WASHINGTON — Later in this column, I’m going to defend Britain’s decision to award a knighthood to author Salman Rushdie, despite a sharp official complaint from the Pakistani government and bitter protests elsewhere in the Muslim world. But first, a story and some shameless name-dropping.

One day in 1993, when I was The Washington Post’s bureau chief in London, I got a phone call from a journalism acquaintance I barely knew, inviting me and my wife to dinner. I accepted, then almost immediately started thinking of reasons to back out — I had other things to do, I needed a break from socializing, who was this guy anyway. A few days later, I called back with some lame excuse.

“No, you don’t understand, you have to come,” he said.

I persisted.

“No, you want to come. Trust me.” Before I could say anything in response, he went on: “Listen, I’m not supposed to tell you this, but Salman Rushdie is going to be there.”

That changed everything. At the time, Rushdie was in deepest hiding, under threat of assassination. His novel “The Satanic Verses,” published five years earlier, had been deemed unforgivably blasphemous to Islam; Iran’s supreme leader, the Ayatollah Khomeini, had issued a fatwa sentencing Rushdie to death. I was being offered the chance to meet a man who stayed in the shadows.

It turned out that the host lived just a couple of blocks from our house in Hampstead, a high-toned and expensive neighborhood. (We used to see Trudie Styler, better known as Mrs. Sting, at the neighborhood grocery store.) This was back when newspapers were flush and no one paid close attention to the details of foreign correspondents’ expense accounts. Now you’d need a receipt for an order of fish and chips.

Anyway, on the appointed evening we strolled over and rang the bell. Two beefy men in ill-fitting suits lounged attentively in the living room. We were led through the house to a patio, where, at a table set for an alfresco supper, we found a London newspaper columnist of my acquaintance and his wife; our host (who did something for the BBC) and hostess (also BBC, I think); a wan and ethereal woman who was introduced as a poet and intellectual; and, in a merry mood, the most wanted man in the world.

Salman Rushdie was clever and charming. He showed patience and uncommon good humor as we grilled him on his nomadic existence, which basically entailed moving from borrowed house to borrowed flat to borrowed cottage, always with a security detail in tow, never staying anywhere too long. Every journey of any length required cloak-and-dagger intrigue of the kind you might find in, say, a John le Carre novel.

We hit on only two sore subjects. One was that despite expressions of solidarity from governments and other institutions throughout the West, there was only one airline that would allow Rushdie to fly on its planes. (He wouldn’t tell us, even off the record, the airline’s name.) The other source of bitterness was that while most British writers had been clear in supporting his right to free speech, a few, he believed, had temporized.

He considered the prime offender to be none other than le Carre, whose real name is David Cornwell and who also happened to be a neighbor of ours — his city house, as opposed to the country house where he spent most of his time, was just across the way, and we had met him socially. So there we were, torn between literary lions.

Le Carre’s position, as he later explained in a published letter, was that “like any decent person” he of course deplored Rushdie’s persecution, but that he also believed “there is no law in life or nature that says great religions may be insulted with impunity.”

Leaving aside a pre-existing feud between the two authors (over a book review), le Carre makes a reasonable point about gratuitous insult. It’s basically the same point I made about those Danish cartoons that ridiculed the prophet Muhammad in a stunt whose only purpose was provocation.

The bard of espionage was wrong about Rushdie, though. “The Satanic Verses” is a true work of literature, meant to illuminate, not defile. I don’t happen to think it is Rushdie’s best novel. “Midnight’s Children,” written in Rushdie’s youth, is a flat-out masterpiece. Even had he never set down another word, the queen would have been right to say: Arise, Sir Salman.

Eugene Robinson’s e-mail address is eugenerobinson(at symbol)washpost.com.

© 2007, Washington Post Writers Group

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