a marketplace of outrage

new statesman, 12 march 2009

On 14 January 1989, a thousand Muslim protestors marched through the centre of Bradford, parading a copy of Salman Rushdie’s The Satanic Verses tied to a stake. Stopping in front of a police station, they set the book alight. It was an act calculated to shock and offend. It did more than that. That burning book became an icon of the rage of Islam.

Conflicts between minority communities and the state were, of course, nothing new. From the Notting Hill riots of the 1950s, to the Grunwick dispute in 1977 to the inner city disturbances of the 1980s, blacks and Asians had often been involved in bitter clashes with British authorities. But these were in the main political conflicts, or issues of law and order.

The Rushdie affair was different. Muslim fury seemed to be driven not by questions of harassment or discrimination or poverty, but by a sense of hurt that Salman Rushdie’s words had offended their deepest beliefs. Where did such hurt come from, and why was it being expressed now? Could Muslim anguish be assuaged, and should it be? How did the anger on the streets of Bradford relate to traditional political questions about rights, duties and entitlements? Britain had never asked itself such questions before. Twenty years on, it is still groping for answers.

When The Satanic Verses was published in September 1988, it had been expected to set the world alight, though not quite in the way that it did. Salman Rushdie was then perhaps the most celebrated British novelist of his generation. His reputation had been established by Midnight’s Children, his sprawling, humorous mock-epic of post-independence India, which won the Booker Prize in 1981, and went on to win the Booker of Bookers, as the greatest of all Booker Prize winners.

The Satanic Verses was, Rushdie said in an interview before publication, a novel about ‘migration, metamorphosis, divided selves, love, death’. It was also a satire on Islam, ‘a serious attempt’, as he put it, ‘to write about religion and revelation from the point of view of a secular person’. For some that was unacceptable, turning the novel, in the words of the British Muslim philosopher Shabbir Akhtar, into a piece of ‘hate literature’.

Yet, given the importance that the book burning has since acquired as a symbol of Muslim fury and hurt, what is striking is the indifference of most Muslims to The Satanic Verses when it was first published. Until the Ayatollah Khomeini's infamous fatwa against Rushdie - issued exactly a month after the Bradford book burning - the campaign against The Satanic Verses had been relatively low-key  and largely confined to the Indian subcontinent and Britain. It was in India that The Satanic Verses first became an issue, thanks to a campaign organized by the Jamaat-e-Islami, a hardline Islamist group against which Rushdie had taken aim in his previous novel Shame. With an election due in November, no politician wanted to alienate any section of India’s 150-million strong Muslim community, and the novel was quickly banned. The controversy then spilled over into Britain, where the Jamaati had a number of well-funded front organizations but little popular support. As in India, it tried to turn the novel into a weapon to put rival Islamist factions on the defensive and to gain political leverage.

The Jamaati campaign was bankrolled by Saudi Arabia as part of its attempt to promote Salafi organizations and assert its role as the leader of the Muslim ummah. But aside from the Saudi involvement, there was little enthusiasm for a campaign against novel in the Arab world. Nor was there in Turkey, or in Muslim communities in France or Germany. When Saudi Arabia tried, at the end of 1988, to get the novel banned in Muslim countries worldwide, few responded except those with large subcontinental populations, such as South Africa and Malaysia. Even in Iran, the book was openly available and was reviewed in many newspapers.

Ayatollah Khomeini’s fatwa was issued for political, not religious, reasons.  Ever since the Revolution of 1979, which had turned Tehran into capital of radical Islam, there had been a struggle between Iran and Saudi Arabia for the hearts and minds of Muslims worldwide. The fatwa was an attempt to wrestle the initiative back from the Saudis as well as to put political reformers at home on the defensive.

In Britain, too, the bookburnings notwithstanding, opposition to The Satanic Verses was initially muted. The anti-Rushdie campaign became symbolic, however, of wider changes taking place in this country. Both Britain and its Asian communities were very different in the 1980s. Racism was entrenched to a degree almost unimaginable now and was vicious, visceral and often fatal. Stabbings were common, firebombings almost weekly events.

In response militant anti-racist movements had developed within Asian communities. Today 'radical' in the Islamic context means religious fundamentalist. Twenty years ago it meant the opposite – militantly secular. Organisations such as the Asian Youth Movement had considerable support, challenging both racism and the power of the mosques.

Many of these young, secular, left-wing activists ended up, however, in the anti-Rushdie campaign. Why? Largely because of disenchantment with the secular left, on the one hand, and the institutionalisation of multicultural policies, on the other. The disintegration of the left in the 1980s, and the abandonment by radicals of the politics of ideology for the politics of identity, pushed many young Asians towards Islamism as an alternative worldview. This process was fuelled by the growth of multiculturalism as a political policy.

