Friday, 22 June 2007

Hurting People's Feelings

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Salman Rushdie, the famous British-Indian novelist, was appointed to be a Knight Bachelor last week - as you're perhaps aware. You're also probably aware that there is an ongoing fatwa against Rushdie, issued by Ayatollah Khomeini, because he wrote a naughty book called The Satanic Verses which satirised Islam; the decision to bestow a knighthood on him has therefore caused quite a fuss in certain circles.

The reaction is absurd, of course, and only serves to demonstrate that there is a small section of the Muslim world that has clearly lost the plot - the Pakistan Ulema council, for example, has decided that in retaliation it is bestowing the title of Saifullah, or Sword of Islam on Osama bin Laden, because "if a blashphemer can be given the title 'Sir'...despite the fact that he's hurt the feelings of Muslims, then a mujahid who has been fighting for Islam must be given the lofty title of...Saifullah". That's right: Britain has hurt their feelings (the poor little lambs), perhaps as badly as if we'd stolen their lunch money, or spilt their milk, and so the only sensible reaction is for them to honour a murderous, psychopathic thug who relishes the deaths of Westerners in general and British/Americans in particular. It seems a tad disproportionate, but who are we to question the Ulema council? After all, cultural relativism, who are we to judge, etc, blah de blah.

Now it seems that Pakistan's National Assembly has unanimously condemned the awarding of the honour, with Religious Affairs Minisiter Ejaz-ul-Haq arguing that suicide bombings in Britain are now justified, and that "if Britain does not withdraw [the knighthood], all Muslim countries should break off diplomatic relations". Fair enough, but one has to wonder whether Mr. ul-Haq is also advocating breaking off relations to the extent that Pakistan, for example, might turn down all the aid money that Britain supplies it with. One suspects not; funny how you can usually tell with these things.

You would expect that sort reaction from hardliners like the Ulema council and Ejaz-ul-Haq, and I'm not particularly worried about it. Worse is that of people like Lord Ahmed, a Labour peer (who has said that the knighthood should be put
"on hold"), seem all too willing to pander to them. Encouraging hissy fits - and, worse, backing down to people who are willing to countenance suicide bombings and the indiscriminate murder of civilians - is obviously, palpably wrong, and it worries me that peers (who by their nature are supposed to be sensible, educated people) should be so simultaneously stupid and spineless.

Personally, I've never liked Salman Rushdie, and I think he's a bad writer who courts controversy to sell books. I also dislike the current tendency among the British literary elites to honour authors just because they're from a developing country and write novels with themes that happen to tie into the particular angst of the moment. For that reason, I'm not particularly happy that the man is now a Knight of the Realm. But it's our decision who we award knighthoods to, not Pakistan's, and no amount of browbeating and hysterical overreaction should dissuade us from that. And if Pakistan really wants to cut off diplomatic relations with Britain, it should have the guts to carry that threat through to its sensible conclusion and hand back our aid money. We're happy to give it, and in some sense obligated, but nobody's got a gun to your head.

4 comments:

zero_zero_one said...

Is there going to be a ceremony where Bin Laden is given this title? Have coalition forces been told this yet? Surely this is their best opportunity to find him given that six years of intelligence so far has given them nothing but dead ends.

mattiecore said...

The only controversial book he's written is The Satanic Verses...So I'd be hard-pressed to say that he courts controversy.

"I also dislike the current tendency among the British literary elites to honour authors just because they're from a developing country and write novels with themes that happen to tie into the particular angst of the moment."

I posted a link for the Wikipedia entry on postcolonialism in a comment on the last update, and I think you might want to take a look at it. Rushdie is not exactly an eloquent writer, but a lot of what he writes deals with major themes of postcolonial theory. Really it has nothing to do with the development of the country a given writer was born in....it has to do with the fact that that country was once colonized. And for the record, postcolonial theory is a far-cry from the "angst of the moment." Not to be rude, but I think that your understanding of his writings is a bit lacking.

Having said that, I understand why they knighted him, though I would not have personally recommended him (y'know, had anyone asked me...). There are other postcolonial writers that I prefer to Rushdie.

mattiecore said...

Sorry, the link is in the "Lord of the Flies" post

noisms said...

I posted a link for the Wikipedia entry on postcolonialism in a comment on the last update, and I think you might want to take a look at it.

Oh, believe me, I read enough of my fill of postcolonial critics at university. I think the school has value as a way of reinterpreting texts from the colonial era as a sort of window on the past (a sub branch of New Historicism, if you will), but in its literary form it too often turns into an exercise in politics rather than an exercise in telling a good, interesting story (which is the whole point of literature in the first place). Rushdie is the prime example of this; a man who is so interested in developing a certain theme that he forgets to write something anybody would really want to read.

Incidentally, I think that postcolonialism is often deeply illiberal, because it denies writers from developing countries the right to be just a plain, good, entertaining writer (of sci-fi, or thrillers, or crime ficion); their writing must always be a postcolonial discourse on identity, power, politics, etc., etc., if they're going to get any attention. It's very stiltifying: black and Indian writers aren't allowed to be entertaining, like us white people - they have to bore on with the accepted 'themes' - race, identity, blah de blah, instead.

Really it has nothing to do with the development of the country a given writer was born in....it has to do with the fact that that country was once colonized.

Countries that were colonised are developing countries, pretty much by definition. In Rushdie's eyes it might be important to draw a distinction, but I don't believe that the literary elites generally do. Their thought process is more along the lines of "Oh look! A writer from a poor country! His work *must* be good and interesting!" It's one part white-man's-guilt, and two parts interest in exoticism.

Again, it's a deeply illiberal thing - writers from developing countries just aren't allowed by the establishment to write exciting books; they have to be weighty and purposeful. Where are the African Steven Kings? The Indian George R. R. Martins? They must be out there, but they won't be taken seriously in the West because they'll be writing fun, good fiction - not treatises on identity.

And for the record, postcolonial theory is a far-cry from the "angst of the moment."

But it is! It most certainly is. Perhaps not in America, but most definitely in Britain. It doesn't manifest itself as angst about postcolonial theory, but rather about racial identity, colonial ties, immigration, development, etc etc - which are essentially the very themes which postcolonial theory deals with.