Islamabad: Controversy over a knighthood for author Salman Rushdie has escalated into a full-blown diplomatic row as Iran and Pakistan summoned Britain’s ambassadors to protest, drawing a retort from London.
According to the state media, Iran summoned the British envoy to Tehran, Geoffrey Adams, who was told by the foreign ministry’s director for Europe that the honour was a “provocative act”.
In Pakistan, where both houses of parliament called on Britain to withdraw the knighthood, Britain’s high commissioner Robert Brinkley was also summoned to the foreign ministry.
Islamic hardliners in the eastern city of Lahore burned an effigy of Queen Elizabeth, while one Iranian newspaper branded her an “old crone.”
Britain in response said Brinkley had passed on London’s “deep concern” at comments by Pakistan’s religious affairs minister Ijaz-ul-Haq that honouring Rushdie justified suicide attacks.
“The British government is very clear that nothing can justify suicide bomb attacks,” a Foreign Office spokesman told AFP.
Rushdie is accused by some Muslims of blaspheming Islam in his novel “The Satanic Verses,” whose publication in 1988 triggered an international furore.
He has been living since then under the shadow of a death sentence imposed by Iran’s late supreme leader Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini which has never been formally revoked.
Rushie, who has just turned 60, winner of several top literary awards is not new to controversy. He was put under police protection following the Satanic Verses flare-up. His exact whereabouts now are not known, but he is believed to divide his time between London and New York.
His knighthood for services to literature, which was announced on 16 June in the queen’s traditional birthday honours list, means he can call himself Sir Salman.
The Iranian foreign ministry official, Ebrahim Rahimpour, told Adams that Britain’s “insulting, suspicious and ill-considered act is an obvious sign of Islamophobia which has terribly hurt the feelings of 1.5 billion Muslims.
“The consequences of this provocation, which has angered Muslims, will be directed at the British queen and government.” Pakistan, for its part, said that it “deplores and regrets the decision by the British government” which showed a “lack of sensitivity.”
Brinkley, the envoy in Pakistan, defended the award, saying it was “simply untrue that this knighthood is intended as an insult to Islam or the Prophet Mohammed.” Afghanistan’s insurgent Taliban condemned Britain’s action in a statement read to AFP over the telephone by spokesman Yousuf Ahmadi.
“This is a clear enmity with Islam and Muslims. We ask Britain to take back what they have done and to apologise to Muslims,” he said. Thankfully, there was no reaction from the Afghan government. Meanwhile in London, Buckingham Palace declined comment, as did Rushdie’s publisher Jonathan Cape, a division of Random House.
Independent newspaper went further by commenting that “As a cultural figure, Salman Rushdie may or may not deserve his knighthood, but we would defend the government’s right to honour him, and Rushdie’s right to accept.”
The conservative Daily Mail said it did not like Rushdie’s “turgid prose,” but protested that “the inflammatory behaviour of the Pakistanis and Iranians is indefensible. They have no right to interfere in our affairs.”