UK: Op-Ed: "Britain Isn't Worthy of Rushdie"

National Post
Tarek Fateh argues that "It is time that the world recognized that the threat to Salman Rushdie is not just to him, but to all of us."
Sunday, Oct. 1, 1989 was a typically chilly morning in London. That did not dampen the enthusiasm of thousands of angry British Muslims who were heading toward the Royal Albert Hall to hear a South African orator, Ahmed Deedat, rip into Salman Rushdie for writing "The Satanic Verses".
Nearly 6,000 men, some bussed in from as far as Birmingham, jammed the hall. What happened at the start of the event tells us a lot about the Rushdie saga, which it seems, will not die until the man they now call Sir Salman is sent to his death.

The first speaker read a piece from Rushdie's Satanic Verses and asked The audience how many were familiar with that passage or had read the book. Only one person raised his hand. One man out of 6,000! They had come to demand the banning of The Satanic Verses, but had not read the book.

That has been the story of the Rushdie affair for the last 18 years. If Rushdie had intended to defame Islam, his naysayers have helped him do so.

Now he has been given a knighthood by the Queen for his life's work as a writer, and parts of the Islamic world are revisiting the rage from 1989. Many are familiar with comments by Ijaz ul-Haq, the Religious Affairs Minister of Pakistan, justifying suicide attacks against Rushdie because he had "insulted Islam."

But an equally repugnant threat from the Speaker of the legislative assembly of the Pakistani province of Punjab has gone largely unnoticed. The Speaker, Chaudhry Mohammad Afzal Sahi, while presiding over the legislature, said he would kill Salman Rushdie if he came face to face with him.

This is standard and predictable fare. What has changed, however, between 1989 and today is the impact these extremists have had on the U.K. In 1989 politicians of all stripes stood up to defend Rushdie; this time the response has been at best cowardly, and at worst an attempt to appease the Islamists.

Members of Britain's Parliament representing large Muslim populations were the first to surrender any sense of dignity or self-respect. The Cabinet minister Jack Straw, still smarting from the reactions to his remarks on the Burqa, cozied up to his Islamist constituents. He cast doubt on the value of knighting Rushdie, by mocking the author's literary worth. He was quoted as saying, "I'm afraid I found his books rather difficult and I've never managed to get to the end of any of them...I'm afraid his writing has defeated me."

A Conservative MP, Stewart Jackson, launched a furious attack on Rushdie, suggesting the knighthood had "threatened anti-terrorism co-operation." Jackson did not disclose the fact that in the last election, he had narrowly defeated the Labour candidate and on the night of his victory had said he had won by "gaining the trust of a large percentage of the city's Muslim population." Jackson, who leads the Friends of Islam group, also questioned the merits of Rushdie's literary worth, saying his books are "rubbish."

Not to be outdone in this clamour to appease the Islamist vote bank, the Liberal-Democrats' Shirley Williams went on BBC's Question Time to condemn the government for honouring the novelist, without a word of protest against the goons issuing the death threats.

In London, Lord Ahmed, Britain's first Muslim peer, said he had been appalled by the award to a man he accused of having "blood on his hands." Not satisfied with his vitriol, Lord Ahmed, who had no hesitation accepting membership of the House of Lords, compared the knighthood of Rushdie to the honouring of the 9/11 terrorists.

One would have expected the British government to haul in the Pakistani and Iranian ambassadors and protest the criminal death threats against a British knight, Sir Salman. But no. The British establishment had neither the integrity nor the resolve to stand up to the bullies. Instead, British ambassadors were hauled in to hear protests by Iranian and Pakistani officials.

It is time that the world recognized that the threat to Salman Rushdie is not just to him, but to all of us. And it is not just the Islamists who need to be condemned, but also the flaccid British response to these would-be murderers. A country that has to apologize and bend over backward to distance itself from the person it seeks to honour, is not worthy of having a knight called Sir Salman. My message to Salman Rushdie is that he should say to the Queen, "Thanks, but no thanks."

by: Tarek Fatah

28 June 2007

[Tarek Fatah is founder of the Muslim Canadian Congress and is author of Chasing a Mirage: An Islamic State or a State of Islam, to be published by John Wiley & Sons in 2008]