This, of course, is an outrage and must be met with militancy rather than understanding:
Sir Salman Rushdie, the author, was facing fresh threats to his life yesterday following his knighthood.
A senior minister in the Pakistani government said that the decision was a justification for suicide bombing, after the parliament in Islamabad condemned the honour as "blasphemous and insulting" to the world's Muslims.
As Pakistani MPs issued a demand for the award to be immediately withdrawn, the religious affairs minister, Mohammad Ejaz-ul-Haq, said: "The West always wonders about the root cause of terrorism. Such actions [giving Sir Salman a knighthood] are the root cause of it. If someone commits suicide bombing to protect the honour of the Prophet Mohammad, his act is justified."
The least of the observations to be made about these remarks is that Pakistan's religious affairs minister has nicely demonstrated the hypocrisy of maintaining that "explanation" of the urge to terrorism - the weaselling that finds extenuating circumstances for terrorists' anger - is neatly to be distinguished from incitement. But I'm less concerned about this rabble-rousing, bonehead bigot than I am about a notion more insidious and quite ubiquitous. Note that the report continues:
The parliament passed a unanimous resolution deploring the honour as an open insult to the feelings of the world's 1.5 billion Muslims. Sher Afgan Khan Niazi, the minister for parliamentary affairs who tabled the motion, said that the knighthood was "a source of hurt for Muslims" and would encourage people to "commit blasphemy against the Prophet Mohammad".
It is astonishing how easily, and how loudly, those who claim to be offended make the illegitimate further claim that their mental state entitles them to restitution. Yesterday I watched on Channel 4 News an interview with the Labour peer Lord Ahmed; exhibiting analytical feebleness combined with blustering inarticulacy, he proffered the same assumption. In the current issue of Index on Censorship I have a piece (reproduced here) on why respecting the beliefs and feelings of others is a lethal affectation in public policy. Legislating to protect people's feelings is pernicious in principle and dangerous in practice - I take the idle course of quoting myself:
The notion that free speech, while important, needs to be held in balance with the avoidance of offence is question-begging, because it assumes that offence is something to be avoided. Free speech does indeed cause hurt – but there is nothing wrong in this. Knowledge advances through the destruction of bad ideas. Mockery and derision are among the most powerful tools in that process. Consider Voltaire’s Candide, or H L Mencken’s reports – saturated in contempt for religious obscurantists who opposed the teaching of evolution in schools – on the Scopes ‘Monkey’ Trial.
It is inevitable that those who find their deepest convictions mocked will be offended, and it is possible (though not mandatory, and is incidentally not felt by me) to extend sympathy and compassion to them. But they are not entitled to protection, still less restitution, in the public sphere, even for crass and gross sentiments. A free society does not legislate in the realm of beliefs; by extension, it must not concern itself either with the state of its citizens’ sensibilities. If it did, there would in principle be no limit to the powers of the state, even into the private realm of thought and feeling.
The proper response to those who find themselves offended by the expression of ideas is: "That's tough. You'll live. Get over it." This would be true even if the ideas were stupid and their utterer crass. It would apply to Sir Salman Rushdie if he were a hack writer with the sensibilities of the late Bernard Manning. But he is in fact a writer of outstanding literary gifts and also a heroic (I don't use the term lightly) defender of freedom of expression. The resolution of the Pakistani legislature is an ignorant and inflammatory intrusion into our civic affairs. I am not impressed with the response to it to date.
The last thing we should do is accept the terms in which religious obscurantists seek to frame this issue. I was appalled to see on the News not only the bonehead Lord Ahmed's insults against Sir Salman and the government that rightly recommended the honour, but emollient remarks by the British High Commissioner in Pakistan, Robert Brinkley (who has this morning been summoned by Pakistan’s government). The honour was not, the High Commissioner said, an insult to Islam, for we respect Islam.
The first part of that answer was correct but strictly irrelevant. The second was improper. I take fierce exception to (I am - if you will - offended by) a British diplomat's speaking on behalf of my country and my government in taking a position on matters of religion. I do not respect Islam (or any religious faith). All I will insist upon as a matter of right for Muslims (or Christians, Jews and Seventh-Day Adventists) is religious liberty. Beyond that, they have no claim. They are not entitled to my respect. As a mere lobby group, they have no right to be listened to, let alone taken seriously, on matters of public policy.
In the meantime, our side - those who defend the values of a free society - will make ourselves heard, and because our ideas are worthy of respect we won't be cowed by religious bigotry. A stiffer diplomatic response is called for. At a minimal and trivial level, it is also time for democratic political parties to take a stand. In the original Rushdie affair, the Labour Party - which I mention specifically because I am on the Left - failed as abjectly as Mrs Thatcher's government and the first President Bush. Some Labour MPs called for Sir Salman's novel The Satanic Verses to be banned (the ridiculous Keith Vaz, MP for Leicester East, was the most prominent). I suggest that Lord Ahmed - who had the audacity and stupidity to compare Sir Salman's knighthood to support for suicide terrorism, both responses being, in his phrase, "uncalled for" - be informed retrospectively of his unamicable divorce from the Labour whip. It's a small gesture, but even those were lacking when Sir Salman was threatened by a foreign tyrant. He merits our support and admiration.