From Fatwa to Jihad tells the story of the Rushdie affair and its legacy. The fatwa imposed on Salman Rushdie by the Ayatollah Khomeni, and the worldwide campaign against The Satanic Verses, marked a watershed in both British and international politics. The issues raised by the affair – the nature of Islam, the meaning of multiculturalism, the boundaries of tolerance in a liberal society, the limits of free speech in a plural world – have become some of the defining problems of the age. As Hanif Kureishi has put it, ‘The Rushdie affair shaped all our lives. This book shows us how’.
The book was updated in 2017 with a new Afterword that tells the story of the shifting terrain of European jihadism, questions many of the assumptions about ‘radicalisation’, dissects the policies of multiculturalism and assimilationism and explores new developments in the debates about free speech, including a close look at the Charlie Hebdo killings, and its aftermath.
From Fatwa to Jihad: The Rushdie Affair and its Legacy was shortlisted for the 2010 Orwell Book Prize. You can read the introduction to the book. And you can buy it from from most bookshops, the Book Depository, Waterstones or Amazon (in Britain, the USA and most other countries).
In the opening pages of this dense but fascinating polemic, Kenan Malik describes how the fatwa against Salman Rushdie changed his life. The Indian-born son of a Hindu mother and a Muslim father, Malik had grown up in Britain amid ‘Paki-bashers’ and the racist National Front. It was racism that had driven him into far-left politics as a student, but it was the Enlightenment ideals of equality and social justice that he took with him when he graduated. Malik became a research psychologist and occasional journalist with a commitment to activism.
In January 1989, he was shocked when 1,000 Muslims marched through the northern city of Bradford and ceremonially burned a copy of Salman Rushdie’s novel The Satanic Verses in front of a police station. Almost overnight, he writes, the image of that burning book became an international ‘icon of the rage of Islam.’ Yet it made no sense to Malik, who had organized anti-racist protests in Bradford three years earlier. Where had the rage come from? And why was it dressed in religious clothing?
He received his first answer from a man Malik identifies only as Hassan, a former Trotskyite and an acquaintance who had become disaffected with the ‘white left’ and with the fearful and obsequious Muslims of their fathers’ generation. Hassan saw a ‘need to defend our dignity as Muslims’ so that no one – ‘racist or Rushdie’ – could trample on it. Hassan had become an ‘errand boy to the mullahs,’ Malik writes, ‘inspired by bookburners, willing to shed blood for a thousand-year-old fable that he had never believed in.’
In the chapters that follow, Malik charts the circuitous route by which Hassan and so many others found solace in a virulently anti-Western, political Islam that bore little relation to the faith of their immigrant parents, for whom religion was ‘deeply embedded [but] never all-consuming,’ expressing ‘a relationship with God, not a sacrosanct public identity.’ If Britain now has a problem with homegrown suicide bombers, it is, he asserts, because of policies that have not only impeded integration but have taught an entire generation of immigrants that they are not truly British, that they do not – and never will – belong.
Malik looks favorably upon the United States, which in his view sees itself as a nation of immigrants and so offers a positive narrative for newcomers. Britain, however, has kept immigrant communities separate. Rather than address immigrants directly, it has handed them over to the care of self-appointed community leaders who use their positions to enrich themselves and push a conservative religious agenda. It is they who have created a breeding ground for Islamist fundamentalism.
Malik argues that jihad as we understand it is a thoroughly modern concept, forged not just in the mountains of Afghanistan but in Western cities. He shows how the media and the wizards of geopolitics stoked the fire from the outset, with the book-burners of Bradford becoming pawns in a power struggle between Iran and Saudi Arabia. Each had been investing ambitiously in organizations in Britain and elsewhere to promote its own extreme brand of Islam.
Though by issuing a fatwa the Ayatollah Khomeini got the upper hand in the Rushdie controversy, Britain’s Muslims did not take orders from any imam or ayatollah. The bombers who took part in the coordinated attacks on London’s transportation system in 2005 were influenced by al-Qaeda and the Taliban. But, Malik says, they were full of Western narcissism – middle-class, entitled, disinclined to deny themselves modern pleasures. Their ease with contemporary mores cut them off from Islamic traditions. ‘Today’s jihadist does not submit himself to the will of the collective,’ Malik writes. ‘Only through death do jihadists join their imagined community.’
After beginning his story with a book-burning, Malik ends it with the bombing nearly 20 years later of the London publisher of Sherry Jones’sJewel of Medina, a novel about the prophet Muhammad’s youngest wife. The Rushdie book-burning in 1989 sparked intense debate over the reach of free expression, especially when it offends religious sensitivities. By the time of the 2008 bombing, however, it was generally accepted that free speech must take into account Britain’s many diverse religions – which sounds likes a move toward greater tolerance and integration.
But in Britain the issue is more complicated than that. The nation lacks an equivalent of the First Amendment, and though it has a tradition of free expression, there is no clear legal defense for it. Since 2008, it has been illegal to incite religious or racial hatred. Because the law is vaguely worded, it can be used against anyone who criticizes religion in the public domain. Britain’s unelected Muslim leaders were among those who proposed the law, and they continue to have a powerful influence on the definition of religious hatred, both in the courts and in the media.
Few writers have untangled the paradoxes and unintended consequences of political Islam as deftly as Malik does here. But in the end his real subject is not Islam. It is Britain’s mismanagement of immigration and how this has led to the weakening of its purchase on Enlightenment values and, most particularly, free expression. Though confined to the British case, the book offers a cautionary tale that will speak to everyone concerned about the worldwide erosion of civil and human rights after Sept. 11, 2001.
Most comments on the rise of radical Islam tend to fall into either a left or right wing version of political scientist Samuel P. Huntington’s argument, first developed in 1992, that we are in the midst of a clash of civilizations. With the collapse of the Communist bloc, he argued, the world would become increasingly dominated by contradictions between rival civilizations, groups so distinct that they were bound to clash. Of these there were many, but the biggest conflicts were likely to arise between the ‘civilizations’ Huntington dubbed the ‘Western’ and the ‘Islamic’.
The extreme right wing shows its acceptance of this theory through crude attacks on anything Muslim, whether by protesting an Islamic cultural center in lower Manhattan or burning copies of the Koran. But, author and journalist Kenan Malik argues in his superbly written history/polemicFrom Fatwa to Jihad: The Rushdie Affair and Its Aftermath, that the multicultural left has done the same thing in a warmer and fuzzier sort of way, often by claiming that the worst aspects of Islam, even the terrorist attacks on September 11, 2001, themselves, were an unjustified but understandable reaction to Western intervention in ‘the Islamic world’. In a strange twist, much of the liberal left has embraced this concept of extreme irreconcilable difference. The havoc wrought by so-called radical Islam — from the World Trade Center to Mumbai to Bali — seems to provide a worthy basis for believing Huntington correct.
