NEAL CONAN, host:
This is TALK OF THE NATION. I'm Neal Conan in Washington.
When he heard the news that England's Queen Elizabeth would bestow him with a knighthood, writer Salman Rushdie reportedly said I am thrilled and humbled to receive this great honor.
To many, it's an honor that's been long in coming for the novelist. To others, though, it adds insult to insult. News of the award set off protests in Pakistan and Iran, and a Pakistani government minister has reported as saying that a suicide bomb attack could be a justified response to the award of the knighthood.
If you have questions about Rushdie's knighthood or the reaction around the world, give us a call, 800-989-8255. Email us: email@example.com. Joining us now from London with more on this is Duncan Campbell, a senior correspondent with the newspaper the Guardian. Thanks very much for being with us.
Mr. DUNCAN CAMPBELL (Senior Correspondent, The Guardian): It's a pleasure.
CONAN: Reaction in Pakistan and Iran has been pretty angry. The British ambassador has been summoned to hear those complaints in Pakistan. What's been the reaction in England?
Mr. CAMPBELL: Well, the reaction here has been, certainly from the Muslim organizations in Britain, that they're very unhappy at him being given a knighthood, but they're also unhappy that people are calling for suicide bombers to react. And I think the writing community is very solidly behind Salman and the politicians are also saying - I mean, you mentioned the high commissioner being summoned to the...
Mr. CAMPBELL: ...see the government in Pakistan. He has also expressed his condemnation of the remarks made by a minister in Pakistan, the foreign affairs minister, Mohammed Ijaz ul-Haq, who was the person who made the remark about the suicide bombers. So there have been protests about the protest, if you like.
CONAN: Yes. And just as a reminder, for those who don't remember the controversy, of course, was the book, "The Satanic Verses," which Salman Rushdie published, what, 18 years ago, 20 years ago?
Mr. CAMPBELL: In 1988 he published it and the Iranian then-leader, Ayatollah Khomeini issued a fatwa in the following year in 1989. And as a result of that, Salman Rushdie had to go into hiding for a number of years, and he was protected round the clock by an armed team of Scotland Yard officers for many years.
CONAN: For many years and just sort of emerged back into public back in what, 1999 or so.
Mr. CAMPBELL: Yeah, '98, the Iranian government, after a lot of negotiations with the British government, removed the, well, ended the fatwa as it were and said they no longer was seeking violence against him. And he's become much more public since then, although, as you mentioned earlier, he is now based mainly in New York. Although tonight, he's in London. It's his 60th birthday and he's celebrating it with family and friends here.
CONAN: And, just remind us, he got this honor on the queen's birthday list, and I guess this goes back many, many years. But this list is no longer drawn up by the queen herself?
Mr. CAMPBELL: No, that's right. There's a committee that draws out recommended knighthoods and they tend to be people who are involved in the arts themselves. It included Ben Oakley, writer, and Jenny Abramski from the BBC, and they make a recommendation. It's rubberstamped by Tony Blair. He didn't suggest it, although lots of the Pakistan and Iranian government have been blaming him for it. He merely rubberstamps it on its way through to the queen, and then she'll finally get around to tapping him on the shoulder with a sword, sometime probably around October.
CONAN: Rubberstamps it, presumably though, the government looks at it and says, well, wait a minute, this might have some repercussions.
Mr. CAMPBELL: Well, strangely, I spoke to one of the people on the committee today and I said, didn't you think that there might be repercussions? And they said, well, to be honest, we didn't. I mean, that 10 years have passed since the fatwa was lifted, Salman is quite - you often see him at book festivals and things like that. So I think the feeling had been, oh, it's a thing of the past and I think people took their eye off the ball a little bit on it.
CONAN: And we have here heard some comments, I think, from Iran, saying this is Tony Blair's parting shot at Muslims just before he leaves office.
Mr. CAMPBELL: Yes, which is unfair to Tony Blair, really. I don't think that he, in any remote way, intended it as that at all. I think he was damned if he did and damned if he didn't. If Salman's name had been recommended to him for knighthood and he'd turn him down so as not to upset people in Islamabad and Tehran, then of course, he would have been accused by everyone of appeasement and being weak and feeble. And if he lets it go through, he's accused of being provocative. So I think he was on the hiding to nothing really.
CONAN: And even with his decision, his critics - of which there are many - in Britain said, after all of this time, this is way overdue and this is pretty weak tea for Tony Blair.
Mr. CAMPBELL: Yes, I mean, it's been interesting watching the British press because the right wing media is uncertain of who it dislikes most - Salman Rushdie, who they think was not grateful enough for all the protection he received or the Muslim extremists. So they've been torn between the two. But I - and I think a lot of his fellow writers feel that he should have been honored much earlier. But on the other hand, many great writers from Britain and other parties have not been honored. It's a slightly odd system, and some people turn down honors because they don't want to be recognized in that way. And some people are very grateful to receive them. And so it's never quite clear who's going to accept and who's going to reject them.
CONAN: So Rushdie could have - if presumably they approach him with this idea before they announce it, he could have said, hey, thanks, but no thanks.
Mr. CAMPBELL: That's right. They write to you beforehand because they want to avoid embarrassment and they say, will you accept it if we announce it. And so I know there's various people who, like Albert Finney for instance, who have been approached and who have declined for various reasons. And so there would have been an opportunity for him to do so. And some of his fellow writers have been saying, writers shouldn't accept honors from the state, anyway. That's not their function.
