This is a talk I gave to the Integrity 20 conference in Brisbane, on 19 October 2017.
On 14 February 1989, Valentine’s Day, the Ayotollah Khomeini issued his infamous fatwa against Salman Rushdie. It was a brutally shocking act that forced Salman Rushdie into hiding for almost a decade.
26 years later, on 7 January 2015, came an even more viscerally shocking act, when two gunmen forced their way into the Paris offices of the satirical magazine Charlie Hebdo, sprayed the room with machine gun fire, killing 12, and injuring another 11.
What I want to look at today is what each of these events represented, and how we made the journey from the one to the other.
When The Satanic Verses was published in September 1988, Salman Rushdie was perhaps the most celebrated British novelist of his generation. The novel was not, it’s worth reminding ourselves, a novel solely, or even primarily about Islam. It was, Rushdie observed in an interview, about ‘migration, metamorphosis, divided selves, love, death’, as well as an attempt ‘to write about religion and revelation from the point of view of a secular person’.
It’s also worth reminding ourselves that until the fatwa most Muslims had ignored the book. The campaign against The Satanic Verses was largely confined to India, Pakistan and Britain. With the singular exception of Saudi Arabia, whose authorities bankrolled the initial efforts to ban the novel, there was little anti-Rushdie fervour in the Arab world or in Turkey, or among Muslim communities in France or Germany. When at the end of 1988 the Saudi government tried to persuade Muslim countries to ban the novel, few responded except those with large Indian subcontinental populations, such as South Africa and Malaysia. Even Iran was relaxed about Rushdie’s irreverence. It was available in Iranian bookshops and even reviewed in Iranian newspapers.
It was the fatwa that transformed the Rushdie affair into a global conflict with historic repercussions. It was through the Rushdie affair that many of the issues that now dominate political debate – multiculturalism, free speech, radical Islam, terrorism – first came to the surface. It was also through the Rushdie affair that our thinking about these issues began to change.
To understand these changes, and how they led to a world in which the Charlie Hebdo killings became possible, I want to look at four issues in the post-Rushdie world that are particularly pertinent to this discussion.
The first is the changing character of Islam and of Muslim identity. Until the late 1980s the idea of a Muslim community barely existed in the West, while Muslim identity meant something different to what it does today.
Take Britain. The first generation of Muslims in the 1950s and 60s, largely from South Asia, were religious, but wore their faith lightly. Many men drank alcohol. Few women wore a hijab, let alone a burqa or niqab. Most visited the mosque only occasionally. Their faith expressed for them a relationship with God, not a sacrosanct public identity.
The second generation of Britons with a Muslim background – my generation – was primarily secular. Religious organizations were barely visible. The organizations that bound together Asian communities (and we thought of ourselves as ‘Asian’ or ‘black’, not ‘Muslim’) were primarily secular, often political.
It is only with the generation that has come of age since the late 1980s that the question of cultural differences has come to be seen as important. It was only now that the idea of a distinctly Muslim community emerged, as did a specific Muslim identity. Much the same process can be sketched out in France, in Germany, in the Netherlands.
The reasons for this shift are complex. Partly they lie in a tangled set of social and political changes, including the collapse of the left and of radical social movements. Partly they lie in international developments, from the Iranian Revolution of 1979 to the Bosnian war of the early 1990s, that helped foster a heightened sense of Muslim identity. Partly they lie in the growing influence of Saudi Arabia on Islamic institutions in the West and its aggressive promotion of Wahhabism. Partly they lie in the rise of the politics of identity, an issue I shall address shortly.
In the quarter of a century since the fatwa, Muslims in the West have come to see themselves as belonging to a single Muslim community, as they never had previously. Many have become deeply conservative in their social attitudes at the very time society more broadly has become more liberal. And Islamism has taken hold in a way that it had not previously.
Linked to these changes is the second post-Rushdie change: the rise of what we now call identity politics. It’s an issue that causes great confusion and controversy.
Identities are of great significance. They give each of us a sense of ourselves, and of our grounding in the world. Politics, however, is a means, or should be a means, or taking us beyond the narrow sense of identity given to each of us by the specific circumstances of our lives and the particularities of personal experiences.
As a teenager, I was drawn to politics because of my experience of racism. Britain was a very different place then. Racism was vicious, visceral and often fatal. Stabbings were common, firebombings almost weekly events. I spent much of my youth organising street patrols in East London to protect Asian families from racist thugs.