If one were to place the civilization clash theory into a political category, it would most certainly be considered to the ‘right’, for obvious reasons. The idea that certain countries, even whole blocs of countries, are so alien that they can only be dealt with through antagonism and war would certainly appeal to the likes of Norman Podhoretz or Karl Rove. But, in a strange twist, much of the liberal left has embraced this concept of extreme irreconcilable difference. Aside from the prediction of constant instability and war, the most highly unpleasant facet of this theory is the implication that traditional liberal aspirations for progress and equality were wrong. Further, according to this school of thought, the great ideals of the Enlightenment, the principled stand that freedom of speech, assembly, the press and religion were all universal, are grand illusions at best.
These rights were to extend to everyone no matter their background, and the cause of a true progressive was to fight to ensure that these liberties were enjoyed by all. When one accepts that there are different, non-overlapping civilizations, one must also accept that certain peoples and nations are, because of their culture, simply not destined for ‘Western’ democracy and liberties. As illiberal as this notion seems to be, a large, perhaps majority, section of Western liberals, argues Malik, have embraced it even in their own nations, under the guise of ‘multiculturalism’. Instead of seeing human rights as applying to all individuals, there has been a trend towards identifying all cultures as equal—no matter what that culture’s own attitudes towards the rights of its members. Even worse, many western societies, by separating groups of people off from the mainstream of society through policies of cultural ‘respect’, have actually given fuel to or even created the Islamic extremist elements we see emerging in many liberal democracies, particularly Britain.
Malik, in From Fatwa, points to the so-called ‘Rushdie affair’, the period of controversy and death threats surrounding Salman Rushdie’s alternately condemned and celebrated novel, The Satanic Verses. At about that time, says Malik, people from various communities that happened to be Muslim started to act as ‘the Muslim community’. Riots and book burnings became well known, both in certain Islamic countries and, even more so, in Britain and the west. On the surface, it looked as if, at that point, an extremist Islamic movement came to birth, a movement that grew to a worldwide scale, eventually achieving such ‘triumphs’ as the destruction of the Twin Towers and other travesties. But, according to Malik, reality is much different.
Instead of a battle of civilizations, we have a simple, old-style battle for political supremacy going on. Radical Islam, says the author, failed pathetically in the Muslim world. In 1979, it was a movement riding high, having just established the first Islamic state following the Iranian Revolution. The spirits of political Islamists were up and it seemed a wave of Islamic revolutions would sweep the world, the way, they thought, Communist revolutions swept Europe and elsewhere following Russia’s 1917 lead. Ten years later, political Islam was in tatters, and different countries were fighting to control what was left.
Thus, the controversy surrounding The Satanic Verses was more to do with a power struggle between Saudi Arabia and Iran – who would lead the Islamic world? – than about any rise in fanaticism. Instead of a battle of civilizations, we have a simple, old-style battle for political supremacy going on. Without detracting from the terrors perpetuated by the Taliban (or Hamid Karzai’s Northern Alliance, now running Afghanistan), we can see the same dynamic in South Asia, where, as elsewhere, secular governments have funded religious extremists to undermine democratic movements.
But what about western jihadists? The answer, says Malik, once again does not lie in a group of people somehow becoming more pious; in fact, many of these western-based terrorists are not very pious at all. They are also not part of any real network that links them to al-Qaeda or anywhere else. Instead, Malik, using the example of Britain, traces the problem to the failure of the battle against racism, coupled with the “official” answer to that social scourge – multiculturalism. Up through the nineteen eighties, there had been a united fight against racist violence from neo-Nazis by Britain’s ‘Black’ community (South Asians, Afro-Caribbeans, and others). The official response wasn’t to help equalize society, but to establish outreach programs to different, relatively arbitrarily grouped, communities. Thus, Pakistanis, some Indians and others were lumped into ‘the Muslim community’, and the government’s primary way of interacting with them was through ‘community leaders’. These so-called leaders were simply those who spoke a lot, or who decided they wanted to be community leaders.
Eventually, these policies pushed people so far apart that Britain came to be seen as a “community of communities,” and no longer a cohesive whole. Muslims generally stopped associating with Afro-Caribbeans, and so on. Of course, most Muslims are not terrorists, so the question arises: Who becomes a terrorist and why? We know that most of these people have been well off, at least middle class, and well educated. According to Malik, the separation foisted by multiculturalism provided fertile ground for identity politics, mixed with a culture of grievance, to grow into jihadist terror. Young people in the ‘Muslim community’, instead of fighting racism – how could one fight against inequality when the whole idea of a cohesive society was out the window? – found themselves fighting against their parents’ version of Islam; in short, the rebelled by becoming more pious, more ‘Islamic’ than anyone else.
Malik’s arguments against multiculturalism may not be politically correct and may even offend some – much of the book is devoted to the problematic fact that society now goes out of its way to avoid causing anyone offense, thus never challenging many real problems. Nonetheless,From Fatwa does provide an understanding of how and why Islamic extremism has come about. Further, the book offers something that most modern liberals, having become cynical, do not: a hope that there can be real equality, diversity and tolerance, and an end to the ‘clash of civilizations’.
Some have even gone to the length of calling Malik’s conclusions ‘racist’ — an astounding claim, given that Malik, who now works as a BBC Radio 4 announcer, is a British Marxist of Indian descent who spent much of the nineteen eighties fighting against racists in words, but also in action; he helped to organize street patrols to defend Asian families from neo-Nazi attacks. Further, Malik played a leading role in numerous campaigns against deportations and police brutality. Making the claims of Malik’s detractors even more absurd, it is precisely this kind of fight for equality — at the expense of multi-cultural apartheid — that the author advocates. Any solution is based in the basic principle that all people have certain rights and are fundamentally equal — even if, as Malik argued in a 2002 essay on multiculturalism, all cultures and ideologies are not.
Without doubt, the post-9/11 world has witnessed the spawning of rather ridiculous stereotypes about Islam, Islamic countries, and Muslim societies in non-Muslim regions. Some of these are the consequence of the campaign for, and the flawed strategy of, the war on terror. While it may appear that these stereotypes are an instant product of this new wave of violence on Islam and assault on the Muslim world, it is indeed a continuation of a rather sustained process the West has patronised long before Osama bin Laden appeared on the global scene.
