At last an issue to unite all of us — right, left, Muslim, Christian and Hindu, liberal and conservative. The decision to knight the author Salman Rushdie has brought together, in angry concordat, almost the entire world. There are those who, even now, may be strapping on the semtex to deliver to Rushdie the righteous vengeance of the prophet Mohammed (PBUH). And there are others who will merely write nasty stuff about him for the Guardian and the Evening Standard and maybe cheer quietly if he is, in the end, blown to smithereens by an altogether more proactive and engaged opponent.
Rushdie is loathed — and not just by the mediaevally minded bigots of Islamabad, Tehran and the Finsbury Park mosque. He seems to be loathed by everyone else, too. No sooner had his knighthood been announced than the British Right waded into attack. They hate Rushdie because he has dared, from time to time, to cast doubt upon the righteousness of Britain’s imperial history, been a bit snide about the monarchy and occasionally remarked that our society was not always what is is cracked up to be. Can he not show gratitude, asked the Daily Mail’s Peter McKay in a column of magnificently ignorant bile. We give him expensive police protection when the mad mullahs order his death and he repays us by continuing to speak his mind. Beneath all this is the usually unspoken intimation of racism: Salman — well, he’s a darkie, isn’t he? A chippy little wog. Comes from Bombay or Mumbai or somewhere ghastly like that. You’d think he’d feel even more beholden to his adopted country (or his once adopted country) and less inclined to stick the boot in. You can’t trust them, can you? There is a strand of thought on the right which holds that immigrants — be they second, third or fourth generation — should simply shut up and mind their ps and qs.
The British Left hates him, if anything, even more. It has long carried a torch for Islam, despite the misogyny, homophobia and authoritarian impulses of the ideology — a political mispositioning occasioned, first and foremost, by the doctrine of multiculturalism. Also, Rushdie is not quite yer bona fide leftie, is he? He’s been a bit gung-ho about the war against Iraq and accused the Left of an infantile, reflexive anti-Americanism. And if the Left can’t get him for that, then they can always get him for having accepted the award and expressing himself to be humbled by it. Some Cambridge academic called Priyamvada Gopal (who he? — ed.) took a swipe on both of these grounds in, natch, the Guardian. The honour is a reward for Rushdie having divested himself of his old anti-establishment credentials, for having cosied up to the government.
And another anachronistic leftie, Will Self, did likewise in the Evening Standard. Isn’t it all more bother than it’s worth, accepting a knighthood, knowing the trouble it will cause, Self wondered aloud to his readers. Because you wouldn’t want to cause bother as a novelist, would you? Self began his attack by saying that he did not wish to offer succour to the Pakistani government as a result of his comments about the author. Aw, come on Will, why the long face? I bet right now, in Islamabad, as the diplomatic furore heightens, they’re saying to one another, ‘It’s OK, boys, we’ve been offered succour by Will Self, who used to be on that programme with Vic Reeves.’ What epic arrogance.
Nor will Rushdie find much solace from his literary companions; his books are reviewed usually by those who pinch their noses tightly and can just about manage to concede that he writes quite well, all things considered, before shovelling on layer after layer of caveats. More often still there is a reference to the fact that he got hitched to some pouty Asian babe many years younger than himself and has the sort of celebrity lifestyle which sits uneasily with the mantle of intellectual. And there’s a literary jealousy, too — not just at Rushdie’s Booker Prize award, but, perversely, at the fact that he has achieved a sort of literary immortality not because his body of work has been favourably appraised by the critics 80 years after his death, but because he’s got it all now, as a result of the business with the Ayatollah.
Like most haggard and tired former commies, I have little time for the honours system; it’s an infantile, reflexive thing on my part, I suppose. Certainly I will be the first to show up with my bucket of ordure when some tenth-rate, brain-dead pop star or footballer or soap actor has a medal pinned on him out of the government’s desire to kowtow to public sensibilities. But if we are to have the honours, I find it difficult to think of anyone more deserving of a knighthood than Sir Salman Rushdie. While the rest of us were still worrying about the Cold War, Rushdie was warning us about the war yet to come. He addressed the Islamic revolution with sophistication, philosophical elegance and great literary inventiveness. And he did so with enormous courage and candour. He is perhaps Britain’s only writer who has successfully examined the soul of Islam and, in so doing, examined the soul of the West too. Despite the misery of his peripatetic incarceration he has produced at least five first-class novels or collections of stories (which is four more than Will Self has managed — and I’m being kind). He has witnessed the most wretched of little political weasels, the likes of Keith Vaz, marching through the streets at the head of a throng of howling Muslim maniacs, demanding his book be burned.
He will have known that the award of a knighthood would cause trouble, that it is not the sort of thing which will play very well in the dusty madrassas of the Islamic world and that, in all probability, his life will be made a still greater misery as a result. But he is probably also aware that being so rewarded is a clear, public statement that is every bit as important as the publication of his excellent, if somewhat contentious, novel The Satanic Verses. An award for which, for once, I’d be proud to associate myself. I can’t remember saying that about an honours list before. It is often said that Rushdie regards himself rather highly; well, no higher than you deserve, Sir Salman.
This article first appeared in the print edition of The Spectator magazine, dated June 23, 2007