CONAN: All right. Let's see if we can get a listener on the line. This is Rhani(ph). Rhani calling us from Staten Island in New York.
RHANI (Caller): Hi.
CONAN: Hi. Go ahead please.
RHANI: My statement is just basically that, you know, writing or any other art should be kept away from politics and religion. So, I mean, if he is a good writer, he deserves the award. And why bring suicide bombing and all this other nonsense into it? I mean, this is really becoming an increasingly intolerant society. I mean...
CONAN: Of course, Salman Rushdie writes a great deal about both politics and religion.
RHANI: Yeah, but, I mean, I'm Indian and half of the, you know, like "Midnight Children" was about Indira Gandhi and the emergency, and it was banned, that there was a big rumor(ph) about it. And my logic is, if you don't like it, don't go to the bookstore and don't buy the book. You know, why should that be, you know, I mean, after all, you are a democracy and you have the right not to buy a book.
CONAN: Rhani, thanks very much for the call. Appreciate it.
RHANI: Thank you.
CONAN: And there will be many people, Duncan Campbell, who agree with her, and many others who say, wait a minute, this is a choice by the British government to give this honor at this particular time. And, of course, it's a calculated poke in the eye to Muslims.
Mr. CAMPBELL: Yes, the - and as I say, I think, as I was saying earlier, I think some of the people, who recommended the honor thought that the storm had blown past and were unaware that it would cost such a furor. But equally, there are those who feel that Salman was not deliberately inflaming Muslims with that book, it's a few lines in the book that upset people, and, I mean, interestingly this week, Christopher Hitchens has been in Britain, promoting his book, "God is Not Great." And dealing with...
CONAN: Chris Hitchens is a great pal of Salman Rushdie.
Mr. CAMPBELL: Yes, exactly. And dealing with some of the issues that, you know, what kind of a religion advocates killing people because they've offended them in some minor way in a book. And it's brought those issues to bear. But, you know, equally, there's been a conservative politician saying today that we shouldn't have upset the Pakistanis because we are working with them together on the fight of the great war against terror. So that, I mean, there is different views being expressed, and I think will continue to be over the next few days.
CONAN: Let's get Ray on the line. And Ray is calling us from Quakertown, Pennsylvania.
RAY (Caller): Yes, I'd like to know what exactly Salman Rushdie wrote that made Muslims so angry in his book.
CONAN: Duncan Campbell, as I recall, it was descriptions of the prophet Mohammed and his immediate followers in the early days, obviously, of the Muslim religion, and characterizations that were not welcomed by some who regarded them as blasphemy.
Mr. CAMPBELL: That's right. And as I say, I think he never intended it to be an insult. I mean, he was brought up as a Muslim, although he went to Catholic school in Bombay and then to an English public school. But it - he was examining a particular aspect of it. And I did not plan it to make it become a kind of cause celeb as some writers have done, you know, they've - or you know, as some cartoonists have done deliberately and provocatively.
And I think he was as surprised as everybody else when suddenly the fatwa arrived and I think he felt that everything had finally been resolved. And although he would never be welcome in certain parts of the world and would always have to be aware that somebody might be looking for him, I think he is probably now as surprised as everybody else that the whole thing has stepped into motion again.
CONAN: Ray, thanks very much for the call.
RAY: Thank you.
CONAN: We were talking about Salman Rushdie, who received the honor of a knighthood last week. Sometime in the fall, he'll actually be dubbed Sir Salman. And as, I guess he gets to call himself that.
Mr. CAMPBELL: That's right. He'll become the - he's still Mr. Rushdie. But the queen - you'll kneel down in front of the queen and she taps you on the shoulder with a sword, and says, arise, Sir Salman, or Sir Conan or whoever.
CONAN: Oh, not me.
Mr. CAMPBELL: And there you are. And you - it - I think it's mainly helpful in getting bookings in restaurants and possibly getting upgraded occasionally on flights. But apart from that, there's no money comes with it. And you don't get to sit down in the House of Lords or anything.
CONAN: Looks good in the obit, though?
Mr. CAMPBELL: That's right, that's right. Yeah, you'll definitely get an obit.
CONAN: Duncan Campbell, thanks very much for your time today. We appreciate it.
Mr. CAMPBELL: Okay, good to speak to you. Bye-bye.
CONAN: Duncan Campbell is the senior correspondent for the newspaper, The Guardian, and he spoke to us from London. And you're listening to TALK OF THE NATION from NPR NEWS. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.
The news that Queen Elizabeth would bestow knighthood upon writer Salman Rushdie sparked protest in some Muslim nations, particularly Pakistan and Iran. Duncan Campbell, senior correspondent for The Guardian, discusses the violent reaction to Rushdie's knighthood.
Rushdie Knighthood Angers Muslims
Arif Ali/AFP/Getty Images
The news that Queen Elizabeth would bestow knighthood upon writer Salman Rushdie sparked protest in some Muslim nations, particularly Pakistan and Iran. Duncan Campbell, senior correspondent for The Guardian newspaper, discusses the violent reaction to Rushdie's knighthood.
Duncan Campbell, senior correspondent, The Guardian