TCS Daily

'Queen Go to Hell'?

By Val MacQueen - June 27, 2007 12:00 AM

Salman Rushdie was born in Bombay to an upper middle class Muslim family and had a privileged private education at one of England's most renowned prep schools. After graduating from Cambridge University, he spent a couple of years in Pakistan before returning to Britain and becoming a novelist of some renown. "Midnight's Children" won several prestigious literary prizes. He holds honorary doctorates at six European and three American universities and is an Honorary Professor in the Humanities at M.I.T.

But it was with his fourth novel, "The Satanic Verses" that his recognition factor moved beyond the literary tea tasters of London and catapulted him into the ensuing international melée. The Muslim religious establishment round the world condemned "The Satanic Verses" as blasphemous, and the Iranian Ayatollah Khomeini issued his famous fatwah. Britain was the site of the word's first demonstration of the Islamic seething we have come to know so well, with Pakistani immigrants in Britain's northern cities burning effigies and shouting death threats in large numbers. The bounty on his head at close of play was £1.25m ($2.5m).

Extra-territorial death threats did not go down well with Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher, who always had but one response to bullies: stand up to them. Angered that a foreign religious leader had ordered the murder of a British citizen on British soil, she ordered 24-hour police protection for Mr Rushdie, who was forced into hiding. Over the ensuing 10 years, the British taxpayer forked out £10m to protect him 24 hours a day.

Khomeini died, the Muslim world found other murderous grievances to occupy their free-floating rage, and Rushdie moved to the US. And that, for a time, was that.

Until, that is, Queen Elizabeth included him in her annual Honours List this month. (The offered honours are suggested by the prime minister and the Queen's private staff). Salman Rushdie, now Sir Salman Rushdie arrived back in the public consciousness with a bang and major seething geared up in Iran, Pakistan, and in Britain in the person of Pakistani residents, who held up signs in London reading, "Queen go to hell". Well, they don't have Sir Salman's way with words. A Pakistani cabinet minister in Islamabad flung himself into the fray, saying that the honor "justifies suicide attacks" [in Britain] and the other usual suspects hosted rallies and festive effigy burning in other Islamic countries.

Unmindful that Queen Elizabeth can offer honors to whomever she chooses, and that Pakistani cabinet ministers have no voice in British affairs, the British Left raced in with high-minded 'objectivity', opining that Britain shouldn't be so "confrontational". Or, as lefty pundit Shirley Williams said, "the timing is insensitive". In the main, Tony Blair's cabinet responded with their standard weak-kneed cultural cringe, although at least plain speaking Home Secretary John Reid said, "I think we have a set of values that accrues people honors for their contribution to literature even when they don't agree with our point of view. That's our way and that's what we stand by."

The author is a TCS contributing writer living in the United Kingdom.


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