LONDON (Reuters) - The government said on Wednesday the award of a knighthood to author Salman Rushdie was based on literary merit and was not meant to offend Muslims.
Rushdie, 60, shot to literary fame with his second novel “Midnight’s Children” published in 1981. But he is best known for his fourth novel, “The Satanic Verses”, because of perceived blasphemy of the Prophet Mohammad.
The decision to award the British author a knighthood in the Queen’s birthday honours in June angered some Muslims. Al Qaeda’s number two, Ayman al-Zawahri, criticised the move this week in a statement which threatened more attacks on Britain.
“(Prime Minister Gordon Brown) thinks the decision to make the award to Salman Rushdie was made on the basis of his contribution to literature and ... no offence was intended to Islam or the Prophet Mohammad,” Brown’s official spokesman said.
The late Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeni, Iran’s supreme religious leader, pronounced a fatwa, or religious edict, in 1989 that called on Muslims to kill Rushdie because of the perceived blasphemy. Rushdie lived in hiding for nine years.
Zawahri said al Qaeda was preparing a response to the decision to give Rushdie the award, saying Queen Elizabeth had sent a clear message to Muslims and the least they could do was to boycott British goods.
Brown has won praise from Muslim groups in Britain for his sensitive handling of three botched car-bomb attacks last month, which he has blamed on al Qaeda.
The new prime minister has repeatedly resisted mentioning the country’s large Muslim community in relation to the attacks, instead focusing on the threat from “criminals” in international organisations such as al Qaeda.
The main opposition Conservative Party also rallied behind the decision to award an honour to Rushdie.
“Whatever you think of the work of Salman Rushdie, freedom of speech is a fundamental freedom in this country,” said Conservative home affairs spokesman David Davis.
“What is more, the sovereign’s choice of who she wishes to honour will never be the subject of intimidation,” he said.