IN OTHER WORDS: Rushdie row

Salman Rushdie’s knighthood is causing a furore among Islamic extremists, who see it as an official state endorsement of a writer who has been anathema to them ever since the publication of The Satanic Verses. And it has caused a few ripples of conscience in the West, too, a part of the world where writers are not routinely threatened with death but where we do try, often perplexedly, to respect the validity and the intensity of other people’s feelings.

Rushdie’s new honour raises the question: Do we choose to live in a world that honours writers or in a world that kills them?It is tempting to say that this is too simple a way to look

at it. It’s possible to argue that our desire to protect free speech is as much an acculturation as the desire to enforce religious orthodoxy. But the problem Rushdie raises is not about the origins of human belief. It is about the consequences of human belief and, specifically, the consequences of religious tyranny.

The ability of Rushdie’s work to test the limits of what we know and believe entitle him to the

respect he has earned. Yet in some parts of the world it would earn him assassination. You cannot judge a society only by the way it treats writers. But you can be certain that if a society treats writers badly, it treats ordinary people no better.