The narrative sensitises us to such an argument and locates it in the context of fatwa against Salman Rushdie’s book The Satanic Verses. It tells us why and how the controversy has wider political and cultural implications. In the era of the so-called war on terrorism, there are many convenient excuses, competing moral and ideological perceptions, and countless innocent victims of such morality and ideology. But there is little serious reflection on how the Rushdie controversy contributed to the making of a rather distorted view of Islam as well as the Muslims.
The book is an important contribution to a body of emerging scholarship that seeks to explain how the conflicting interpretations of Islam and turbulent developments in Islamic societies are rooted in highly generalised perceptions of some events. It seeks to convince its readers that the politics of Islam and Muslim societies are not always the making of Muslims. In doing so, it employs the Rushdie affair as a central reference point and uses various techniques of narration — anecdotal accounts, interviews with various players, and so on — to construct its main thesis.
Although it does engage with scholarly arguments in an extended fashion, the narrative largely revolves around multiple theoretical interventions in a rather touch-and-go fashion. Thus, it clearly does not fall in the genre of a serious theoretical book on the subject — like for instance, the recent book of Mushirul Hasan, Moderates or Militants: Images of Indian Muslims (2008).
Drawing upon his own experience and those of few others at the time, the author argues that there are several myths around the Rushdie affair. These myths should be destroyed to build a world where cultures are better understood. Among the myths are: that hostility to The Satanic Verses was driven by theology, and that Islam is incompatible with Western democracy. He blames the British liberal opinion-making machine for these distortions, and argues that ‘by giving this type of description, they have ignored the diverse character of Muslim communities, and the Muslim response to The Satanic Verses; and the importance of the free speech to minority groups… They have helped build a culture of grievance in which being offended has become a badge of identity, cleared a space for radical Islamists to flourish, and made secular and progressive arguments less sayable, particularly within Muslim communities.’
The author, who was born in Secunderabad (India) and brought up in Britain, thought of himself as a black rather than as a Muslim or even Asian. For so many others of his ethnic origin, it was not an ethnic label but a political badge, yet he found himself impacted by the political whirlpool of the controversy, and the British society and the Muslims — particularly the South Asian Muslims — were affected in far more convoluted ways than what are generally reported in the media.
The book has several fascinating chapters. The ones titled ‘from street fighters to book burners,’ ‘the rage of Islam,’ and ‘God’s word and human freedom’ are enlightening; they show how the politics from above overwhelms the politics at the bottom, how politics of faith often overpowers the politics of nation state, and how, in the cross-current of these diverse political forces, a vast number of innocent people find their lives changed and their worldview transformed. A slice of this observation finds expression in the chapter titled ‘how Salman Rushdie changed my life.’
While every chapter is meant to explain a particular facet of the argument, the details of events reveal how much was happening within Britain itself. Rushdie’s book has had varied impact in different countries. The controversy caused its own share of violence in India and polarised Hindu-Muslims relations, which is a subject of research in itself.
What constitutes an offence and what does it mean either to give or to take offence? Kenan Malik’s book is an attempt to trace this process from giving to taking offence. The ban on Salman Rushdie’s The Satanic Verses(1988), is the starting point of his enquiry. But the book moves back and forth between the period when Rushdie’s book was banned, the Iranian Revolution of 1979, the controversy of the Danish cartoons in 2005, and the 7/7 London terror attacks the same year.
Malik views The Satanic Verses and the Danish cartoons as two ends of the socio-political spectrum while discussing freedom of speech and, more important, the shift in the kind of offence taken in each case. He contrasts the reactions of ‘Western liberals’ to show how the Rushdie controversy had ‘transformed the terrain of free speech’ by the time the Danish cartoons were produced. In the case of The Satanic Verses, no one from the liberal camp that Malik refers to challenged Rushdie’s right to publish his book. In his lengthy background to the publication of The Satanic Verses, Malik describes how the life of not only the author, but also those of his publishers, translators, distributors and thousands of employees of these publishing houses were under threat. Rushdie’s Norwegian publisher, William Nygaard, got shot at, but stood firm in his decision to publish the book.
By contrast, when the Danish cartoons appeared, the widespread belief among the same section that had defended Rushdie’s right to freedom of expression was that offence should not be given to any religious or cultural group. Malik calls this reaction the ‘internalisation of fatwa’. It is this commonsensical notion of being careful not to offend that Malik questions, saying, ‘the fear of giving offence has simply made it easier to take offence.’
Taking offence is implicated in the process of identity formation. It is the realities in the lives of Asians in England, in which race plays an unpleasant, and often violent, role that lead to the formation of anti-racist organizations, something that later degenerates into the formation of street gangs to redress the problems of those disillusioned by the anti-racist organizations. According to Malik, this is what fosters a ‘tribal nation’, with these groups trying to assert their identities in tokenist ways. Thus the frequent protests against anything they see as threatening their integrity.
Although Malik sees jihad as a legacy of the Rushdie affair, as his subtitle indicates, he does not take into account the question of jihad in the Indian subcontinent. He talks only of international fundamentalism. He sees the Rushdie affair culminating in the 7/7 London tube bombings. That is the contemporary relevance of The Satanic Verses controversy for him, and in a sense its ‘legacy’. In this, Malik’s logic seems too linear and deterministic to be convincing.
He, however, makes an important contribution to the discourse of multiculturalism. Rather than being an attempt to recognize the cultural differences between various immigrant communities in England, multiculturalism, he argues, was imposed from above as a political strategy to quell anger against racist attacks among sections of immigrant populations, and to appease the leaders of the communities who would bring in votes en masse during the Council elections. It is this putting of different diasporic groups in watertight compartments that several critics of multiculturalism have found unacceptable. Malik chooses the image of the ‘colour-coded housing estates’ to make his point. The Greater London Council had proposed demarcating living spaces in colonies according to cultural difference. If passed, it would have resulted in the creation of ghettoes not because their members wanted to stick together, but because of policy decisions based on the assumption that they wanted to do so.
From Fatwa to Jihad seems guided by the ghost of Rushdie. Quotations from The Satanic Verses kick-start each chapter. Malik’s book is no less paradoxical than Rushdie’s own. The Satanic Verses contained a scathing commentary on the rule of the Ayatollah Khomeini of Iran, called the Imam in the book. But that was not the reason for the fatwa. It is doubtful if the Ayatollah even knew of this aspect of Rushdie’s work. Rushdie’s book could actually have been a commentary on what was to come after its publication. What Malik puts forth in his book lends an insightful and premonitory quality to The Satanic Verses.
