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Has Rushdie's knighthood sparked off a new terrorist campaign?

2 July 2007

In the UK it's been a week when major news stories crowded each other off the front pages. Pictures of appalling floods jostled with the coverage of the new prime minister and the fresh faces in his cabinet for space in the media, only to be replaced this weekend by grim news of terrorist attacks.

In the midst of it all there is one surprising story from the book world, which may be interacting with the other stories in ways we can only guess at right now. To the astonishment of many observers, Salman Rushdie was given a knighthood, in a move that must have been one of the last acts of Tony Blair's government. There's no doubt though that giving him this honour has caused fury across many parts of the Islamic world, with riots and threats in Pakistan and Iran showing that this is seen as a direct insult to Islam.

Gerald Butt, editor of the Middle East Economic Survey, said: 'It will be interpreted as an action calculated to goad Muslims at a time when the atmosphere is already very tense and Britain's standing in the region is very low because of its involvement in Iraq and its lack of action in tackling the Palestine issue.'

In Tehran Ayatollah Ahmad Khatami said at Friday prayers: 'They [Britain] have honoured him only because he insulted the Prophet. In such a situation, honouring him means confronting 1.5 billion Muslims around the world.'

The connection with events in London and Glasgow may be closer still. A posting on a jihadist internet forum on Thursday night said: 'Today I say: "Rejoice, by Allah, London shall be bombed."'

Aidan Liddle, a spokesman for the British High Commission in Islamabad said: 'Sir Salman's honour is richly deserved and the reasons for it are self-explanatory.' Rushdie's own response was: 'I am thrilled and humbled to receive this great honour, and am very grateful that my work has been recognised in this way.'

But was this honour really a recognition of his work? It doesn't look as if the outgoing Blair government paying its dues to literature has much to do with it. Clearly the long years in hiding must have taken their toll on Rushdie, and nobody would wish a fatwa on anyone. But many resent that it has cost the British taxpayer £10 million (over $20 million) to protect the author.

Those working at Penguin UK, or even visiting it at the time when the threat of the fatwa was at its height, will not forget the way an ordinary publishing office came under siege. Many deaths in riots, and threats to the lives of translators and publishers, have also been the outcome of the fatwa and protecting Rushdie's right to free expression.

Have those involved in the latest terrorist threats in the UK also been inflamed by news of Rushdie's knighthood? These are much more dangerous times. How can anyone not have realised that it would cause grave offense in the Muslim world and re-ignite the controversy surrounding The Satanic Verses? This weekend it looks as if literature and the international terrorist threat are interacting in new and alarming ways.