It was in the 1980s that what we now call ‘multicultural policies’ were rolled out, largely in response to secular militancy on the streets. Every section of the ‘multiracial, multicultural city’, one Bradford council document in 1982 declared, had ‘an equal right to maintain its own identity, culture, language, religion and customs.’   Such multicultural policies helped encourage a more fragmented sense of identity. At the same time, policy makers often turned to religious leaders to act as conservative bulwarks to secular militancy. The Bradford Council of Mosques, for instance, which organised the book-burning, had been set up by Bradford Council to act as a voice for Bradford Muslim communities. The new-found relationship between the local council and the mosques gave greater credibility to the conservative religious leadership within those communities, and marginalised the more secular movements. Secular Muslims came to be seen as betraying their culture, while radical Islam became not just more acceptable but, to many, more authentic.

In the two decades since the bookburnings, policy makers have come increasingly to accept radical Islamists as the true voice of British Islam. The United Kingdom Action Committee on Islamic Affairs (UKACIA), the principal anti-Rushdie campaign, comprised largely of organizations linked to the Jamaati-e-Islami. These groups came to form the core of the Muslim Council of Britain, which was set up in 1977 and quickly became accepted by policy makers and journalists as the voice of British Islam. The first chair of the MCB was Iqbal Sacranie – who was also co-chair of the UKACIA. ‘The overwhelming number of organizations that the government talks to’, the sociologist Chetan Bhatt, an expert on religious extremism, points out ‘are influenced by, dominated by or front organizations of the Jamaat-e-Islami and the Muslim Brotherhood. Their agenda is strictly based on the politics of the Islamic radical right, it doesn’t represent the politics or aspirations of the majority of Muslims in this country.’

Indeed it doesn’t. Polls have consistently found that only around 5 per cent think that the MCB represented them. But the official support given to such organizations in the post-Rushdie era has distorted both perceptions of Muslims communities in this country and, to a certain degree, Muslim self-perceptions too.

If the Rushdie affair was a turning point for Muslim communities, it was equally a watershed for liberals. Two kinds of liberal response to the bookburning have came to shape much of the subsequent debate about Islam and the West.  One was to view Muslim fury as part of a ‘clash of civilizations’. The other was to accept that as a plural society, Britain would have to make concessions to Muslims and dilute traditional liberal notions of freedom and liberty accordingly.

Shocked by the sight of British Muslims threatening a British author and publicly burning his book, many people started asking a question that in 1989 was startlingly new: are Islamic values compatible with those of a modern, Western, liberal democracy? 'All over again,’ the novelist Martin Amis would later write, ‘the West confronts an irrationalist, agonistic, theocratic/ideocratic system which is essentially and unappeasably opposed to its existence.’ Amis wrote that while still in shock over 9/11. The germ of the sentiment was planted much earlier, in the Rushdie affair.

The Bible, the novelist, feminist and secularist Fay Weldon wrote in her 1989 pamphlet Sacred Cows, provides ‘food for thought’ out of which ‘You can build a decent society’. The Qur’an offers ‘food for no thought. It is not a poem on which a society can be safely or sensibly based.’ Over the past 20 years, the idea that the West is engaged in a mortal combat with Islam, has become a means of eroding rights, denying liberties and of justifying everything from torture to regime change.

Other liberals responded to the bookburnings by insisting that in a plural society, minorities possessed the right not to be offended and that, in the name of religious and cultural tolerance, there needed to be greater regulation of what may be said. ‘Self-censorship’, Shabbir Akhtar suggested at the height of the Rushdie affair, ‘is a meaningful demand in a world of varied and passionately held convictions. What Rushdie publishes about Islam is not just his business. It is everyone’s – not least every Muslim’s – business.’ Increasingly Western liberals have come to agree. The avoidance of cultural pain has come to be regarded as more important than what is often seen as an abstract right to freedom of expression.

The consequence has been to create not a more sensitive society but a more fractious one. The liberal fear of giving offence has simply made it easier to take offence, creating what the novelist Monica Ali calls ‘a marketplace of outrage’ in which everyone wants to say wants to say, ‘My feelings are more hurt than yours’. The only winner in all this is the state, that gets to regulate more tightly what anyone is able to say to anyone else.

‘For are they not conjoined opposites, these two, each man the other’s shadow?’ asked Salman Rushdie in The Satanic Verses about his two anti-heroes, Saladin Chamcha and Gibreel Farishta. One might ask the same question of the multiculturalist argument and the clash of civilization thesis. For they too are conjoined opposites, each the other’s shadow, each betraying fundamental liberal principles. The legacy of the bookburnings, and of the liberal response to them, has been to undermine progressive strands within Muslim communities, and to erode basic liberal values. Twenty years on from the Rushdie affair it is time to challenge both the Saladin Chamchas and  the Gibreel Farishtas of contemporary liberalism.