Malik takes instances from Rushdie’s book as signposts for his views on the migrant experience, on offence, and on the causes of international jihad. In the chapter, ‘The Rage of Islam’, he discusses the growth of street gangs that also make a small appearance in The Satanic Verses — referred to as the new Kurus and Pandavas of the Street, starring in an epic titled ‘The Mahavilayet’ (as opposed to ‘The Mahabharata’). Their job is to protect their ‘turf’ and the description of their activities is similar to that of the Mullah Crew in the Beeston working-class area that Malik mentions. Drawn together by the routine task of providing vigilance, Friday prayers and halal meat become their distinctive badges. These practices, Malik suggests, eventually form the basis of the jihadi mindset.
Kenan Malik, a Britain-based academic and documentary-maker has dealt with the complex subject of Islamic radicalism and its violent manifestations across the globe from an inter-disciplinary perspective. At first, the book seems like a journalistic narrative but gradually Malik brings in historical, political and sociological approaches to diagnose the menace of Islamic terrorism and shows its development in the British society as well as its trans-continental implications. He starts with the Fatwa against Sulman Rushdie for writing Satanic Verses and leads us to the shocking attacks of 9/11 in USA and 7/7 bombing in Britain. He says, ‘This book is the story of (that) metamorphosis… a guidebook to the road from fatwa to jihad.’
Racism and racial attacks are no new phenomena in British society. It had started in the 1970s and the British government evolved a policy of ‘multiculturalism’ that envisaged different groups have to be treated differently in order to treat them equally. This was the crux of the problem as multiculturalism shifted the focus of ethnic identity of immigrant community from nationality to religion. Earlier, the Muslims were divided on nationality and on the basis of language (eg. Bangladeshi) or further, on the basis of their faith-traditions like Barelwis, Deobandis, Jamaatis etc. But the new policy homogenised them on the basis of religious identity.
From the broader category of ‘Asians’ emerged Hindus, Muslims and Sikhs; all vying for their share in the pie that minority grants and funding under multicultural policy had to offer. The community-based housing policy encouraged flourishing of ghettos based on religion. Such a division on the basis of religion subverted the progressive ideologies that was earlier cutting across religious-ethnic-nationality barriers and consequently each of these groups became a vote bank and religion started shaping politics. Malik rightly says, ‘Multiculturalism helped create new divisions and more intractable conflicts which made for a less openly racist but a more insidiously tribal Britain.’
In other words, the intervention of bringing minority communities into the democratic process ended up with communal politics. Mosques mushroomed in all towns and cities and the Council of Mosque was recognised as the mouthpiece of the Muslim community.
Mosques became the power centre and their authority became the power-broker with the government on one hand and the custodian of Islamic faith on another. At the same time, Islamist parties started growing in Turkey, Palestine, Algeria, Afghanistan, Lebanon and the disintegration of the Soviet Union opened new avenues for radical Islam to make inroads.
There was another psycho-sociological phenomena taking place: a sense of rootlessness, a moral and cultural void among the younger generation Muslims who were born and brought up in Britain. On one hand, they rejected the traditional orthodoxy and on another felt detached in a hostile host country. This sense of ennui (Lewis Mumford) at the psychological level led to social ‘anomie’ (Emile Durkheim) with pathological manifestations. On one side, the traditional Islamists wanted their younger generation to follow the dictates of Quran, whereas on another, the disenchanted youth wanted an anchor to have a sense of belonging. This void was fulfiled by embracing radical Islamic fundamentalism.
For Malik, it was ‘an affirmative reconstruction of identity’. He debunks the popular notion that terrorists are uneducated, poor, unintelligent and a psychopathic lot. The landmark study of Marc Sageman shows that most of them are highly educated professionals.
Thus, madarssa is not their recruiting ground as generally perceived, rather Western universities are the breeding ground of these terrorists. At a theoretical level, Malik’s conclusions deviate from the much adored ‘Clash of Civilisation’ approach of Samuel Huntington that anticipated the antagonism between two opposing worldviews derived from two different sources.
According to Malik, it is not this clash between Western and Islamic Civilisation rather the absence of a cultural space within Western Civilisation to assimilate Islamic aspirations that led to this ‘Islamic War Against West’. The ‘fatwa’ issued against Rushdie was a symbolic beginning that gradually compelled the liberal idea of free speech in the West to be re-interpreted from a defensive stand. Subsequently, there were protests and violence from publication of other books like Monica Ali’s Brick Lane, Danish Cartoons of Prophet Mohammad, Hanif Kuresihi’sMy Beautiful Laundrette and Sherry Jones’ The Jewel of Medina. The West has been always apprehensive of Islam, and its own ideological and political insecurities have fuelled the fire of violence. It shows the identity crisis of the West itself.
Conclusively, Western liberalism has built, ‘… a culture of grievance in which being offended has become a badge of identity, cleared a space for radical islamists to flourish.’ Malik’s analysis is quite different from other works on the subject. However, he has been unable to maintain the objectivity of an ‘outsider observer’ as on many occasions, his own experiences of an ‘insider’, of a second generation immigrant from India in Britain colour the landscape of racial politics portrayed by him.
Several books in the last eight years have discussed the impact of either fatwa or jihad on modern society, but a book with both fatwa and jihad in the title is, to the best of my knowledge, a first.
As you move beyond the title, Kenan Malik seems really to be dealing with the issue of the fatwa against Salman Rushdie and the ripples that created in the United Kingdom. From there the author is making a slightly far-fetched linkage between that event and the problems created by the modern jihad.
But, according to Malik, the connection between burning The Satanic Verses in 1988-89 and the burning towers of the World Trade Centre in Manhattan in 2001 is real: it is the erosion of self-belief in the western civilisation and the impact of the immediate reality of the death threat from militant Islam facing the west. Malik’s analysis of the west’s response to the fatwa and jihad is even more interesting: ‘Just as many reacted to the Rushdie affair by reassessing their commitment to traditional liberal values and insisting, in the name of multiculturalism, that Islamist sentiments had to be appeased, so many responded to 9/11 with unease and self-loathing.’ He goes on to give examples of these.
Malik may not have created the most lucid linkage between the Rushdie affair and the current troubles of the western world that began with the fall of the twin towers, but his book is an engaging history of the politics of contemporary Britain and the changes that have taken place there over the last 30 years. Born in India, Malik grew up within immigrant communities in Britain and acquired an enriching detachment to his subject as he covered the Rushdie affair as a young journalist in Bradford.
This put Malik in a unique position to cover the rise of Islamic fundamentalism in Britain. He traces the transition of Muslim identity in the west from being defined in terms of race to religion through the change in his friend Hassan: ‘His metamorphosis from left-wing wide boy to Islamic militant… In that metamorphosis lies the story of the wider changes that were taking place both in Britain and in other western nations.’ And one of the factors at the root of this was the British policy of multiculturalism.
