I’ve had another one of my dreams. I was in a courtroom, and the lawyers were delivering their final arguments.
Lawyer 1: “Members of the jury, you will recall that I represent all those people who believe it was a serious mistake to award a knighthood to Salman Rushdie. Let me summarise for you, before you retire to consider your verdict, the reasons that we have given.
“First, it was an unnecessary provocation to the many Muslims, both in this country and around the world, who, whether rightly or wrongly, were deeply offended by Rushdie’s book The Satanic Verses. And surely, it can never be right needlessly to provoke people, especially when they are a minority who already often feel that their beliefs are misunderstood or ignored.
“Second, the granting of this award, at a time of heightened tensions between Muslims and non-Muslims, has recklessly endangered the lives of all of us. I do not for one minute say that we should allow al-Qaeda to dictate who should receive an honour from Her Majesty the Queen – but I do say that those who recommend the granting of such an honour must be cognisant of the possible repercussions of their decision. It may now be nearly 20 years since Mr Rushdie’s book was published – and as you will recall, he has paid a high price for the offence he was deemed to have caused – but you will not need me to remind you that the extremists among us have long memories.
“Third, we recognise, of course, that freedom of expression is a principle that we must all value highly. I do not say that Mr Rushdie should not have published his book. But is it right for a government – or a State – to honour a writer who has so grievously offended a great many people? Does it not come close to saying: “We honour the fact that you have caused offence”? Or at least: “We know that you caused offence, and we regard it as a matter of no importance”? What message does that send to the many British Muslim citizens who wonder why their sensitivities apparently count for so little?
“Members of the jury, this was an unnecessary award and an unnecessary provocation. I urge you to find in favour of my clients.”
Lawyer 2: “Ladies and gentlemen of the jury, I represent all those who argue that awards must be made purely on merit, and that to do otherwise would be to play into the hands of those who seek to impose their views on us by threats and by force. The question before you, I would submit, is a very simple one: Who should decide who is granted an honour in this country? The duly appointed awards committee, or the murderous extremists of al-Qaeda? There can, of course, be only one answer.
“The members of the committee who recommended Mr Rushdie for a knighthood say they did not discuss any possible political ramifications of their decision. That, I would suggest, is entirely as it should be. If he is a talented writer whose achievements merit official recognition, that is all that matters. I have no way of knowing whether you have read any of his books, or if you have done, whether you enjoyed them. But it matters not a jot: the distinguished people whose appointed task it is to make such recommendations decided that Mr Rushdie is an appropriate recipient of an award.
“Article 19 of the United Nations universal declaration of human rights states: ‘Everyone has the right to freedom of opinion and expression; this right includes freedom to hold opinions without interference and to seek, receive and impart information and ideas through any media and regardless of frontiers.’ Nowhere does it say – nor indeed has it ever been suggested – that this right should apply only if there is no risk of causing offence.
“Members of the jury, my learned friend talked of an unnecessary provocation. But we have long recognised in this country that writers do have the right to provoke, as well as to offend, so long as they remain within the law. What kind of society would this be if we were to say no artist may be honoured if he or she has ever offended or provoked anyone? If that were to be the criterion, I suggest, there would indeed be few artists honoured.
“I urge you, therefore, to find in favour of my clients and uphold our cherished values of freedom and tolerance.”
And then I woke up. So you be the jury, you decide. Let me have your verdict.