But if it was racism that drew me to politics, it was politics that made me see beyond the narrow confines of racism. I came to learn that there was more to social justice than challenging the injustices done to me, and that a person’s skin colour, ethnicity or culture provides no guide to the validity of his or her political beliefs. Through politics, I was introduced to the ideas of the Enlightenment, and to the concepts of a common humanity and universal rights. Through politics, too, I discovered the writings of Marx and Mill, Baldwin and Arendt, James and Fanon. Most of all, I discovered that I could often find more solidarity and commonality with those whose ethnicity or culture was different to mine, but who shared my values, than with many with whom I shared a common ethnicity or culture but not the same political vision. Politics, in other words, did not reinforce my identity, but helped me reach beyond it.
By the end of the 1980s, much of this had changed. The anger, bitterness and bravado that defined my response to racism, and that of many of my peers, had not disappeared. But the political vehicles that gave it shape were beginning to.
The erosion of the power of labour movement organisations, the demise of radical social movements, the expansion of the market into social life, all of which gathered force in the 1980s, transformed politics. As the left disintegrated, and did the idea of a common struggle against racism. Indeed, the left itself came to abandon universalism for particularism, coming to see common struggles and universal values as themselves in some sense racist.
People started increasingly to see themselves in narrower, ethnic terms: African-Caribbean, Sikh, Muslim. Every group began to insist that it had its own specific culture, rooted in its own particular history and experiences. Many of my friends on the left from Muslim backgrounds joined the anti-Rushdie campaign, seeing it as a means of standing up for the dignity of Muslim communities.
This process has been entrenched by the growth of multiculturalism. Let me be clear what I mean here. Part of the problem in talking of multiculturalism is that we often confuse two notions: the lived experience of diversity, on the one hand; and, on the other, multiculturalism as a political process, the aim of which is to manage that diversity.
The experience of living in a society that is less insular, more vibrant and more cosmopolitan is obviously positive. It’s a case for open borders and open minds. As a political process, however, multiculturalism means something very different. It describes a set of policies, the aim of which is to manage diversity by putting people into ethnic and cultural boxes, defining individual needs and rights by virtue of the boxes into which people are put, and using those boxes to shape public policy. It is a case not for open minds but for the policing of borders, whether physical, cultural or imaginative.
This conflation of lived experience and political process has proved highly invidious. On the one hand, it has allowed many to stigmatize migrants and to portray minorities as a social problem. On the other hand, it has forced many traditional liberals and radicals to abandon classical notions of freedom and liberty in the name of defending diversity.
This brings me to the third change I want to address: that in our understanding of free speech. It is worth recalling how extraordinary, in contemporary terms, was the response to the fatwa. Not only was Rushdie forced into hiding, but bookshops were firebombed, translators and publishers murdered.
Yet the publishers Penguin, and its CEO Peter Mayer, never wavered in their commitment to The Satanic Verses. They recognized, Mayer recalled later, ‘that what we did now affected much more than simply the fate of this one book. How we responded to the controversy over The Satanic Verses would affect the future of free inquiry, without which there would be no publishing as we knew it, but also, by extension, no civil society as we knew it.’
It is an attitude that today seems to belong to a different age. Far from standing up to bombs and death threats, all it takes today to make publishers to think again is for one person to feel offended. And sometimes not even a threat is required. Simply the fear of giving offence is sufficient to enforce self-censorship.
In the post-Rushdie world, it has become accepted that it is morally wrong to give offence to other cultures and belief-systems. For plural societies to function and to be fair, many argue, we need to restrict what we say about, and to, ach other. As the British sociologist Tariq Modood has put it, ‘If people are to occupy the same political space without conflict, they mutually have to limit the extent to which they subject each others’ fundamental beliefs to criticism.’
The final change I want to discuss is that in the perception of Islam. In the wake of the Rushdie affair, many commentators, shocked by the sight of British Muslims threatening a British author and publicly burning his book, questioned whether a modern, Western, liberal democracy could safely accommodate Muslims. 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.’
The idea of the ‘clash of civilizations’ began to take hold. The phrase was coined by the historian Bernard Lewis and subsequently popularized by the American political scientist Samuel Huntington. The conflicts that had convulsed Europe over the past centuries, Huntington wrote, from the wars of religion between Protestants and Catholics to the Cold War, were all ‘conflicts within Western civilization’. The ‘battle lines of the future’, on the other hand, would be between civilizations. And the most deep-set of these would be between the Christian West and the Islamic East, which would be ‘far more fundamental’ than any war unleashed by ‘differences among political ideologies and political regimes’.
In the wake of 9/11, and then of the emergence of Islamic State, the very presence of Muslims has come to be seen by many as incompatible with Western values. The irony is that it is a worldview that mirrors that of the Islamists.