One of the most deplorable effects of the rise of terrorism in the last 20 years has been the culture of fear it has created, and Malik carefully patches together how this has led to an era of curtailment of the freedom of expression. He tells us how Rushdie’s publishers may have stood by him in those difficult times but the publishers today are not willing to bet on work that may cause offence. Is this necessarily a bad thing? Malik seems to suggest so.
This last thought is linked to his study of how multiculturalism has given rise to political correctness that condemns people to a life of rarely saying what they mean. This curtailed freedom of expression in the world stems from a misguided state policy.
According to his critics, Malik’s chief grouse is against the state. He believes it is all-powerful but impotent. So Britain supported Rushdie in the face of the worldwide ban of his book but fell short by not severing ties with Iran. In the book, Ghayasuddin Siddiqui, one of the founders of the Muslim Institute in the UK, says ‘the conflict over Rushdie was never about religion. It was about politics, specifically between Saudi Arabia and Iran over winning the hearts and minds of Muslims.’ It was politics again which was responsible for the policy of multiculturalism in Britain and elsewhere in Europe. But most people already know all this; Malik just says it again in a well-researched study.
So don’t go to this book looking for anything new, Malik is not attempting to break new ground on the nature of Islam and terrorism. But his book has merit in chronicling a sequence of events that have left an indelible mark on the world.
Published to coincide with the 20th anniversary of the fatwa issued by Iranian leader Ayatollah Khomeini against Salman Rushdie, the book tells for the first time the full story of this defining episode. It’s a slice of Malik’s life but From Fatwa to Jihad interests us because it is also a slice of history.
What is the cause of Islamic fundamentalism and Islamist violence, and why do a few people become suicide bombers? These are the urgent questions that Kenan Malik, a respected and intelligent British journalist of Muslim origin but secular convictions, sets out to answer in From Fatwa to Jihad. It would be simplistic to ascribe the violence to Islam itself by citing those verses from the Koran that seem to justify or even require it. Selective quotation does not explain why extremism is the province of the young, and why, for example, the first generation of Muslim immigrants to Britain (and elsewhere) were not at all attracted to it.
The merit of Malik’s book is that it seeks the answer in modern conditions. Even in Islamic countries, fundamentalists are not medieval throwbacks, however they may see themselves. They derive their ideas, even if they do not acknowledge it, at least as much from Lenin, Gramsci, and Mao as from Mohammed. They claim to want to return to seventh-century Arabia, but this is no more realistic or sincere than the wish of Victorian admirers of the Gothic to return to the Middle Ages.
Most Muslims in Britain are of Pakistani origin. They were encouraged to come to Britain largely as a source of cheap labor, to prop up declining industries that had not adapted to the modern economy. But, as with Ophelia’s dress that held her up in the water, ‘long it could not be’. No labor in Britain could ever be cheap enough, without technological superiority, to compete successfully with labor in much poorer and cheaper countries.
Originally, the idea was that the imported labor would be shipped back home if ever it became surplus to requirements. The opposite happened: each immigrant established a beachhead for others. For obvious reasons, the immigrants tended to congregate in certain areas, and they often met with hostility. Their children, growing up in virtual ghettos, were neither fully of the host country nor fully of their parents’ culture. They were betwixt and between, in effect left to develop their own culture. Insofar as they encountered the hostility of the surrounding society, they developed resentments.
It is here that Malik rather underplays the role of Islam. The Muslims were not the only immigrants to Britain. There were Sikhs and Hindus as well, who fared much better, on the whole: their rates of unemployment are much lower than Muslims’ (indeed, lower than their white contemporaries’); they are underrepresented in prison, unlike Muslims, who are increasingly overrepresented; and they never developed any propensity to violence.
Of course, there are possible explanations other than religion for the different fates of these groups. They might have been of different social classes and educational levels to begin with; or, for some reason, they might have encountered different amounts of hostility from the local population. The fact is, however, that Islamism provides a utopian and violent ideology of the kind that appeals to disgruntled young men facing all of the existential difficulties of youth. Moreover, Islamic society provides young men with another incentive for Islamism: the maintenance of the domination of women. This is another factor that Malik downplays.
But Malik is insightful on the mistakes that the British government made in its dealings with Muslims. Like any unimaginative bureaucratic organization, the British government (the French, too) prefers to deal with a few people rather than with many; it therefore promoted ‘leaders’ of the Muslims, thus giving a golden opportunity to fundamentalists to establish themselves as controllers of government funds and to establish networks of patronage. Not knowing what it was doing, the British government spread Islamic fundamentalism.
Multiculturalism, at least in Britain, has been another unwitting ally of Muslim extremism, Malik rightly argues. Multiculturalism has created an informal system, like the late Ottoman empire’s millet system, in which various groups receive their privileges but are expected to live separately and distinctly from everyone else. This serves to prevent the various groups from developing any common identity and stimulates the ascent of political entrepreneurs whose power depends on the maintenance, aggravation, and inflammation of supposed grievances. Islamists are political entrepreneurs with a plausible doctrinal reason for violence. They are now able to extract from society the kind of respect that street muggers demand, and multiculturalism has become the ideological wing of sheer cowardice.
I have some disagreements with Malik. He overestimates Salman Rushdie as a writer, and fails to see that when Rushdie says that ‘racism is still breeding its lice and vermin’, he is resorting to precisely the kind of language that racists use. I am against political correctness, but I do not think people should describe humans as lice and vermin, whatever they are like. This dehumanizing language had a most unfortunate history in the twentieth century.
Moreover, Malik, who was once a communist and whose sympathies are still on the left, downplays the considerable racial antagonisms of the various immigrant groups. Insofar as he mentions them, he suggests – dishonestly, in my view – that they are an artifact of modern life in Britain. On the contrary, they predate modern life in Britain; in India, the color of one’s complexion remains of enormous importance, to say nothing of caste. Nevertheless, Malik’s book is a valuable and sophisticated attempt to understand some of the most troubling phenomena of our time, without resort to oversimplification. It is not always an easy read, but it is worth the effort.
Sudeep Paul, Indian Express, 28 June 2009
When Kenan Malik arrived at the university that housed the Bradford Council of Mosques to speak to the council’s chairman, Sher Azam, soon after the burning of The Satanic Verses, one of the first to meet him was his old friend Hassan from London who had ‘lost his sense of who he was and where he’s come from’. Having returned to Bradford, Hassan had found ‘a sense of community’ and a ‘need to defend our dignity as Muslims…’ He was not going to allow anyone – ‘racist or Rushdie’ – to trample over them.’
