A group of hardline Pakistani Muslim clerics said on Thursday they had bestowed a religious title on Osama bin Laden in response to a British knighthood for author Salman Rushdie.
The Pakistan Ulema Council gave bin Laden the title Saifullah, or sword of Allah, in response to the knighthood awarded to Rushdie last week for services to literature.
Rushdie's novel, The Satanic Verses published in 1988, outraged many Muslims around the world. Muslims say it blasphemed against the Prophet Mohammad and ridiculed the Koran.
"If a blasphemer can be given the title 'Sir' by the West despite the fact he's hurt the feelings of Muslims, then a mujahid who has been fighting for Islam against the Russians, Americans and British must be given the lofty title of Islam, Saifullah," the council's chairman, Tahir Ashrafi, told Reuters.
Bin Laden was one of many Arabs who helped Afghan mujahideen battle Soviet invaders in Afghanistan in the 1980s.
Pakistan and Iran have protested against the knighthood awarded by Britain's Queen Elizabeth and small demonstrations have been held in various parts of Pakistan and in Malaysia.
On Monday, Pakistan's parliament adopted a resolution condemning the knighthood and said Britain should withdraw it.
Religious Affairs Minister Mohammad Ejaz-ul-Haq, son of the late military president Mohammad Zia-ul-Haq, told the assembly that if someone committed a suicide bombing to protect the honour of the Prophet Mohammad, his act was justified.
He later said he did not mean such attacks would be justified but was merely saying militants could use the knighthood as a justification.
IMAGE OF ISLAM
However, former prime minister Benazir Bhutto said Haq should be dismissed, saying in a statement that Haq "had done a great disservice both to the image of Islam and the standing of Pakistan by calling for the murder of foreign citizens."
The speaker of the National Assembly has expunged Haq's comments from the record, citing the national interest.
Britain has defended the knighthood, stressing the importance of free speech and saying that it was part of a trend of honouring Muslims in the British community.
Rushdie was born to Muslim parents in India, prompting Muslims to accuse him of apostasy after "The Satanic Verses" was published.
The late Iranian supreme leader, Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini, issued a fatwa religious edict against Rushdie in 1989 calling for his death and forcing him into hiding for nine years.
In 1998 Iran's government formally distanced itself from the fatwa issued by Khomeini, but hardline groups in Iran regularly renew the call for his killing, saying Khomeini's fatwa is irrevocable.
On Thursday, the speaker of the Punjab provincial assembly said blasphemers should be killed while Chaudhry Shujaat Hussain, president of Pakistan's ruling party, said British Prime Minister Tony Blair was "personally and mentally against Islam".
Afghanistan's Taliban militant group also urged a strong Islamic response to the knighthood.
"We hope that Muslims and Islamic societies show a strong and serious response ... and to force the British government to apologise to Muslims and retract this title," the group said in a statement posted on the Internet on Thursday.
(Additional reporting by Kamran Haider and Inal Ersan in Dubai)