These shifts – in the meaning of Islam, of identity, of free speech, and of the relationship between Islam and the West – provide the background to the Charlie Hebdo killings.
Over the past quarter of century, Islamism has taken hold in a way it had not previously. But Islamism is not simply the creation of Muslim communities. Western Islamists are often as estranged from Muslim communities as they are from wider Western society. Most detest mainstream forms of Islam and cut themselves off from traditional community institutions. Disengaged from both Western societies and Muslim communities, some reach out to Islamism.
What Islamism provides is not religion in any old-fashioned sense, but identity, recognition and meaning. It is the product of identity politics as it is of religious faith. Disembedded from social norms, finding their identity within a small group, shaped by black and white ideas and values, driven by a sense that they are warriors in the clash of civilisations, taking part in some kind of existential struggle between Islam and the West, it becomes easier to commit acts of horror. Such as the Charlie Hebdo killings.
Attitudes to free speech have similarly become more illiberal. Shock and outrage at the brutal character of the slaughter led many in the immediate aftermath of the Charlie Hebdo killings to close ranks with the slain. ‘Je Suis Charlie’ became the phrase of the day, to be found in every newspaper and Twitter feed.
Yet, none of this could mask the fundamental shift that had taken place in attitudes to free speech. The discussion following the Charlie Hebdo killings showed how ideas and arguments that 25 years ago had dwelt largely in the margins now occupied the mainstream. Hardly had news begun filtering out about the Charlie Hebdo shootings, than there were those suggesting that the magazine was a ‘racist institution’ and that the cartoonists had brought it on themselves through their incessant attacks on Islam.
Perhaps the most disgraceful refusal of solidarity came, a few months after the attack, with the boycott a host of writers – including such Australian stalwarts as Peter Carey – of the annual gala of PEN America in protest against PEN’s decision to award Charlie Hebdo its annual Freedom of Expression Courage Award.
What much of the discussion after the Charlie Hebdo killings showed was how Salman Rushdie’s critics had lost the battle, but won the war. They lost the battle because The Satanic Verses continues to be published. They won the war because the argument at the heart of the anti-Rushdie campaign – that it is morally wrong to offend other peoples and cultures – has become accepted by the mainstream. We have all, in a sense, internalized the fatwa.
The journey from the Satanic Verses controversy to the Charlie Hebdo killings shows how the response to the first helped lay the ground for the second. We have learnt the wrong lessons of the Rushdie affair. a quarter of a century on, it’s time we started learning the right ones.
The photo of Salman Rushdie is by Richard Avedon. The cartoon of spilt ink and blood is by Kap.
Alas, the same insistent mantra ‘….lived experience of…diversity… cosmopolitan life…. obviously more positive….’ passim over your writings – the sheer repetition serving to render evidence, corroboration unnecessary presumably.
Those who reject this moral blackmail, not to mention existential delusion, are saying the unsayable – probably from nasty xenophobic motives.
Ah, Gordon Brown and Gillian Duffy plus ca change.
Democracy, morality and the migration crisis, February 2016
Britain, Europe and the real crisis, June 2016
‘I want my country back’, October 2016
‘I want my country back’, October 2016
The faultlines of the imagination, November 2016
From the end of history to 2016, December 2016
And a dozen other similar articles. Yes, it might seem a bit ‘repetitive’, but unfortunately it has to be so because people like you keep commenting on my supposed arguments without seemingly having read what I’ve actually written. As you say, some people are so caught up in their own worldview that, for them, ‘evidence, corroboration [is] unnecessary’.
A supremely patient reply, thank you.
I failed to emphasise my main point: that diversity is regarded as ipso facto good/morally unchallengeable; that it is ‘obviously positive’.
But shouldn’t offending other peoples and cultures be morally wrong? Isn’t the presumption that all peoplle of a given nationality are exactly the same, same casts from the same mould, the quintessence of racism? Isn’t an attack on the components of one’s identity an attack on the person bearing that identity? Aren’t jokes about gays offensive even if they are not directed against a specific gay person? And what about aesthetics? Even religious people will find Sir Bertrand Russell’s arguments on “why [he] is not a Christian” interesting and compelling, while Richard Dawkins’s hysterical “Mock them. Ridicule them. In public. With contempt” shrieks are unpalatable even for the most fervent atheist intellectual. It is one thing criticizing Christianity, and another thing altogether showing God having anal sex, as is customary at Charlie Hebdo. Freedom of expression is not sacrosanct, not because of religious extremists, but according to the prevalent social constructs at any given time. Pornography is not available in school libraries, not even in the most liberal schools. The Mapplethorpe exhibit at the Hayward in London, in1996, came with a special advisory at the entrance, warning potential viewers that the photos might offend certain sensitivities. Casually joking about being a bomber during pre-flight security checks is considered an offense punishable by law. So no, “The Satanic Verses” did not pave the way for Charlie Hebdo. Fanaticism has always been a component of human experience, and does not only affect the religious people. It can affect secularists too. Aesthetics and compassion for our fellow humans should be key values, never to be trampled by abuses of freedom of expression. Persons with oral fixations are sadists who will absue the freedom of expression not to defend their opinion, but to hurt others. Charlie Hebdo got it all wrong, and there can be no comparison between Charlie Hebdo and “The Satanic Verses”. I have publicly defended Salman Rushdie when the fatwa came out, but I would never stand up for Charlie Hebdo’s vulgarity.
