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18 June 2007

A fellow writer gives her verdict on the Salman Rushdie controversy

I WOULD DIE in a ditch to defend Rushdie's right to offend. I just wish this self-pitying darling of the literati would show some gratitude.

Self-important, pretentious, attention- seeking and ungrateful. Those have long been my prevailing thoughts about the writer Salman Rushdie. So it was with nothing less than astonishment that I learned Rushdie has been awarded a knighthood in the Queen's Birthday Honours.

In his official citation, Rushdie gets his gong for "services to literature". To which the only sensible response is, "what services and what literature?".

Like many who have attempted to read his work, I have never yet managed to make it to the end of one of Rushdie's books. I've tried, I honestly have.

When he won the Booker Prize in 1981 with Midnight's Children, I conscientiously attempted to read it three or four times, but struggle as I might, I could never get past page 50: there was something about its portentous tone and an absence of simple humanity that irritated me profoundly.

So too did the way he banged on relentlessly in public about his sufferings as a post-colonial expatriate.

It seemed to me that he didn't like India, his birthplace, and he certainly didn't like the United Kingdom, his host country.

But he was, of course, a wow with the masochistic liberal intelligentsia who loved his savaging of British values as insufficiently cosmopolitan.

Yet, as a taxpayer, I never grudged a penny of the £10 million or so spent on protecting Rushdie for a decade after Iran's Ayatollah Khomeini issued a fatwa calling for his murder because he considered The Satanic Verses blasphemous towards Mohammed.

The way the state swung behind this shocking assault on freedom of speech was magnificent.

Although Mrs Thatcher had herself been caricatured as a fascist called "Mrs Torture" in the offending book, she did not hesitate in her response: the British ambassador was ordered home from Tehran, the Iranian charge d'affaires was expelled and Special Branch instructed to spend whatever was necessary to keep Rushdie alive.

A fellow author who, like Rushdie, was born abroad (in my case, Ireland) and had made Britain my adopted country, I was proud of Britain's resolve and commitment to free speech.

But if anything, I felt we had not gone far enough. I loathe political correctness and believe to the core of my being that writers should have the right to offend.

Indeed, I felt strongly at the time that the Government should have arrested those demonstrators who marched through British towns calling for Rushdie's execution and even wrote to my MP to complain about appeasement.

Yet I was also conscious that the book at the centre of the storm seemed so unworthy of the profound battle of ideas that it had unleashed.

As I recall, there were few defenders of the literary merits of The Satanic Verses, and I believe to this day that it was clearly, intentionally - if not gratuitously - provocative.

Rushdie had been brought up Muslim and claimed to have a deep understanding of Islam, so he should have known that as an apostate he was guilty of a capital offence and should not have been amazed that Islam's self-appointed spokesmen took umbrage.

Did he really think through the consequences of his words? I rather doubt it; he was just an intellectual adolescent who just enjoyed taunting authority figures.

Certainly, Rushdie should never be compared with those brave Muslims who risk their lives by telling unpalatable truths about fanatical Islam - people like Ayaan Hirsi Ali, the Somalian who became a Dutch MP and because of her outspoken criticism of the treatment of Muslim women has had to seek refuge in America.

Or Ed Hussain, author of The Islamist, who is under threat because of his revelations about how he was radicalised in 1990s London. They write to warn us of danger, not merely to blow a raspberry-at the Ayatollahs.

Yet, whether it was his intention or not, Rushdie's work generated a firestorm that still rages to this day, with the scenes in today's Tehran echoing the violent protests that surrounded the publication of The Satanic Verses nearly 20 years ago.

Some paid the ultimate price for supporting him. Hitoshi Igarashi, who translated the book into Japanese, was knifed to death in July 1991; Ettore Caprioli, its Italian translator, was seriously injured in a stabbing that same month; and William Nygaard, its Norwegian publisher, survived an assassination attempt in October 1993. (I give their names because they seem to have been forgotten).

Of course, it would be absurd to blame Rushdie for those attacks - the guilt lies solely with the fanatics.

But I was shocked that at a time when he should have been preoccupied by the terrible fate of these peripheral players, Rushdie was instead full of self-pity for his own predicament.

Of course he was frightened and of course it was a tough life moving from safe house to safe house, able to appear in public only rarely and without notice.

Yet he was lucky: he was alive, and lionised by many of the literati who formed the London-based International Rushdie Defence Committee.

But petulant and ungenerous as ever, he showed little gratitude to those who supported him - or to the British taxpayer who paid for his £10 million security bill - being more concerned with denouncing those who had the temerity to criticise him.

Graciousness, though, is no more one of Salman Rushdie's qualities than is humility. When in 2000 he decided to abandon the United Kingdom for New York, he gave The New York Times an interview that showed him to be as mean-spirited as ever.

In London he had been very much a pet of the back-scratching mutually congratulatory literati, but he had reputedly been seriously miffed by critical reviews of his later novels.

So the man who loves moving and shaking on Planet Celebrity, condemned the "backbiting and incestuous" literary culture of London, and loftily explained that England had not been a worthy subject for his pen: in New York, he could be truly cosmopolitan.

With a trophy girlfriend, the beautiful supermodel and cook, Padma Lakshmi, 24 years his junior (now his fourth wife), Salman Rushdie was on a roll.

And so he's continued, even rising to the heights of appearing as himself in a Bridget Jones movie.

He may not have written anything in recent years that was any good.

But as a celebrity writer, he continues to strut the public stage and now, from the nation he spurned and condemned, he has the huge honour of a knighthood. accepting it, Rushdie has served only to illustrate his own breathtaking hypocrisy.

Rushdie has declared that he is "thrilled and humbled to receive this great honour, and am very grateful that my work has been recognised in this way".

But isn't it strange how, even in our more enlightened age, the offer of a title can befuddle one's principles.

As Professor John Sutherland, the former Booker judge, put it diplomatically: "Rushdie is a nomad. He has a supra-national, post-colonial style, so that it is very hard to say who owns him.

"And now he has pledged himself in the personal service of the monarch! For the writer of The Satanic Verses, which was extremely rude about England, it's certainly unusual."

Equally unfathomable is why the Honours Committee saw fit to enoble Rushdie in the first place.

Anyone who knows anything about the literary world will attest that there are innumerable writers better regarded and more deserving than him.

Indeed, there is only one explanation why Rushdie has been singled out. It is that Tony Blair, on his way out of Downing Street, wants to put two fingers up to Iran, as well as to extremist Islam everywhere.

An admirable sentiment, perhaps, but as with the furore over The Satanic Verses, I wonder if it has been thought through properly, and whether this is the best way to throw down the gauntlet in the battle of the ideas.

Responding to the knighthood, Iran has predictably accused Britain of Islamophobia, and the Pakistani parliament has demanded that the British government "immediately withdraw the title as it is creating religious hatred".

One can only hope there will be no prolonged violence or threats against British citizens.

Yet I hope, too, that if Rushdie does find himself in danger again, he will show a little more gratitude this time to the nation that once again - and rightly so - will rally to his defence.

Ruth Dudley Edwards


© Ruth Dudley Edwards