The governance of Britain has been a weird enough situation recently with its two non-prime ministers. But however you look at it, the knighting of Salman Rushdie pushes back the limits of the bizarre.
I can't see any particular reason why Rushdie was considered suitable to be made a knight, although the worth of literature is a subjective judgment. Many other writers have achieved greater distinction, both popular and literary. Rushdie's patriotism cannot be the reason: he has shown no particular love of Britain and has often spoken and written of it contemptuously.
In The Satanic Verses, his best-known work, he called the then Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher, "Mrs. Torture," an insult to the country's democratically elected political head and the Queen's chief advisor. He has shown no noticeable gratitude for Britain's defense of him from the Islamicist fatwa merchants or for the very large amounts of money it has spent protecting him over the years.
The knighting of Rushdie looks completely unnecessary. Had it not been done, no one would have commented that here was an obviously worthy candidate being passed over. In no way was he one of those great British figures whose knightage seems inevitable.
Now, knighthoods are made officially by the Queen but are in fact made on the recommendation of the Prime Minister, who usually receives recommendations in turn from others.
It is entirely Britain's business who it decides to honor, and I think I stand second to none in believing that Islamicist fanatics should not be appeased but on the contrary should be robustly confronted. I have written to this effect on many occasions.
Nonetheless, in the present circumstances, and when Britain is involved in a couple of difficult wars in which winning hearts and minds is of crucial importance, this looks like a gratuitous provocation. It was so obvious that it would cause widespread fury in the Muslim world that it is simply unbelievable that the responsible political circles would not have known about this.
The knighting of Rushdie can be taken by those aggressive Islamicists, who we know need less reason than this to discover provocations, as a sort of declaration of war on Islam by Britain -- one which, indeed, can be made to appear to involve the Queen personally.
THERE ARE ONLY TWO POSSIBLE explanations for the knighting of Rushdie: either those responsible for the recommendation were ignorant of the inevitable political consequences -- fury against Britain by Muslims around the world, attacks on British interests and quite likely on British people in Muslim countries -- or they knew those consequences and did not care.
Further, if it is meant to be a hit at Iran, from whence the original fatwa against Rushdie originated, perhaps in retaliation for Iran's recent seizing of British sailors, it seems not only particularly feeble and ineffectual but actually counterproductive. The government in Iran is facing growing popular discontent and this is the sort of emotionally charged slap in the face that could rally support behind it.
Britain has several thousand troops in Iraq and Afghanistan. In both countries they are trying to win over the support and friendship of the population and to be regarded as friends and liberators rather than invaders, oppressors and infidels.
Britain has spent billions and strained its defense budget to the limit to put those troops there. Quite a few have died. The knighting of Rushdie has made their task unnecessarily harder, has made the chances of failure greater, and has put their lives that much more at risk. Because of the Queen's direct involvement with knighthoods, it has also put the Queen at risk to a new degree.
Whether one agrees with the coalition commitments to Iraq and Afghanistan or not, this whole thing simply makes no sense. The mind shies away from the idea of some kind of deliberate attempt to undermine the British, U.S., and other coalition partners' efforts from within the British government, but what other explanation is there?
THE FLAG-BURNERS AND THOSE WHO type Western troops as "crusaders," "Romans" and general infidels and emissaries of Shaitan have been given fresh ammunition. It not just Shi'ites or Sunnis who have been provoked, the Britain government has managed to insult all Muslims if their religious leaders wish to take it that way. Iran's Foreign Ministry spokesman Mohammad Ali Hosseini has called the award an insult to the Muslim world, and claimed it "showed that the movement of insulting Muslims was not accidental but was a planned and organized move that enjoyed the support of some Western countries." Personally, I strongly doubt it was, but why was Iran given this ammunition?
In Pakistan, a country whose goodwill and co-operation is vital if the Taliban are to be defeated in Afghanistan, thousands of Pakistanis are reported have held protest rallies in various cities and burned British flags and effigies of Queen Elizabeth. The original publication of Rushdie's Satanic Verses led to rioting in Pakistan with a number of deaths.
The Pakistani Foreign Office has summoned Britain's High Commissioner (Ambassador) Robert Brinkley, to protest the award. Britain in return has expressed "deep concern" over comments by a Pakistani minister that knighting Rushdie could provoke radical Muslims to carry out suicide attacks.
Moving a little further off the planet, a Pakistani parliamentarian and head of a religious political party has demanded a "Sir" title for Osama bin Laden in retaliation (from what font of honor is not quite clear, particularly since knighthood is of specifically Christian origin).
Sami ul Haq, leader of the pro-Taliban Jamiat Ulema-e-Islam, claimed: "Muslims should confer the 'sir' title and all other awards on bin Laden and Mullah Omar in reply to Britain's shameful decision â€¦"
Mad as this is -- I don't think there's anything wrong with laughing at it and Australian blogger Tim Blair has already evoked a vision of progressive retaliations leading to "knights everywhere, with maybe a few squires and liege lords as well," which sounds rather fun and colorful -- the knighting of Rushdie in the present circumstances still looks senseless. If Britain wants to show defiance of Islamic fanaticism or take some strategic initiative in the present great clash of civilizations, then there are more effective ways to do it. It gives a new point -- if one is needed -- to the question: What the hell is going on in the mind of whoever is governing Britain?