The death penalty does seem excessive as a response to bad manners. And Dawkins, even at his clumsiest, is attacking ideas, not groups
Paul Braterman, the “I am attacking ideas, not persons” mantra is erroneous and irresponsible, as it decouples what I am saying from accepting the responsibility of what I am saying . Many of the things that define us are indeed ideas: political, philosophical, religious. It is not possible to attack a system of ideas without attacking the people who adhere to it. One can criticize ideas, of course, as one can criticize actions of individuals, but it is a difficult task, and has to be done with elegance and humility, without ever sending the message that the fellow human is not worthy of our respect, regardless of how ridiculous his or her ideas seem to us. Dawkins is like the proverbial bull in a china shop.
Of course, it is stupid to attack those you disagree with, unless your real goals are to demonstrate your own virtue and to rally your team. That much we would agree on. But then you point out that
” It is not possible to attack a system of ideas without attacking the people who adhere to it.”
Indeed. I recognise the error of my ways. Henceforth, I will stop attacking FGM (because that is an attack on the people of Somalia), killing witches (an attack on East Africans), American exceptionalism (an attack on all those Americans who believe in it), lynching atheist bloggers (an attack on Bangladeshis), the death penalty for blasphemy (how dare I so insult the good people who make the laws in Saudi Arabia and Morocco?), creationism, and belief in the eternal torture of unbelievers (two systems of ideas that I have attacked without regard to the hurt I am thereby inflicting on the good people of the Free Pentacostal Church of Scotland, among others), and global warming denial (since that impugns the judgment of the denialists). And I will argue against even discussing the ethics of unstunned animal slaughter, because that might suggest that orthodox Jews and some orthodox Muslims are insensitive towards animals.
But is it ok for me to continue to select free range chicken, despite the implied criticism of battery farm operators? Or to attack such systems of ideas as advocation of slavery, or geocentrism, or Aristotelian physics, whose advocates are now, mostly at least, dead? I await your guidance
OK, lots of sophistry here. Charlie Hebdo did not attack certain practices of certain Muslims and certain Christians, eg death penalty for apostasy and the tenet on eternal damnation. It gratuitously attacked Mohammad and Jesus in the most vulgar way. I am not a Muslim, but I found the Mohammad cartoons despicable. Do you know why? Because of empathy. I felt for all those French Muslims who stepped out of the metro one morning to see that Charlie Hebdo front page. Richard Dawkins did not attack certain concepts of religion, but called for all atheists to bash theists just for the sake of their quality as theists. That would be the equivalent of you calling for a genocide, or at least an enlightened dictatorship by some Scottish atheist in Somalia so that FGM will stop. Ethnicity, gender and religion are much stronger components of one’s sense of self than erroneous information on whether organic food is better for your health. Your aggressive stance sends the message that you and you alone are the arbiter of what is permissible, which immediately puts the person you belittle in a defensive position. Your message will not get through, you will elicit an angry answer, which will lead to the self-fulfilling prophecy of your perceived moral superiority. It is ironic, but it is you who usurp the role of an omniscient, spiteful god, which is the exact fantasy of a god that you chose to reject.
I am trying to understand what is happening here. I did not say that I approved of bad manners; I said the death penalty for bad manners was excessive. Do you disagree?
I have not said that it’s atheists to bash theists. Nor AFAIK has Dawkins; he has called on atheists to be open about their own disagreement with them. If he really has advocated violence, then that is at least culpable and at worst criminal; can you give a link or reference? Or do you think that expressing disagreement is as reprehensible as committing violence?
I have asserted my right to criticise FGM even if doing so, according to an earlier commentator, constitutes an attack on those who adhere to it. Suddenly this morphs into the moral equivalent of someone (either me or Dawkins) advocating genocide or at least dictatorship.
