LONDON - After spending nearly a decade living in secret locations under the armed guard of British police, it has only been in the last few years that Salman Rushdie has been able to resume a reasonably normal life.
But after receiving a British knighthood last week, the 60-year-old author of “The Satanic Verses” again is the focus of angry protests in the Islamic world.
On Monday, British flags and effigies of Rushdie and Queen Elizabeth II were burned in several cities across Pakistan. Mobs chanted “Death to Britain, death to Rushdie” while Muslim clerics called for nationwide protests after Friday’s prayers. There were smaller demonstrations Tuesday in Karachi and Lahore.
Pakistan’s parliament passed a resolution condemning the knighthood, and Mohammed Ijaz ul-Haq, the country’s religious affairs minister, said the knighthood would justify a suicide bombing.
“If someone commits suicide bombing to protect the honor of the Prophet Muhammad, his act is justified,” ul-Haq said in parliament, according to Reuters.
He later issued a slight clarification. “If someone blows himself up, he will consider himself justified. How can we fight terrorism when those who commit blasphemy are rewarded by the West?”
Robert Brinkley, Britain’s ambassador to Pakistan, expressed “deep concern” over ul-Haq’s comments, but on Tuesday, Pakistan’s Foreign Ministry summoned Brinkley to protest Britain’s “utter lack of sensitivity” in awarding the knighthood to Rushdie.
Britain’s ambassador to Iran, Geoffrey Adams, received a similar dressing-down in Tehran.
“This insulting, suspicious and improper act by the British government is an obvious example of fighting against Islam,” Iran’s Foreign Ministry director for Europe, Ebrahim Rahimpour, told the state-run IRNA news agency.
“It has seriously wounded the beliefs of 1.5 billion Muslims and followers of other religions,” he said.
Rushdie, who turned 60 Tuesday, inflamed the Muslim world in 1988 with the publication of “The Satanic Verses,” a novel in which he explores cultural differences between East and West through a dreamlike story of Muhammad. Fundamentalists considered it blasphemy, and Iran’s Ayatollah Khomeini issued a fatwa calling for Rushdie’s death.
Britain severed diplomatic relations with Iran over the incident. The fatwa remains in effect. Iran’s ayatollahs claim they have no authority to lift it, and diplomatic relations were restored in 1998 when the Iranian government promised not to harm Rushdie. The author came out of hiding a year later.
Hard-liners in Tehran say the death sentence still applies, and one group, the Committee to Commemorate Martyrs of the Muslim World, put a $150,000 bounty on the author’s head in response to the knighthood.
Iranian newspapers also are fanning the flames. Referring to Queen Elizabeth, the Jomhuri Eslami newspaper said, “The question is what the old British crone sought by knighting Rushdie: to help him? Well, her act only shortens Rushdie’s pathetic life.”
Rushdie, who said he is thrilled and humbled to receive the knighthood, is one of several hundred British subjects to receive honorary titles that are bestowed each June to mark the queen’s birthday.
In London, the Muslim Council of Britain said in a statement that Rushdie’s knighthood is a “provocation” and warned that it was “yet another example of insensitivity to Muslim opinion that will only result in their further alienation.”
Muhammad Abdul Bari, the organization’s secretary general, said “many will interpret the knighthood as a final contemptuous parting gift from Tony Blair to the Muslim world.”
With Iraq, Gaza and Lebanon already racked by violence, the Rushdie affair is sprinkling gasoline on the flames.
Gerald Butt, editor of the Middle East Economic Survey, told The Times newspaper in London that the knighthood “will be interpreted as an action calculated to goad Muslims at a time when the atmosphere is already very tense.”
Rushdie, the author of 13 books and the winner of scores of prizes, is a polarizing figure with many admirers and detractors in the literary world.
Born into an affluent Muslim family in Mumbai and educated at Cambridge University, Rushdie has long been a acerbic critic of both the Islamic world and American and British policies toward it.
Last year he told a British interviewer: “When people ask me how the West should adapt to Muslim sensitivities, I always say, `The question is the wrong way round.’ The West should go on being itself. There is nothing wrong with the things that for hundreds of years have been acceptable_satire, irreverence, ridicule, even quite rude commentary.”