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Last Updated: Wednesday, 20 June 2007, 17:43 GMT 18:43 UK
Why Salman Rushdie was knighted
By Jenny Percival
BBC News

Salman Rushdie's knighthood has provoked protests around the Islamic world and a diplomatic row. So how was the decision made, and why did no-one appear to consider the consequences?

"Ahmed Salman Rushdie - author, for services to literature" - this simple entry in the Queen's birthday honours follows several years of deliberations, form-filling, lobbying and secretive committee meetings.

The lengthy process involved makes it all the more surprising to critics that little consideration was given to a likely backlash.

Demonstration in Hyderabad
Fresh demonstrations have broken out in Pakistan

The Queen's birthday honours are aimed at rewarding individuals' personal bravery, achievement, or service to the United Kingdom.

Anyone can nominate an individual for an award and, although the people doing the nominating are supposed to remain anonymous, in Sir Salman's case it looks as if his cheerleaders were the English branch of Pen, an international writers' group.

'Literary giant'

Pen will not confirm officially whether or not it signed his nomination papers. But it has backed the Booker-prize winning author since 1989 when Iran's spiritual late leader Ayatollah Khomeini issued a fatwa against him, calling for his execution.

His book, The Satanic Verses, was seen as so offensive to Muslims that he was forced into hiding, under threat of death.

The latest controversy over his knighthood appears to have shocked the people involved in nominating and selecting him.

If the senior officers of the Foreign and Commonwealth Office were not able to use their knowledge of the Islamic world to consider the likely ramifications of this decision, then I'm extremely concerned
Stewart Jackson MP

Jonathan Heawood, director of the English branch of Pen, said: "We have argued for a long time that Salman Rushdie should be recognised by the government as a giant of world literature.

"I've been struggling for a form of words that does not sound naive but we were taken aback, everyone was taken aback, by the scale of the reaction.

"I gather the honours committee themselves were taken aback. The decision to award the knighthood was entirely in the hands of the honours committee and the government."

He added: "We don't regret it. We will continue to support Salman Rushdie as we support over 1,000 writers around the world who have been persecuted as a result of their writing."

Nomination forms are sent to the Cabinet Office, which passes them on to the relevant sub-committee. In Sir Salman's case, this was the arts and media committee chaired by multi-millionaire banker and philanthropist Lord Rothschild.

Lord Rothschild, banker and philanthropist
Jenny Abramsky, BBC director of radio and music
Ben Okri, novelist and poet
John Gross, author and critic
Andreas Whittam Smith, former Independent editor

Committee member Andreas Whittam Smith says the arts committee was concerned only with literary merit and that other considerations were the responsibility of the main committee.

The main committee, chaired by Cabinet Secretary Sir Gus O'Donnell, includes the most senior civil servant at the Foreign Office. It decides which names are put forward for final approval to the prime minister and the Queen.

A spokeswoman at the Foreign Office confirmed the permanent secretary had been at the meeting, adding: "This was never going to be an uncontroversial decision but the award was for literary achievement.

"It was not intended to be an offence to Islam or the prophet Mohammed."

She said she did not think the controversy would affect the UK's relationship with Pakistan or Malaysia, with whom, she said, Britain continued to enjoy a good relationship.

Books 'rubbish'

Conservative MP Stewart Jackson, chairman of the all-party group on Pakistan, said: "Salman Rushdie was subjected to one of the most famous death sentences in the 20th Century.

What makes the person worthy?
Have they gone the extra mile?
Have they changed things for the better?
Do they carry the respect of their peers?
Have they achieved against the odds?
Do they stand out above others in the field?
  • Source: Cabinet Office
  • "If the senior officers of the Foreign and Commonwealth Office were not able to use their knowledge of the Islamic world to consider the likely ramifications of this decision, then I'm extremely concerned."

    He believes the decision will exacerbate tensions with the Pakistani government at a time when it is struggling to deal with political uncertainty and terrorism.

    His objections to Sir Salman's knighthood do not stop there.

    "He has been a critic of the UK, a country whose taxpayers have paid for the protection he required from the fatwa. He's only semi-resident in this country and his books are rubbish, tedious and without literary merit.

    "There's no question that we can rescind the award, it would make us look weak and it's not for Britain to kow-tow to extremists but perhaps it would be appropriate for Salman Rushdie to make the decision not to accept this award," said Mr Jackson.

    That seems unlikely given Sir Salman's initial reaction was that he was "thrilled and humbled to receive this great honour".

    He does, however, have time to reconsider since he is unlikely to be formally presented with the award by the Queen until the end of the year.

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    19 Jun 07 |  Middle East
    UK's 'deep concern' over Rushdie
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