Worse, I have “usurp[ed] the role of an omniscient, spiteful god”. Please explain how
Dear Paul, of course the death penalty for “bad manners” as you put it is an excessive punishment. But what do you expect when you take a debate outside of a civilized forum and place it into a vicious arena? When you unleash forces you cannot control? Similar to the person who shouts “fire!” in a full theater just for the fun of it, and then regrets that people died in the stampede that ensued, one needs to always take responsibility of what they say. Dawkins has never advocated physical violence. But he advocates verbal abuse. Which is just as bad psychologically. Yes, I agree that my phrasing on genocide and dictatorship was hyperbolical. I did not mean what I said literally. What I did mean was that a person who adheres to the arrogant discourse of Dawkins or Charlie Hebdo is a person who treats their fellow humans with contempt. How can you build a better society when you treat your fellow human with contempt (hence the genocide allegory)? You can discuss everything, provided you respect who you are discussing it with, and provided you do not think that their ideas (even if they are completely erroneous) are the product of an infantile mind. It is extremely difficult for me as a Christian Orthodox to converse with a militant atheist like Dawkins who thinks my intelligence is virtually that of a not-so-bright 3 year old child. It takes a lot of effort from me not to shut down (hence fulfilling the self-fulfilling prophecy that theists shy away from the irrefutable arguments of the New Atheists), as that contempt which is generalized in militant atheists, is dehumanizing for me. I have discussed religion with many atheist friends though, who listen to what I have to say, and I listen to them. A discussion need not end up in convincing the other part about our ideas, it could be a means of understanding the other person’s ideas, even if we do not agree with them, lest our lives become empty chambers echoing ourselves. It is all about recognizing that we too can be mistaken! And really, how scientific is the rejection of religion after all? The rejection of the religious phenomenon, something that has been with us ever since the dawn of humankind, obviously carrying extreme evolutionary importance (Dawkins should know better). The existence of God has not been disproven, has it? Nobody can prove that God exists or does not exist. Either one possibility is a matter of belief in a way. What makes Dawkins exceptionally unscientific is that he defines God according to his own perception of him (the omniscient, judgmental, spiteful and vengeful god he has turned into). That is definitely not scientific. His theological knowledge is apparently non-existent. That makes Dawkins sound like an authoritarian figure with a superiority complex (hence the dictator allegory). My view, my Church’s view of God is nothing like that. So to me, Dawkins is addressing his own demons when he lambasts (who he perceives to be) God. Charlie Hebdo is even more brutal than Dawkins. So yes, one does have the right to criticize FGM provided they do this with respect for the people who practice it. One should also listen to them and their justification of why they do it, even if such a justification is erroneous or based on misperceptions. One should also listen to their view on cultural practices they find abhorrent in one’s own culture. This is my point about the esthetics of disagreement, as I have said. Something that Dawkins and Charlie Hebdo lack altogether.
There is some verbal abuse that is damaging; for example, a parent or teacher belittling a child,or a group collectively belittling those who deviate from its norms. That is not what we are discussing here, unless you claim that rhetoric such as that of Dawkins rises to the same level, in which case I would like you to justify lack training with specific examples.
For what it’s worth, I have publicly criticised how Dawkins expresses himself. I don’t know if this page accepts links, but google “Braterman Dawkins” for examples.
And for me this is not an abstract discussion. Some of my own material on evolution has been translated into Arabic,,by people whose courage I greatly admire, in a place where evolution has been dropped from the curriculum and is widely regarded as blasphemous. Are you suggesting that they should desist?
“to justify lack training” should ofc be “to justify that claim”
No, they should not desist. But it is up to them to find the best way to render the Theory of Evolution visible in their countries. It is up to them to find a way to circumvent fanatics. Theistic evolution is definitely not incompatible with Islam, some might say that even the Big Bang is revealed in the Qur’an (54:17). There will never be any progress if we do as Dawkins does, and start yelling at every Muslim under the sun, calling them names just because they are Muslims, and treating them like superstitious ignoramuses. It is very wrong for an atheist to assume that all people of religion are the same. Or that all atheists are the same, for that matter. In my country, Greece, many of my atheist friends do not reject the positive social and cultural role of religion in shaping our national identity.
We seem to have converged. Good
Kamel Daoud quote;
“I am Charlie, deeply so, and I say so and accept the consequences: I prefer a man who draws to a man who kills. Everywhere. There is nothing to discuss, no nuanced view, no other choice. I love freedom too much and would rather defend a freedom than split hairs; I haven’t got the t ime.”
“t” should read “the”.
“ime” should read “time”. Sorry!