Britain's representative in Pakistan was summoned yesterday to be told that the decision to award a knighthood to the writer Salman Rushdie revealed "an utter lack of sensitivity" towards Muslims.
In an exchange marking a new low in the UK's relations with Pakistan, the high commissioner replied by protesting about the previous day's comments by a Pakistani cabinet minister, which included an implied threat to Rushdie's life.
Sir Salman was named in the Queen's Birthday Honours list for his services to literature, reigniting the 20-year-old controversy about his novel The Satanic Verses. Pakistan was one of the first countries to see protests against the book after its publication in 1988, one of which, in Turkey, ended with more than 30 people dead. Protests resumed this week, with demonstrators burning Rushdie in effigy and calling for him to be killed.
Pakistan's Foreign Minister, Khursid Kasuri, said during a visit to Washington yesterday that Britain should not be surprised by the angry reaction from Muslims over an award to a writer who has been accused of blasphemy. "The Holy Prophet has a certain position among all Muslims. When we talk of a globalised world, we have to be sensitive to each other's concerns," he said.
Tasnim Aslam, of Pakistan's Foreign Ministry, told journalists in Islamabad: "Salman Rushdie has been a controversial figure who is known less for his literary contribution and more for his offensive and insulting writing which deeply hurts the sentiments of Muslims all over the world. Conferment of a knighthood on Salman Rushdie shows an utter lack of sensitivity on the part of the British government."
She added: "The British high commissioner was further told that Pakistan deplores and regrets this decision which is contrary to our common objective of building inter-civilisational and inter-religious understanding and harmony."
Pakistan's Religious Affairs Minister, Mohammed Ijaz ul-Haq, denied yesterday that he had incited anyone to commit murder when he told Pakistan's National Assembly that "if someone exploded a bomb on his body he would be right to do so". But he repeated his demands for the honour to be withdrawn, and for Britain to apologise. Otherwise, he warned, it could be an incitement to suicide bombers. "These are things which inflame sentiments, which create provocation and which lead to spreading extremism. These are steps which add fuel to the fire of hatred," he told a news conference.
The British Foreign Office confirmed that the high commissioner, Robert Brinkley, had been called in for talks. "The high commissioner made clear the British Government's deep concern at what the minister for religious affairs was reported to have said," a spokesman said.
The Tory MP Paul Goodman described the Government's response as feeble. He said: "Mr ul-Haq's remarks are in effect an incitement to further acts of terrorism in Britain. Although he's since sought partially to withdraw his remarks, no condemnation of them has been forthcoming to date from a higher level within the government of Pakistan. Our own Government should call for such a condemnation without delay."
An Islamic group in Indian-controlled Kashmir, called yesterday for a strike to protest against the award. It accused the Queen of having "ridiculed and challenged the sentiments of Muslims across the world".
The book that shook the world
Salman Rushdie had been recognised as one of Britain's leading writers for several years before the publication of his fourth novel, The Satanic Verses, on 26 September 1988. It included a sequence that retold an episode from the life of Mohamed. Barely a week later it was banned in his native India. Within two months, the ban had spread from Sudan to Indonesia to South Africa. There were book-burning protests in Bolton and Bradford.
This was a period when Ayatollah Khomeini, the ageing Shia ruler of Iran, was facing competition from younger Sunni fundamentalists in Pakistan who were fired by victory in their war to end Soviet occupation of Afghanistan. On 12 February 1989, violence erupted during an anti-Rushdie march in Pakistan. Six people were killed and 100 injured. On Iranian radio, two days later, Khomeini pronounced a death sentence on Rushdie. The threat forced Rushdie to go into hiding for 10 years, until the Iranian government announced that it no longer wanted him killed. Meanwhile, the book's Japanese translator had been murdered, others were injured in assassination attempts in Italy and Norway, shops in the US were firebombed, and 37 people died in an arson attack on a book festival in Turkey.