Malik, a veteran commentator on race and multiculturalism in Britain, was born in India and migrated with his parents in the ’60s, and grew up in the heyday of ‘Paki-bashing’. His politics was forged in the anti-racist struggle of the radical left – a worldview that was avowedly secular and believed at the time that the world would be set right if the problem of racism was redressed. The Hassan above had been a member of the far-left Socialist Workers Party (like Malik had been), and apart ‘from Trotskyism, his other indulgences were Southern Comfort, sex and Arsenal’. When Malik met him in Bradford, he found Hassan’s ‘metamorphosis from left-wing wide boy to Islamic militant… no less extraordinary than that of the anti-heroes of The Satanic Verses‘.
Hassan’s metamorphosis was symptomatic of the transformation that was taking place in Britain, which would lead to not just the Rushdie affair but ultimately 9/11 and 7/7. After the race riots of the ’80s, Britain embraced multiculturalism as state policy, seeking to respect all values and practices, identifying community leaders who would act as go-betweens for the government and ethnic groups. While race was about colour, multiculturalism emerged as a new and distinct marker of identity. Malik holds it, and the fear of free speech it fostered, responsible for a new tribalism wherein differences usurped the political and social centre-stage. The book’s pivot is the argument and exemplification that radical Islamists are not the lumpen, uneducated medievalists they are often assumed to be. Malik’s contention is that radical Islam was a clever exploitation of identity, where racist victimisation was transformed into the ‘jihadi’ cause. It is not a reaction to western foreign policy per se. His research mirrors Marc Sageman’s (an ’80s CIA case officer in Afghanistan and author of Understanding Terror Networks and Leaderless Jihad) in that the terrorist is ‘not all that different from us’ — educated, intellectual, professional and ‘smart’ In fact, as the French sociologist Olivier Roy has said, ‘The illusion held by Islamic radicals is that they represent tradition when in fact they express a negative form of Westernisation.’
Ayatollah Khomeini may have issued his fatwa to checkmate his Iranian rivals and Saudi Arabia’s hold on global Islam, but most of world politics since has been defined by his singular action – it turned a British issue, albeit with origins in India, into a global conflagration. Although The Satanic Verses was not read by its burners, its symbolic import saw its Japanese translator stabbed to death, its Norwegian publisher shot, a Penguin store firebombed and forced upon Rushdie the life of literature’s biggest fugitive: ‘The burning book became an icon of the rage of Islam… the image proclaimed, “I am a portent of a new kind of conflict and of a new kind of world”.’
From Fatwa to Jihad is a detailed and arresting recount and analysis of recent history and a valuable contribution to Rushdie’s own cause of free speech. However, Malik disappoints in his seeming, illogical faith that the power of the law and state can do immense good for that freedom, even if individual governments fail to do so. Nor does Malik have an antidote to the ills of multiculturalism or an alternative to something that has otherwise laid many old western ills to rest. Rest assured, the British radical left and its gospel of a homogenous secularism are passé. The Rushdie battle continues.
Valentine’s Day is usually an occasion to write mellifluous letters of love. But 20 years ago, a letter penned that day was so vile in its content and so bilious in temperament that, almost like some talisman out of magic realist literature, it tore apart relations between communities and changed the course of history in its wake. That letter was the fatwa issued by Iran’s Ayatollah Khomeini calling for the head of Salman Rushdie, less than five months after the publication of The Satanic Verses. That succinct four- paragraph letter — and not the literary tome itself — stirred up the maelstrom that continues to (mis)shape life and death for many across the world.
This is one of the central thrusts of scientist, writer and broadcaster Kenan Malik’s scalpel-sharp book, which documents how the fatwa became a clarion call for a motley mass of radical Muslims — until then divided not just by geography, but also by their understanding of Islam and radicalism — to meld into what’s now seen as a jihadist force threatening the global order. Malik also rises above the ambit of political history to assess the subtler effects of the fatwa on Muslims and on western civilisation.
He begins by arguing that the entire campaign against The Satanic Verseswas political rather than theological. The book was first banned in India, which was then months away from an election in which the ruling party badly needed the support of the domestic Muslim community and an issue to rally them behind. In the UK, a number of Saudi government- sponsored groups organised protests and burned the book publicly to raise the temperature against it.
But despite Riyadh’s diplomatic bulldozing, no Muslim country other than Pakistan bothered to ban it until the fatwa was issued. Malik claims this was a calculated move by Khomeini — then facing the ignominy of withdrawal from the war in Iraq — to subvert reformist voices within Iran and gain political ground across the Muslim world. ‘The fatwa sowed confusion and division among supporters of the Saudi regime,’ writes Malik. ‘A number of militants who had taken part in the Afghan jihad against the Soviet Union and who had been within Riyadh’s orbit now pledged allegiance to Tehran… The reformers were forced to denounce Rushdie.’
The fatwa also turned Islam into a domestic issue for the West. Malik, who was born in India but grew up marching along the antiracism rallies of Britain in the 1980s, explains how these progressive rallies made the ground fertile for the seed of the fatwa to grow into the cactus of Islamism. Multicultural policies adopted by Britain to tackle the issue of racism led to divisions between blacks and Asians, and of Asians into Hindus, Muslims and Sikhs. Self-appointed ‘representatives’ of these cultures were not far behind, and the government chose to deal with the communities through them. The focus shifted from politically tackling racism to preserving religious and cultural differences.
‘What convulsed Bradford now,’ writes Malik, ‘were demands for separate Muslim schools and for separate education for girls, a campaign for halal meat to be served at school, and, most explosively, the confrontation over The Satanic Verses.’ It was Bradford where the first copies of the book were publicly burnt. Malik elaborates how Muslims went on from burning books to burning buses and ploughing aeroplanes into supposed symbols of Western society. But Malik says the fatwa has had a still deeper impact — self-censorship. It has become acceptable to suppress art on the ground that it may offend someone’s sensibilities.
Malik’s nib tears through the world views of those who believe Islam is incompatible with Western society as well as those who think the West ‘had it coming’. The book is punctuated with extracts from The Satanic Verses, in which the angel and the devil keep reversing their roles. Malik says Rushdie wants us to see that the distinction between the devil and angel lies less in their inner selves than in the roles that humans ascribe to them. ‘Both religious faiths and secular societies,’ writes Malik, ‘deploy their angels and demons to justify their otherwise unjustifiable actions to create boundaries that cannot be transgressed.’ That’s precisely how the post fatwa world has unfolded.
