hues have consistently restricted our ability to express ourselves freely - and continue to do so.

Ironically, the British government is likely to have seen Rushdie's knighthood not so much a defence of free speech as a way of providing some kind of specious multicultural balance. Two years ago Iqbal Sacranie, the then head of the Muslim Council of Britain, and one of the original book burners in Bradford in 1989, was knighted. Why? Because Jonathan Sacks, Britain's chief Rabbi was also knighted. Government officials were no doubt terrified of not appearing even-handed. It is possible that this time round some bureaucrat felt that having knighted Sacranie, multicultural decorum required that Rushdie also received an invitation to the Palace.

Rushdie is undoubtedly one of the great literary figures of the past quarter century and deserves to be recognised as such. His fortitude in defending the life of imagination in the face of intense provocation and immense danger also deserves recognition. But his knighthood has little to do with protecting free speech. That is an entirely different battle.