Pakistan and Iran have reacted angrily to the awarding of a knighthood to the controversial British-Indian writer Salman Rushdie, for his services to literature. The writer, whose novel "The Satanic Verses" earned him a fatwa, turned 60 on Tuesday.
Salman Rushdie poses with his 2005 novel "Shalimar the Clown"
Salman Rushdie was born in Mumbai, India and educated in Britain at Rugby School and Cambridge University. After a brief stint as an actor, he started making his living as an advertising copywriter, whilst trying his hand at fiction. In 1981, he met critical acclaim with his second novel "Midnight’s Children", which was awarded the prestigious Booker Prize.
Rushdie published two more books before embarking on the one that would change his life and make him a household name. "Satanic Verses" was published in 1988 and awarded the "Whitbread Book of the Year". The novel was lauded by the critics for its description of the life of a Muslim immigrant from the Indian subcontinent.
But one sequence, a re-narration of the life of Prophet Mohammed with altered portions of the Koran, was considered deeply offensive by many Muslims. Violent protests, where the book was burnt, began in Britain and quickly spread to the Middle East and Muslim countries in Asia -- several died.
The affair reached a climax when Iran's Ayatollah Khomeini issued a fatwa against the writer, saying the book committed blasphemy against Islam. One Iranian businessman offered a three million dollar reward to the person who would be responsible for the writer's death.
The literary world sprang to Rushdie’s defence and some 2,500 authors from almost 70 countries signed a declaration on his behalf. The western political world backed him too, with EU member states briefly withdrawing their ambassadors from Tehran.
There was no doubt that the threat was real when Rushdie's Japanese translator was murdered, and his Norwegian publisher was injured. The author spent the next decade under police protection, for the most part writing about his experiences.
Gradually, the Iranian government distanced itself from the fatwa, and in 2001 the Iranian President Mohammad Khatami declared at the United Nations that Tehran had no intention of carrying out the death sentence. Nonetheless, the fatwa still remains in force officially.
Shalimar the Clown
Rushdie’s next major literary success came in 2005 with the publication of "Shalimar the Clown". The book focuses on the situation in divided Kashmir and tells the story of Shalimar, a circus artist who becomes an Islamist terrorist after his wife runs off with an American diplomat. The book is critical of both Pakistan and India.
Rushdie condemns the conduct of the Indian army toward the civilian population in Kashmir and speaks of torture, unlawful detention and arbitrary killings. But he also lauds India as a functioning multicultural and multiethnic society.
"In my own lifetime, I remember a very different Islam. "Shalimar the Clown" is precisely about how the mild, almost mystical, Islam in the Valley of Kashmir, is under attack by other Muslims, by a radical violent Islam coming across the border from Pakistan."
"Plague of our time"
One of the central themes of all of Rushdie's work is religion. "I think it's the plague of our time," he told CNN last year.
"The subject of religion seems to have been bound up strongly in certain places with the question of identity which, in a way, is a contradiction in terms because if religion is something you inherit from the group that you come from, then it just becomes a social thing and stops being an act of belief."
"It becomes an act of convention, which has to do with living in a particular part of the world and with its history. It's very difficult to break out of history."
Rushdie has said that literature should seek to bring about the "peaceful co-existence of cultures". However, as the protests against his knighthood show, this goal appears to be beyond his reach.