‘Nobody would have the balls today to write The Satanic Verses, let alone publish it. Writing is now timid because writers are now terrified.’ That, according to Hanif Kureishi, is one of the outcomes of the two-decade old fatwa on Salman Rushdie. Such consequences and more are what Kenan Malik attempts to get to the root of in his From Fatwa to Jihad, a compelling look at the ways in which the world – specifically, the United Kingdom – has changed in the years since the book was burned in Bradford and Rushdie, in Martin Amis’ memorable words, ‘disappeared into the front page’. (For those who need reminding, India was the first country to ban The Satanic Verses.)
It’s a vast subject and Malik attempts to do it justice by compressed explorations of the nature of contemporary Islam, its relationship to the West, the origin and causes of multiculturalism and the nature of tolerance in liberal societies. These are interspersed with occasional interviews with some of the dramatis personae – not including Rushdie himself – as well as relevant biographical anecdotes.
One of the themes that emerge again and again in these pages is how politics for short-term gain inevitably leads to less-than-desirable results. Malik quotes Ghayasuddin Siddiqui, one of the founders of the Muslim Institute, as saying that ‘the conflict over Rushdie was never about religion. It was about politics, specifically between Saudi Arabia and Iran over winning hearts and minds of Muslims.’ In a wider context, he marshals the arguments of sociologists and others who point out that contemporary Islamic radicalism isn’t an atavistic return to tradition, but rather, a response to the stresses of the present and the diminishment of identity.
It was politics again, this time at a local level, which was responsible for the policy of multiculturalism in Britain and elsewhere in Europe. Malik traces this further back than 1988, touching upon opposition to the National Front thugs, the creation of bodies such as the Indian Progressive Youth Association and the 1981 Brixton riots. He outlines how municipal policies of creating a political framework to reach out to minority communities influenced the Bhikhu Parekh report on the future of multi-ethnic Britain, paving the way for multiculturalism at a national level. This ‘helped create new divisions and more intractable conflicts which made for a less openly racist but a more insidiously tribal Britain’. It’s ironic that the old left-wing dream of concerted action to bring about universal acceptance should come to this.
Early on in the book, Malik quotes Peter Mayer, then Penguin CEO, on his realisation that the publisher’s response to the Satanic Verses affair ‘would affect the future of free enquiry, without which there would be no publishing as we know it, but also, by extension, no civil society as we knew it’. Such a stance seems to be forgotten nowadays, what with the Danish cartoons controversy as well as Random House’s recent decision not to publish Sherry Jones’ The Jewel of Medina. Malik refers to this state of affairs as an ‘auction of victimhood’, with everyone free to air grievances and be offended, all ignoring the advice of Justice Hugo Black from the US Supreme Court in 1961: ‘Freedom of speech must be accorded to ideas we hate or sooner or later it will be denied to ideas we cherish.’ Words to keep in mind as we enter even more polarised times, considering this month’s European parliament election results in which far-right and anti-immigrant parties across countries made significant gains. If you’re expecting another Enlightenment anytime soon, don’t hold your breath.
‘Satanic temptations’, S Prasannarajan, India Today, 13 June 2009
Twenty years ago, it was a book that threatened the Book. The book was written by a novelist who reduced the distance between memory and history. It was his fourth novel. The first, Grimus, makes him ‘hide behind the sofa when somebody starts reading it’. The second, Midnight’s Children, made him the boldest of his generation in English fiction.
An epic exuding such subversive energy, and written in the accented patois of the displaced, the novel changed the very notion of storytelling in a language that traditionally defies the art of exaggeration. It made the novelist the most original chronicler of an India that was a ‘crowd’, a ‘multitude’ — and an idea ravaged by the politics of paranoia. It won the Booker, and it would win the Booker of Bookers. His next book, Shame, turned the lost part of the subcontinent into a fable.
Then happened the book that changed everything – everything that we thought was sacred. The writer, the writing, faith and God. The Satanic Verses, a novel more burnt than read, and whose literary evaluators ranged from mullahs to politicians, made Rushdie the most famous writer.
On Valentine’s Day two decades ago, Rushdie’s novel became the singular enemy of the Great Islamic Revolution of Iran. As the novel about transmigrations and metamorphosis, about loss of faith and death, burnt in a bonfire of hate from Bradford to Islamabad, the blasphemer – novelist lost his world. As Kenan Malik writes in From Fatwa to Jihad, ‘The Rushdie affair was the moment at which a new Islam dramatically announced itself as a major political issue in Western society.’
Rushdie may have regained his freedom and gone on to write some fabulous stories, but the flame that enveloped The Satanic Verses has gone far beyond Bradford. As Malik argues, Islam’s sanguineous resentment has come a long way from the burning book to the burning towers to the burning bus to, well, the burning hotel. Like Rushdie, Malik, a writer and broadcaster, was born in India and brought up in Britain. His book is not about Rushdie but the politics of faith and fear in the aftermath of the fatwa. The politics, we Indians need not be reminded, could be desperate and dirty.
We were the first to ban the book, and we were so eager to appease the likes of Syed Shahabuddin, who found the very title of the book ‘suggestively derogatory’, and who too had not read the book (‘I do not have to wade through a filthy drain to know what filth is.’) Kenan’s project, though, is more ambitious. It traces the trajectory of Islamist rage from war against imagination to war against civilisation – from fatwa to jihad.
And his book shows how the combined force of multiculturalism and Western self-loathing has influenced the responses to the terror of Islam – that familiar left liberal tone of you-invited-it. After all, the usual suspects of anti-imperialism saw 9/11 as a rejoinder to America’s transgressions. ‘That is what connects the burning book in Bradford to the burning towers in Manhattan: not just the wrath of Islam but also the insecurities of the West,’ writes Kenan.
Few writers have become a global theme like Rushdie. Today, he is a writer larger than his oeuvre, and no nation can claim complete copyright over him, though the ancestral memories of India continue to enrich his imagination. He is truly a global writer, like Milan Kundera, and he is in permanent argument with the world. The argumentative Rushdie is at his best in his conversations with the political scientist Ashutosh Varshney and the literary scholar Gauri Viswanathan in Midnight’s Diaspora, which too takes the 20th anniversary of the fatwa as an occasion to celebrate Theme Rushdie.
He tells Varshney: ‘I did say Pakistan was insufficiently imagined, that it was a failure of the dreaming mind. The proof of that is Bangladesh… Saleem in Midnight’s Children has a line where he describes Pakistan as this strange bird with two wings without a body…’ Essayist Husain Haqqani anatomises Rushdie’s idea of Pakistan, and Sara Suleri Goodyear takes a look at the metaphor-rich world of Rushdie through a perforated veil. Shashi Tharoor, unlike some of his contemporaries, is modest enough to admit: ‘As an Indian novelist, I can only repeat what Waugh said of Wodehouse: he is the head of my profession.’
