Iran summoned its British ambassador in Teheran yesterday to protest against the knighthood of author Salman Rushdie. Iran's Foreign Ministry Director for Europe, Ebrahim Rahimpour said it was a suspicious and improper act against Islam and claimed that the award “has seriously wounded the beliefs of 1.5 billion Muslims and followers of other religions." Rushdie’s knighthood has opened old wounds over charges of “blasphemy”.
Ahmed Salman Rushdie, of London WC1B, was knighted on the weekend for “services to literature” in the Queen’s honours list. Rushdie, who turned 60 yesterday, was one of 21 men knighted (women are excluded) and is joined on the list (pdf) by cricketer Ian Botham, as well as civil servants, local politicians, educators, businessmen and a policeman. But none of the other twenty awards are of interest to the world wide Islamic community. Rushdie is an Indian born British novelist whose fourth novel The Satanic Verses catapulted him into the world spotlight when he attracted a fatwa from Iran’s then spiritual and political leader, the Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini.
Published in 1988, the book is a dense and difficult but compelling study of Indian Muslims living in contemporary England. It combines typical Rushdie elements of magical realism and dream narratives. However it also has parallels with the story of the Islamic prophet Muhammad. Rushdie’s title “The Satanic Verses” was coined by Scottish orientalist and fellow knight Sir William Muir to describe rogue verses which possibly appeared in the Koran over a hundred years after Muhammad’s death. According to Muir, some Muslim tradition has it that Muhammad himself added verses to the Koran accepting three Meccan goddesses as divine beings but then later revoked it as a temptation from the devil.
The Muslim-born Rushdie was immediately in trouble for blasphemy. However while blasphemy officially remains a crime in England, no one has been sent to prison for it since eccentric trouser salesman John William Gott in 1921. Gott got nine months for publishing attacks on Christianity. His mistake was to go for a cheap laugh rather than a reasoned criticism. The Lord Chief Justice upheld the sentence saying “It does not require a person of strong religious feelings to be outraged by a description of Jesus Christ entering Jerusalem ‘like a circus clown on the back of two donkeys’.
But because England didn’t recognise Rushdie’s blasphemy as a crime, Iran decided to act in absentia. On 14 February 1989, the day before the book was to be published in the US, Khomeini announced a fatwa against Rushdie on Teheran radio. In Islamic law, a fatwa is a declaration issued by a legal authority. Khomeini's fatwa said “I would like to inform all the intrepid Muslims in the world. . . that the author of the book titled The Satanic Verses, which has been compiled, printed, and published in opposition to Islam, the Prophet, and the Koran, as well as those publishers who were aware of its contents, have been declared madhur el dam ["those whose blood must be shed"]. I call on all zealous Muslims to execute them quickly, wherever they find them, so that no one will dare to insult Islam again. . . .”
Iran’s Khordad Foundation backed up the fatwa with a $2.8 million dollars bounty calling for Rushdie’s assassination. Rushdie went into hiding, protected by the British police. Meanwhile two London bookshops were firebombed after they received letters warning it to stop selling the book. In 1991 the book’s Japanese translator was stabbed and killed at Tsukuba University northeast of Tokyo. The book’s Italian translator was also stabbed but survived.
Rushdie himself issued a statement expressing his regret for the distress that his book may have caused Muslims. A little over a year later, Rushdie announced that he had returned to Islam. He went on to renounce anything in his novel that insulted Islam, the Prophet Muhammad, or the Koran. But Khomeini refused to cancel the fatwa instead declaring flatly, "It is incumbent on every Muslim to do everything possible to send him to hell."
The fatwa remains in place to this day. It was reaffirmed by the hard-line Revolutionary Guards in 2005 despite a 1998 agreement where Tehran promised the British Government that Iran would do nothing to implement it. Iran struck that deal as a pre-condition to normalise relations with the EU. Now the foreign ministry is saying Rushdie was "one of the most hated figures" in the Islamic world.
And Iran is not alone in the condemnation of Rushdie’s knighthood. Pakistan also hauled in the British ambassador and adopted a parliamentary resolution condemning the act. It said that “conferment of a knighthood on Salman Rushdie shows an utter lack of sensitivity on the part of the British government” while the government's religious affairs minister said Rushdie’s honour could incite suicide bombings.
Supporters of Malaysia's hardline Islamic opposition party Parti Islam se-Malaysia also launched a small protest outside the British embassy today. Chanting "Destroy Salman Rushdie" and "Destroy Britain", about 30 members (outnumbered by 40 police) urged London to retract the honour or risk the consequences. Party treasurer Hatta Ramli said "This has tainted the whole knighthood, the whole hall of fame of the British system."
But Rushdie is not without his supporters in the West. The Guardian said the honour was richly deserved and described Rushdie as “amongst the greats of British literature and “the Dickens of our times”. It also noted the Satanic Verses was as much a hallucinatory satire on Thatcher's Britain as it, notionally, offended Islam. The Guardian also condemned the labelling of his fiction as “blasphemous” saying it surrender “to those pressures on our cultural life which have historically sought to gag all criticism of the status quo”.
But blasphemy may be coming back on the agenda. In the aftermath of the Danish Jyllands-Posten controversy, Norwegian Muslim lawyer Abid Q Raja called for anti-blasphemy regulations to protect minorities against derisive and hateful expression. But Oslo Professor of Public Law Eivind Smith is sceptical. He believes it is important than any future tightening of the law favours human rights rather than religion. "The point is to protect people against insult” he said. “God should be able to take care of himself.”