From Indianness to Englishness, speculates the narrator of The Satanic Verses, is an immeasurable distance. For Sir Salman Rushdie, "humbled to receive this great honour" from the monarch of a nation he once compared to "a peculiar-tasting smoked fish full of spikes and bones", that journey has culminated in a knighthood. There'll be carping and predictably impassioned defences. It will be recalled that Benjamin Zephaniah turned down the OBE, refusing to join "the oppressor's club", while Granta literati will rush to extol the humane virtues of English literature and empire.
This is not, ultimately, about one man's oddly bathetic "gratitude" or even the meaning of being knighted in this day and age. Recognition from on high is probably thrilling to even the most jaded among us. More interesting is the question of why this "honour" comes now and what Rushdie's alacrity in accepting it tell us about politics and letters in our times, the very stuff of his greatest fiction.
To see the knighthood as "belated" endorsement by the British establishment is to miss the point entirely. Until, and even after, the vicious death sentence pronounced by Ayatollah Khomeini, Rushdie could not possibly have been endorsed by an establishment he had committed himself to undermining in merciless prose and brilliant satire. Rushdie wrote powerful essays about institutional racism, cultural condescension, Thatcherism, anti-immigrant legislation, Raj nostalgia and a sham multiculturalism where a "black man could only become integrated when he started behaving like a white man".
With equal ferocity, he criticised those in postcolonial nations and ethnic minority communities who asserted themselves through chauvinism, fundamentalism, censorship and literalism. It was necessary to critique tyrannical forces in both west and non-west, to recognise them as twinned and to pronounce a plague on both their houses. From the magnificent Midnight's Children to the brilliantly flawed The Moor's Last Sigh, this uncompromising ethical vision underlies plain Mr Rushdie's best fiction.
Sir Salman, on the other hand, is partly the creation of the fatwa that played its role in strengthening the self-fulfilling "clash of civilisations" that both Bush and Osama bin Laden find so handy. Driven underground and into despair by zealotry, Rushdie finally emerged blinking into New York sunshine shortly before the towers came tumbling down. Those formidable literary powers would now be deployed not against, but in the service of, an American regime that had declared its own fundamentalist monopoly on the meanings of "freedom" and "liberation". The Sir Salman recognised for his services to literature is certainly no neocon but is iconic of a more pernicous trend: liberal literati who have assented to the notion that humane values, tolerance and freedom are fundamentally western ideas that have to be defended as such.
Vociferously supporting the invasions of Afghanistan and Iraq on "humane" grounds, condemning criticism of the war on terror as "petulant anti-Americanism" and above all, aligning tyranny and violence solely with Islam, Rushdie has abdicated his own understanding of the novelist's task as "giving the lie to official facts". Now he recalls his own creation Baal, the talented poet who becomes a giggling hack coralled into attacking his ruler's enemies. Denuded of texture and complexity, it is no accident that this fiction since the early 90s has disappeared into a critical wasteland. The mutation of this relevant and stentorian writer into a pallid chorister is a tragic allegory of our benighted times, of the kind he once narrated so vividly.
Priyamvada Gopal teaches in the English faculty at Cambridge University and is the author of Literary Radicalism in India