My book From Fatwa to Jihad was first published in 2009, on the twentieth anniversary of the Ayatollah Khomeini’s fatwa against Salman Rushdie. Eight years on, I have just published an updated version with a new Afterword. Why?
In 1989 the fatwa against Salman Rushdie had come as a great shock, both in Britain and globally, and its consequences reverberated through both domestic and international politics in the two decades that followed. Much was written about it. Yet, there had been little serious attempt to place the Rushdie affair in a broader political and social context, to understand both the developments that enabled it, and the developments that it shaped.
For me, the Rushdie affair was not just a political story; it was a personal one too. I had grown up in a Britain very different to that of today: a nation in which racism was woven into the social fabric in a manner unimaginable now, a racism that was vicious and visceral and inescapable; a time when cultural and religious identities were relatively fluid and were not, as they often are today, like manacles upon individuals, and when minority communities did not seek to define themselves through their ‘differences’; a society in which ideas of the left still had purchase; a left that still believed in equality, free speech and universal values. The Rushdie affair gave notice that many of these defining features of the society in which I grew up were changing. It made me rethink my relationship to Britain, to politics, to religion. And it was out of the rethinking that From Fatwa to Jihad eventually emerged.
The book wove together the personal, the political and the polemic. It was partly a memoir, that told of the experience of growing up in a very different Britain; it was partly a social history, the story of postwar Britain from a distinct perspective – that of migrants and minority communities; and partly it was a series of polemical arguments, particularly on the importance of free speech and the problems of multicultural politics.
Much of the discussion in From Fatwa to Jihad remains pertinent – perhaps even more so than in 2009. But much has also changed. Three issues in particular look very different now than they did eight years ago.
The first is the transformation of the landscape of European jihadism. The emergence of Islamic State, and the willingness of more than 4000 Europeans to fight with it, has recast both the political geography of the Middle East and North Africa, and the character of jihadism in Europe. In 2009, the question of ‘radicalization’ was still relatively new. Academics and security experts certainly discussed it, but there were then only a handful of homegrown jihadis. Today, of course, radicalization is at the very heart of the debate. The concept has caught the imagination of politicians and policy makers and become central to counter-terror policy. But many of the assumptions about radicalization – that people become terrorists because they acquire certain, religiously-informed extremist ideas; that these ideas are acquired in a different way to the way people acquire other extremist or oppositional ideas, such as, say, Marxism or anarchism; that there is a ‘conveyor belt’ that leads from grievance to radical belief to terrorism – are unfounded. Studies show that few jihadists start off as religious fanatics or as political militants. There is little evidence that they acquire their ideas differently. Nor is there any evidence of a ‘conveyor belt’ to terror.
The trouble with the radicalization thesis is that it looks at the issue the wrong way round. It begins with jihadists as they are at the end of their journey – enraged about the West, with a black and white view of Islam, and a distorted moral vision – and assumes that these are the reasons that they have come to be as they are. That is rarely the case. Radical Islam, and a hatred of West, is not necessarily what draws individuals into jihadism. It is what comes to define and justify that jihadism. So, a central task in updating my book was to rethink the idea of radicalization and of the reasons for which jihadis become jihadis.
The second issue that I felt I needed to look at again was that of social policy. From Fatwa to Jihad explores the question of multiculturalism in Britain. Today, the focus of discussion of the relationship between social policy and homegrown jihadism is today as much upon French assimilationism as it is on British multiculturalism.
In the past, French commentators often suggested that France had steered clear of many of the troubles faced by Britain, including the issue of homegrown jihadism, because it had repudiated multiculturalism in favour of an assimilationist approach. Now, homegrown jihadism poses a greater threat to France than to Britain. So the question is why such terrorism has been nurtured in assimilationist France, too.
In principle, the French authorities rejected the multiculturalist approach that Britain had adopted. In practice, however, they treated North African migrants and their descendents, in a very ‘multicultural’ way – as a single community, and primarily as a ‘Muslim’ community. Islam became symbolic of the anxieties about values and identity that now beset France. From very different starting points, British multiculturalism and French assimilationism, ironically, ended up in much the same place.
The third key issue that I felt needed addressing is that of free speech. The Rushdie affair was a watershed in the social understanding of free speech, helping entrench the idea that we should not offend other cultures. One of the key themes of the original book was how, in the wake of the Rushdie affair, Western liberals came to internalize the fatwa, to adopt a moral commitment to censorship; the belief that because we live in plural society, so we must police public discourse about different cultures and beliefs, and constrain speech so as not to give offence.
Today the Rushdie affair is no longer the touchstone for debates about free speech, Islam and offence. The attack in January 2015 on the Paris offices of the satirical magazine Charlie Hebdo, which left eleven dead, was as shocking as the fatwa, and became the new focus for that debate. The discussion that followed the slaughter, and the attacks on Charlie Hebdo from even supporters of free speech for its ‘racism’ in ridiculing Islam, revealed how deeply internalized has become the fatwa.
In retelling the story of the Charlie Hebdo killings, and of its aftermath, I show how the actual cartoons were, paradoxically, irrelevant to the campaign against the magazine. It is, rather, what Charlie Hebdo symbolizes as an institution that infuriated its critics. Its real crime was not racism but its challenge to what has become an unbreakable commandment for many contemporary liberals: ‘Thou shalt not cause offence’.
My hope is that this new edition of From Fatwa to Jihad continues to shape the way we think about issues such as Islamism, multiculturalism, assimilationism and free speech. Most of all, I hope it encourages others to engage with, criticize and develop the arguments about these issues. As Salman Rushdie himself put it in his 1990 essay ‘In Good Faith’, we can only understand ourselves and shape the future ‘by arguing and challenging and questioning and saying the unsayable’.
The image is a cartoon by Kap in response to the Charlie Hebdo killings.