(photo credit: AP [file])
British Muslims angrily denounced the decision to honor author Salman Rushdie with a knighthood Friday, noisily renewing calls for his death and setting fire to a poster depicting an English flag.
A hard-line Iranian cleric, also speaking Friday, said the 1989 religious edict calling for Rushdie's killing remains in place and cannot be revoked, and warned that Britain was defying the Islamic world by granting the honor.
About 20 speakers, some masking their faces with headscarves, addressed worshippers leaving prayers outside the capital's Regent's Park mosque. Sheltering from rain under a canopy of trees, they demanded the edict, or fatwa, be expedited.
Several chanted "Death to Rushdie, death to the Queen." They wielded placards, one reading: "Salman Rushdie should be punished, not praised." A St. George's Cross, painted on the back of a placard, was set alight.
A crowd of about 100 people listened to speeches, but dozens more leaving the mosque passed without stopping.
"This knighthood is just another example of (Prime Minister) Tony Blair and his government's attempts to secularize Muslims and reward apostates," said Anjem Choudray, protest organizer and an ex-head of the British wing of the banned radical group al-Muhajiroun.
"Rushdie is a hate figure across the Muslim world," Choudray said. "This honor will have ramifications here and across the world."
The awards were presented among Queen Elizabeth II's Birthday Honors list last week and are decided on by independent committees, who vet nominations from the public and government.
Blair and the Queen have only a ceremonial role in approving them.
Choudray said protests across Pakistan, Iran and Malaysia proved the row would likely match anger that erupted over the Danish cartoons, when an estimated 10,000 demonstrators marched on London.
Iran's late spiritual leader, Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini, issued the fatwa against Rushdie in 1989, ordering Muslims to kill him because his novel The Satanic Verses was deemed to insult Islam. The author, who was raised Muslim, denied the accusation, but was forced to live in hiding for almost a decade.
Some analysts have expressed surprise Rushdie's knighthood award was approved, wondering whether members of the committee considered those events or likely new repercussions.
"There is an impression they really didn't consider the potential reaction," said Rosemary Hollis, director of research at London's Chatham House think tank. "The Foreign Office has some input and surely pointed out that this would be received badly in some quarters."
The committee may have fallen victim to "a sense that showing too much sensitivity is to kowtow to radicals and that there is a national interest to stand up to Islamic critics of the UK," she said.
Committee member Andreas Whittam Smith, ex-editor of Britain's Independent newspaper, said the panel decided only if Rushdie's work merited an honor.
Rushdie may have stirred further dissent in some communities by backing Blair last year when he claimed face-covering veils worn by some Muslim women are a "mark of separation."
Abu Saanihah, among the speakers at the London rally, ridiculed reports that Blair would be offered a Middle East peace role. "If he goes to the Middle East as an envoy," Saanihah said, "he'll come back in a box."
Business student Abdullah Azzam, watching the protest, said most British Muslims opposed Rushdie's honor. "The majority think it's wrong and believe that his book offends Islam," said Azzam, 23. "But a lot of people don't want to say that in public."