The award of a knighthood to the novelist Salman Rushdie, announced in Queen Elizabeth II's "birthday honours" list on 15 June 2007, has been followed by a media-fuelled flurry of formulaic controversy. There is something very familiar about the vehement denunciation from voices inside Britain as well as Iran and Pakistan that has followed, and not just to those who remember when his name and work first began to be seen through a political rather than literary lens.
Lisa Appignanesi is a novelist and writer. She is deputy president of English PEN and chair of its "Free Expression is No Offence" campaign
Among her books are the family memoir, Losing the Dead, and a biography of Simone de Beauvoir.
A slightly different version of this article was first published in the Guardian's books blog on 18 June 2007
Also by Lisa Appignanesi in openDemocracy:
"A law to close minds"
(28 February 2005)
"The heart of Simone de Beauvoir"
(13 July 2005)Perhaps then it is a good moment to reaffirm that, judged purely in cultural rather than in political terms, Rushdie is undeniably amongst the greats of British literature. He is the Dickens of our times - a visionary realist, whose superbly inventive, grandly comic stories chart the great social transitions of our globalising, post-colonial world, with its migrations, its teeming hybrid cities, its clash of unlikenesses, its extremes of love and violence. They do so with a richness of language and narrative which is unsurpassed.
When Midnight's Children, his novel of the partition of the Indian subcontinent, won the Booker Prize in 1981, it raised the prize itself to international prominence. Together with Shame, his delirious satire of Zia ul-Haq and Benazir Bhutto's Pakistan, and The Satanic Verses, in the first instance a hallucinatory portrait of Thatcher's Britain, Rushdie's work also gave birth to a major strand in British fiction. Zadie Smith, Kiran Desai, and a host of other young writers are Rushdie's children, liberated by Rushdie's fiction to find their own voices. His "services to literature", for which the knighthood is awarded, are in that sense exemplary, even without beginning to list Rushdie's labours on behalf of persecuted writers around the world.
The decision of Iran's foreign ministry to enter the fray by denouncing both Rushdie ("a hated apostate") and his award ("an orchestrated act of aggression directed against Islamic societies") is a repeat of the mistake which began with Ayatollah Khomeini's fatwa on 14 February 1989. That killing review chose utterly to misunderstand the place fiction occupies in the west and subjected it to a fundamentalist jurisdiction which essentially recognises only one book and one truth. The journalists, writers and academics who languish in Iran's prisons - no less than the translators and publishers of Rushdie's novel who were murdered or attacked, from Norway to Japan - are a mark of the intolerance of any form of dissent which the fatwa represented.
Also in openDemocracy by and about Salman Rushdie:
Salman Rushdie, "Defend the right to be offended"
(7 February 2005)
Colin MacCabe, "Zadie Smith and Salman Rushdie: writing for a new world"
(10 October 2005)
Amartya Sen & Salman Rushdie, "Argumentative Indians: in conversation"
(9 May 2006)This is hardly the Islam that most Muslims in Britain would wish to support, notwithstanding the statements of the Muslim Council of Britain ("yet another example of insensitivity to Muslim opinion that will only result in their further alienation"). Nor, one hopes, would they wish to echo the condemnation of the honour by Pakistan's national assembly and the demand for it to be withdrawn. Similar pressures from the subcontinent were instrumental in rousing Muslims in Britain to riots and book-burning at the end of 1988 when The Satanic Verses appeared. Few then involved paused to read Rushdie's books - which in fact exposed the very racism and intolerance from which minorities suffered. Indeed, labelling fiction as "blasphemous" is to surrender to those pressures on cultural life which have historically sought to gag all criticism of the status quo and constrain that dissent which is a necessary part of a mature and plural democracy.
It is surely a mark of the Queen's and her advisors' brave, good judgment that they are prepared to recognise Rushdie for what he is: a great writer of international repute who has long spoken truth to power - whether that power is political, religious or simply a prominent assembly of right-thinking voices.
Get our weekly email