Britain's award of a knighthood to controversial writer Salman Rushdie has united Pakistan's secular and religious groups in protest against what they denounce as a calculated attempt to sabotage the ongoing interfaith dialogue in the world.
News of the British action last weekend sparked demonstrations across Pakistan, with crowds burning effigies of British Prime Minister Tony Blair and Queen Elizabeth II. The Pakistan government summoned Robert Brinkley, the British high commissioner to Pakistan, and expressed deep concern and shock over the knighthood.
British-Indian novelist Rushdie drew the wrath of many Muslims with his 1988 novel The Satanic Verses, which they condemned as blasphemous.
The novel led to a fatwa, or religious edict, by Iran's then supreme leader Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini that called for Rushdie's assassination. The fatwa forced Rushdie into hiding under the protection of the British government for a number of years.
Analysts believe that the knighthood controversy may escalate here, exploited by religious parties and opposition politicians to create more difficulties for Pakistan's military president, Gen. Pervez Musharraf, who is seen as supported by Britain and the United States.
"By conferring this title to Salman Rushdie, the British government has sent a message to Muslims that it stands alongside the people who are hated by them," said Federal Minister for Religious Affairs Ejaz ul-Haq.
The religious minister's own remarks sparked a worldwide controversy when he was quoted as saying, "If someone exploded a bomb on Rushdie in response to the British government's decision, he will be within his right to do so unless the British government apologizes and withdraws the 'sir' title."
Ul-Haq later denied making the statement, apparently in response to pressure from the foreign ministry. "I meant to say that knighting Rushdie could spark terrorism. I was explaining that if the British government awards a knighthood to Salman Rushdie--whose only credibility is that he has written a blasphemous book--then such action will encourage extremism," he said.
The federal minister for parliamentary affairs, Sher Afgan Niazi, said he thinks that the British government's decision may affect the international efforts for peace. "The British government has honored a man who is one of the most hated persons by [the Muslim community]," he said. "The world needs peace, and the importance of interfaith dialogue has been recognized all over the world. But at this critical juncture, such unwise and uncalled-for steps may affect these efforts adversely. If it [the West] continues to honor those people who have trampled upon the sanctity of Islam and Prophet Muhammad (peace be upon Him), it will aggravate the extremism," he said.
Pakistan's legislature and four provincial assemblies have unanimously adopted separate resolutions condemning the knighthood and demanding that the British government withdraw the title in order to avoid offending Muslims. The resolutions were also signed and supported by secular and nationalist parties. "British government has hurt the sentiments of Muslims across the world by knighting Rushdie," states the resolution adopted by the National Assembly.
Brinkley told reporters, "It is simply untrue to suggest that this in any way is an insult to Islam or the Prophet Muhammad. We have enormous respect for Islam as a religion and for its intellectual and cultural achievements."
Asked if he was concerned that the issue could provoke unrest in Pakistan, Brinkley said, "We will just have to see where it goes from here. There's certainly no reason for that."
By Aamir Latif