Sir Salman, champion of free speech

Salman RushdieIn reading news articles about the decision by Great Britain to bestow knighthood on Salman Rushdie, one can't help but wonder why in the world the British would decide to do this. I mean, all they are doing is upsetting a substantial minority of Britain's population and inflaming Islamic sentiment around the world by honoring a man who is just a novelist. Since when should we honor people who are attacked and threatened with death for what they say or write? Or should we?

If you read The Times' piece on the matter, you come away with the idea that Rushdie was just a royal pain in the neck by writing The Satanic Verses in 1988.

You all know the backstory, and the news reports paid scant attention to it. The Times had one of the more thorough accounts of what happened:

Rushdie was forced to go into hiding for almost a decade after the Ayatollah Khomeini issued the death sentence over The Satanic Verses.

On Valentine's Day in 1989 the spiritual figurehead of the Iranian revolution pronounced on Teheran radio that: "The author of The Satanic Verses, which is against Islam, the Prophet, the Koran, and all those involved in its publication who were aware of its content, are sentenced to death."

In Britain, the subsequent hate campaign helped to politicise and radicalise a generation of young British Muslims. The taxpayer is believed to have spent more than £10 million protecting Rushdie.

The Times focuses heavily on Pakistan, where legislators are passing resolutions demanding the removal of Rushdie's knighthood. The article even quote an independent-sounding editor of the Middle East Economic Survey saying that Rushdie's knighthood will be seen 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."

Very little ink has been spent explaining why Rushdie received this honor. Perhaps it is because of the reasons cited by the Times: The British government was trying to upset Muslims. Or maybe not.

The Washington Post's brief account of the affair managed to include a quote from a British government official:

Pakistani officials summoned Robert Brinkley, the British high commissioner in Islamabad, to express anger over the honor for Rushdie, which was announced along with British government honors for about 950 people on Queen Elizabeth II's ceremonial birthday on June 16. The knighthood means that the writer, who turned 60 on Tuesday, will be known in Britain as Sir Salman.

"Sir Salman's knighthood is a reflection of his contribution to literature throughout a long and distinguished career which has seen him receive international recognition for a substantial body of work," Brinkley said in a statement. Noting that at least two Muslims had also received honors from the queen, Brinkley said, "It is simply untrue that this knighthood is intended as an insult to Islam or the prophet Mohammad."

I am not a reporter who likes to take the word of government officials, and I don't think anyone should in this case either. There's bound to be a backstory to the decision to grant Rushdie knighthood. An angle that I would encourage reporters to look at, even if it is not the actual reason, relates to the very work we do as journalists: freedom of speech.

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