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Rushdie has Damaged Rather Than Protected Free Speech

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His autobiography is out, so he is everywhere. In discussion with Andrew Marr, the subject of Imagine on BBC1, on the World Service and on BBC news online. "Loathing is a bit too affectionate" to describe how he feels about Pakistan, the BBC irresponsibly reported (Sir Salman Rushdie: 'Pakistan is on the road to tyranny', 18 September).

Rushdie told the World Service that "the most frightening change" that he saw in Pakistan was that the mass of the people seemed to have given up on the "very moderate" religious beliefs that they used to hold.

The reality with which Rushdie failed to qualify this is that Pakistan has been largely in the military's grip and on (Sunni) Saudi Arabia's pay roll for the last 35 years - and Pakistan's people, the majority of whom are very poor, have had no say in that. But this perhaps is too real for Rushdie, so he is happy to limit himself to soundbites that will raise the temperature and extend stereotypes.

Despite Alan Yentob's sympathetic and credible portrait of him on BBC's Imagine, Rushdie is not a pussycat, although he may have a gift for friendship and be a good dinner guest. After Cambridge he could have turned his intellect in any number of directions including reflecting the reality of British prejudice and history back at us. Instead he chose to shred his own, the subcontinental culture from which he came and then the religion into which he was born, despite the fact that this is a wider religion, a more composite religion, than one might think: his sister Sameen on Yentob's programme spoke of honour being central to Muslims in the subcontinent, but honour runs across north Indian history, Sikh and Hindu.

The history degree at Cambridge would have told him that fundamental religiosity is always a mask for political and geo-strategic power. In the sixteenth century the Spanish Inquisition was the theological weapon of a secret police state funded by the monarchy to impose orthodoxy, terrorise minorities, collect information, seize property, enforce blasphemy laws, ban books and force conversions. At stake was the prestige and survival of the monarchy of Catholic Spain. Today this story is being repeated and repeated over the Middle East, with the added complication of Shia and Sunni states battling for supremacy. Why didn't Rushdie stop counting the number of angels who could sit on the head of a pin and go to on this in 1989? When he finally got around to it with Shalimar the Clown in 2005 it was too late.

Free-speech is about telling the truth. You stand up for it by telling the truth, not by peddling conceited and erroneous fictions.

He is also personally not known for his humility. Marianne Wiggins, his second wife, in an interview with the Sunday Times in March 1991 spoke of his self-obsession. "While others campaigned in his name for freedom of expression, he was concerned solely with his career." "He's never aligned himself with writers being executed around the world. He's put all the focus on himself."

His autobiograpy ('Joseph Anton' is taken from Conrad and Chekhov's first names, but also close to Joseph Andrews, Henry Fielding's 1742 novel: Rushdie drew on Fielding's groundbreaker of an English novel Tom Jones for style in Midnight's Children) has just been serialised on Radio 4, infact cleverly so, and to show that Rushdie is someone who has constantly courted other people's irritation with him. It must have been very shocking to have a fatwa put on him, but on 14 February 1989 he still made it to see his agent and to Bruce Chatwin's memorial service where Paul Theroux, in a rare moment of humour, said that they all expected to be back quite soon.

Rushdie went into whirling panic as the day wore on. The narrative continued that he got a call from his wife that he couldn't come back to the house because - if you were listening to this you sat forward - "there were" - what? - "there were two hundred" - two hundred what? furious fundamentalists? fatwa-wielding book burners? - "there were two hundred journalists" outside the house. Journalists? Terrifying. Completely terrifying. Impossible, I'm sorry to say, not to laugh. He didn't go home for five years.

Who can take any more of this man? Freedom of speech is hugely important but sometimes things aren't wise because they merely add heat to prejudice at a sensitive time. He probably shouldn't be across the BBC and acting as a commentator on international relations because what he does say is damaging and banal. He has a track-record of advancing debate in the Islamic world precisely nowhere. He probably should have apologised for offence caused in 1989 because goddamit, he's just a novel writer; they do not matter very much.

In bookish circles it was said that Rushdie on the freedom of speech issue was really freedom of Rushdie to say whatever he liked without acknowledging consequence. He isn't a humanitarian, he is an attention seeker, he is irresponsible. Taken at all manner of levels he may not be a very important writer. Heresy, non?