THE Satanic Verses are still with us. Six years after the late Ayatollah Khomeini pronounced his fatwa against their author, the matter of Salman Rushdie and his book continues to inflame the world like the biting of an irrepressible flea. Statesmen, preachers, journalists scratch themselves and swear; this is yesterday's story which should have been long forgotten. But the flea survives, and just when you are beginning to think it may have gone away, it bites again.
This property of irritation is interesting. Very few people indeed, out of all the thousands who have involved themselves in the matter of Salman Rushdie, have come out of it looking or feeling better. One of the few, I have to say, is Lady Thatcher, who must have detested everything about Rushdie - his origins, his politics, his views on the importance of writers, no doubt his books if she ever opened one - but none the less awarded him the full police protection at public expense on which he still depends. British citizens were not to be assassinated by foreign zealots, even if they were non-white, left-wing, intellectual British citizens.
There is no Rushdie question, because the answer came first. It has always been absolutely wrong to kill writers for what they write. The problem today is that countless people have plans, many well-meaning, which are obstructed by the absolute priority of that answer.
Some want to get on better with Islam and to build bridges, but are frustrated by the Rushdie fatwa lying across their path like a reeking cowpat. Others, less idealistic, are maddened by the notion that a mere bloody novelist can block up the flow of serious business. In between, there is a large number of people who feel a persistent itch of guilt about Rushdie's plight but who are irritated by that feeling. They can be heard muttering that 15 minutes' air-time is enough for any individual's problems, or blaming Salman Rushdie himself for everything that has befallen him.
Now the Germans have plodded up to the cowpat and put their foot in it, up to the hock. This October, in the Paulskirche at Frankfurt, the "Peace Prize of the German Book Trade" is to be awarded to the orientalist Annemarie Schimmel. The President of Germany, Roman Herzog, has agreed to deliver the prize-giving speech in praise of the winner. The prize carries enormous prestige.
As soon as the winner was announced, however, there were protests. True, Schimmel is a great scholar of Islam, renowned as a writer and translator who has tried to bring the intellectual wealth of the Moslem world into German consciousness. On his recent visit to Pakistan, President Herzog took her with him as adviser and cultural interpreter. She was, the President said, "one of the few Western scholars who is able and ready to think herself totally into the mental world of this different culture."
She certainly is. Schimmel thinks that the Iranian death sentence against Salman Rushdie was understandable. And she has said so.
So how could it possibly come about that a jury of the book trade - of all trades - should award a "peace prize" - of all prizes - to someone who finds it understandable that a writer should be condemned to death for his book? It seems almost more likely that a jury of potato farmers would bestow their gold medal on a Colorado beetle.
There was no malice in it. The choice, like President Herzog's decision to give the prize away, was made by worthies with dimly good intentions, a vague devotion to culture and no imagination. Their idea was not to be controversial or even openly critical. It was - oh dear! - to contribute to mutual understanding between different cultures.
To be accurate, there was a concealed criticism in the choice of Annemarie Schimmel. But it was not directed at Salman Rushdie. Its unstated target was the American political scientist Professor Samuel Huntington, and his thesis about "The Clash of Civilisations".
Huntington wrote an article in Foreign Affairs a couple of years back in which he argued that an irreconcilable gulf of ideas separated Islam from the cultures of the Judaeo-Christian-liberal West, led by the United States. On the one hand was reason; on the other, intolerance and fanaticism. The new arch-enemy which had appeared to replace the fallen demon of Communism, he announced, was fundamentalist Islam.
Many professors lust for their own 15 minutes of fame. Huntington for years enjoyed the reputation of a clever Harvard maverick with leftish ideas about the Cold War. When it ended, Francis Fukuyama sprang forward and seized attention by proclaiming that the fall of Communism signified "The End of History". Huntington soon followed. "The Clash of Civilisations" was even sexier. Diluted versions of it have leaked into the groundwater of journalism all over the world.
Both theses, Fukuyama's and Huntington's, amounted to little more than sensational journalism in long words. The notion that Islam carries a built-in drive towards political extremism is historically absurd; trying to understand religious fundamentalism as a particular expression of nationalism is far more fruitful. There is no sign that the White House, tilted towards Bosnia, pays any attention to "Clash" theory. But the Germans are genuinely alarmed by it. There is a powerful and very old tradition of good relations between Germany and the Muslim world - Turkey in particular, but extending eastwards to Iran - which is about both trade and foreign policy. The idea that Islam is the West's mortal foe, to be challenged rather than appeased, appals the entire German political establishment.
President Herzog said last week that all cultures in the world were riven by differences between fundamentalists and moderates; the game was to prevent the extremists from winning. He refused to accept "Clash" theory, which might seem plausible from the safe distance of America but "in Europe I will leave nothing untried in my efforts to reach a peaceful and lasting coexistence between different cultures". This was why he agreed to give the Peace Prize to Schimmel. But then, in the midst of these fine ambitions, the flea bit.
The President now says, a trifle lamely, that some of Schimmel's more painful remarks about Rushdie and the fatwa came after he had agreed to make the prize-giving speech. But he may be too late to head off a whirlwind of angry reproaches. Typical is a remark by one critic in the weekly Die Zeit: "The Peace Prize of the German Book Trade should not be given to people who, even if they did not justify violations of human rights, silently accepted them and amiably shook hands with the hangmen."
That is right over the top. Schimmel is an honest person and her work for mutual understanding is a solid achievement. She has never (except, allegedly, in a private conversation) said that she approved of the fatwa. Instead, she has argued that the West fails to appreciate the agony of pious Muslims who read the Satanic Verses, and that talk of "free speech" in this case is irrelevant. This suggests that she is a victim of tunnel vision about liberty, but not that she is an accomplice to execution.
Three things are already clear. One is that President Herzog should have had the sense to evade this function. The second is that it's not so much the wrong prizewinner as the wrong prize. Peace? Booksellers? That will take some living down.
The third point is the hopping, invincible persistence of the flea. Salman Rushdie remains condemned. Among us and yet hidden, he still lives out his grotesque sentence of clandestinity, a secret sharer in the lives of all writers and readers. While this scandal endures, no honest conscience can find rest.
Join our new commenting forum
Join thought-provoking conversations, follow other Independent readers and see their replies