Predictably, government officials in Pakistan and Iran have come out against honouring the "blaspheming" "apostate" Rushdie. It's a brand of foaming at the mouth that we're all too familiar with at this point; in a sense, the hostile fundamentalist reaction validates the strong secularist stance that Rushdie has taken since his reemergence from Fatwa-induced semi-seclusion in 1998. (If these people are burning your effigy, you must be doing something right.)
But actually, there's another issue I wanted to mention that isn't getting talked about much in the coverage of Rushdie's knighthood, which is the fact that Rushdie wasn't always a "safe" figure for British government officials. In the early 1980s in particular, and throughout the Margaret Thatcher era, Rushdie was known mainly as a critic of the British establishment, not a member. The main issue for Rushdie then was British racism, and he did not mince words in condemning it as well as the people who tolerated it.
This morning I was briefly looking over some of Rushdie's essays from the 1980s. Some of the strongest work excoriated the policies of Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher and indicted the pervasiveness of "institutionalized racism" in British society. Two essays in particular stand out, "The New Empire Within Britain," and "Home Front." Both are published in Imaginary Homelands: Essays and Criticism, 1981-1991. (Another great essay from that collection is "Outside the Whale" -- required reading, though on a slightly different topic. And see this NYT review of the collection as a whole from 1991.)
Here is a long quote from "The New Empire Within Britain" (1982):
[L]et me quote from Margaret Thatcher's speech at Cheltneham on the third of July, her famous victory address: 'We have learned something about ourselves, a lesson we desperately need to learn. When we started out, there were the waverers and the fainthears . . . The people who thought we could no longer do the great things which we once did . . . that we could never again be what we were. Ther were those who would not admit it . . . but--in their heart of hearts--they too had their secret fears that it was true: that Britain was no longer the nation that had built an Empire and ruled a quarter of the world. Well, they were wrong.'
There are several interesting aspects to this speech. Remember that it was made by a triumphant Prime Minister at the peak of her popuolarity; a Prime Minister who could claim with complete credibility to be speaking for an overwhelming majority of the elctorate, and who, as even her detractors must admit, has a considerable gift for assessing the national mood. Now if such a leader at such a time felt able to invoke the spirit of imperialism, it was because she knew how central that spirit is to the self-image of white Britons of all classes. I say white Britons because it's clear that Mrs Thatcher wasn't addressing the two million or so blacks, who don't feel quite like that about the Empire. So even her use of the word 'we' was an act of racial exclusion, like her other well-known speech about the fear of being 'swamped' by immigrants. With such leaders, it's not surprising that the British are slow to learn the real lessons of their past.
Let me repeat what I said at the beginning: Britain isn't Nazi Germany. The British Empire isn't the Third Reich. But in Germany, after the fall of Hitler, heroic attempts were made by many people to purify German though and the German language of the pollution of Nazism. Such acts of cleansing are occasionally necessary in every society. But British thought, British society, has never been cleansed of the filth of imperialism. It's still there, breeding lice and vermin, waiting for unscrupulous people to exploit it for their own ends. (Read the whole thing)
That was Rushdie in 1982: "British society has never been cleansed of the filth of imperialism." And it's by no means the only strong statement he makes about racism and imperialism in "The New Empire Within Britain"; he also goes after the legal system, the police, and the clearly racist quotas the British had enacted in the immigration policy to reduce the number of black and brown immigrants coming to Britain from former colonies.
If we compare Rushdie in 1982 to Rushdie today, it's clear that the man has changed quite a bit -- but it also has to be acknowledged that British society has itself been transformed, perhaps even more radically. Organizations like the National Front are nowhere near as influential as they were in the early 1980s, and a decade of the Labour Party and Tony Blair have changed the political picture for good. But more than anything, what seems different is the way racialized difference (Blacks and Asians vs. the white majority) has been displaced by the religious difference as the most contentious issue of the day. One you move the debate from race to religion, the parameters for who gets seen as an "outsider" and who becomes an "insider" look quite different.