Rushdie is a writer who is delightfully trapped in his own stories. The freedom he enjoys can’t be contained by the Book.
Kenan Malik, Senior Fellow in Politics at Surrey University, asks two questions in From Fatwa to Jihad: The Rushdie Affair and its Legacy on the 20th anniversary of The Satanic Verses: First, to what extent did the Rushdie fatwa give rise to contemporary debates about the nature of Islam and terrorism? Second, has multiculturalism given rise to ‘political correctness’ that restrains people from freely expressing their views, driving militant movements underground? Both questions intercede to examine how radical Islam has gained hold in Muslim communities, how multiculturalism has contributed to this, and how the Rushdie affair has affected the nature of tolerance and free speech.
At the root of Malik’s book lie more fundamental questions (though he doesn’t state them explicitly) that are being asked everywhere: Are Islam and democracy compatible? Why do Muslims also have problems with non-Muslim nations? Bernard Lewis of Princeton, an authority on Islam, has argued that whereas the West sees the world as a system of nations, subdivided in various ways, including into religions, Islam sees the world as a system of religions, subdivided in several ways, including nations. This gives Islam a special, and potentially troubling, role in international relations.
Lewis points out that Muslim states identify with one another in a way that non-Muslim states would find strange. Muslim governments have built up “an elaborate apparatus” of consultation and cooperation that cuts across political and ideological differences. (To elaborate: fifty-six Muslim states have created the Organisation of the Islamic Conference, with permanent headquarters in Saudi Arabia.)
The brotherhood of man isn’t such a bad thing. But loyalties that spill across borders make the world less orderly. To a certain cast of mind, the umma—the worldwide Islamic community of believers – is both a political and religious entity and must be defended when it comes under attack. This is not a new idea thought up by terrorists – though it has become a part of their ideological vocabulary and is stated quite openly – it is an authentic part of their faith, rooted in the Koran and elaborated by Islam’s jurists, particularly in the madrasas. Not anyone is authorised to declare a jihad, and not for any reason. Malik doesn’t provide this background but it will be helpful to get a hang of the book and the drift of his argument.
Malik starts off with Khomeini’s fatwa condemning Rushdie, and then examines how radical Islam rose in Muslim communities over six chapters. It is a personal pure narrative, straight and simple, one event after another. There may be nothing new in Malik’s presentation but he has brought together the sequence of events that would put the whole picture of Islamic terrorism in a certain perspective.
The question that intrigued many is: How did someone like Mohammed Sidique Khan (the chief organiser of the London bombings) and others with similar backgrounds turn into killers without pity or conscience? By what strange path did radical Islamists take to violence? Malik attempts to provide answers in ‘The Rage of Islam’ which is the key chapter in the book.
There are two explanations. First, quoting British commentators, that ‘Islam is not just a religion… There’s a global jihad lurking within this religion, which is bloodthirsty…’ So, he says, quoting Martin Amis, ‘the West confronts an irrationalist, agonistic, theocratic/ideocratic system which is essentially and unappeasingly opposed to its existence.’ The other explanation takes the opposite view: the problem is not Islam but the treatment of Muslims, ‘The western hatred of Islam makes for the Islamic hatred of the West.’ Neither explanation holds up. Muslims have been around in large numbers in many parts of the world but it is only in the last twenty years that radical Islam has gained a foothold. You can’t blame it all on Islam or on the Koran or even on the changing character of Muslim communities. Or, that the terrorist rage has been driven by Western foreign policy. That would be just too simplistic.
Probably the answer lies in the kind of characters who have joined and led the movement: they are all oddballs who have been thoroughly indoctrinated (brain-washed again is a meaningless term) since early childhood. Add this to the general malaise of Western society where boredom and ennui is an essential part of the fabric of daily lives. With nothing to do and the whole day to do it in, it is easy to be gulled into mindless militancy.
This is an interesting read but it is limited to the rise of British jihad and doesn’t take in a broader perspective of militant Islam and its discontents.
Arun Kundnani, Institute of Race Relations, 1 June 2009
During the 1980s, Kenan Malik was active with an organisation called East London Workers Against Racism (ELWAR). In response to racist violence, ELWAR organised street patrols and ensured the physical protection of families under attack. Malik thus spent much of 1984 camped out in a house in London’s East End defending its residents from racists. Nowadays, Malik is better known as a commentator on race issues and a mainstream media pundit.
According to his latest book, From Fatwa To Jihad: the Rushdie affair and its Legacy (Atlantic Books, 2009), multicultural policies are to blame for fostering a sense of ‘tribalism’ in British society, for the growth of ‘radical Islam’, for censorship of the arts and for the cultivation of a bogus notion of minority victimhood. The book is not so much about the fatwa against Rushdie or 7/7; rather he uses these two events to narrate a shift he believes has occurred over the last twenty years in Britain: from anti-racism to multiculturalism, from universalism to identity politics and from issues of politics to issues of culture. What results is an often mystifying mix of anti-racist history and journalistic cliché, with parts of From Fatwa To Jihad reading like a Left pamphlet from the early 1980s and other sections regurgitating the half-truths and conventional wisdoms of Nick Cohen, Andrew Anthony and Trevor Phillips.
What distinguishes Malik’s book from others in the ‘crisis of multiculturalism’ genre is his attempt to appropriate anti-racist history itself for this discourse and thus to give an anti-racist rather than merely liberal endorsement to the current attack on multiculturalism. In doing so, Malik draws, sometimes disconcertingly, on the same political traditions of radical anti-racism with which the Institute of Race Relations (IRR) has long been associated. Yet, he not only distorts those traditions; he also ends up reinforcing notions of liberal integrationism that are central to today’s anti-Muslim racism.
From the 1980s, says Malik, fuelled by collusion between the state and opportunist religious and cultural organisations in minority communities, there was a rise in ethnic identity politics. From the state’s point of view, multicultural policies were introduced as the most effective way to manage the discontent that racism produced. From the point of view of self-appointed community leaders, ‘ethnic’ funding was a golden opportunity to finance pet projects in the name of specific cultural needs. Multiculturalism thus served as a diversion from the anti-racist politics of the time – for example, the Asian Youth Movements (AYMs) that had sprung up in the late 1970s and which were less interested in having Asian culture officially recognised than in fighting state racism and racist violence. Moreover, the idea that each ethnic or religious group had its own unique and distinctive identity that needed nurturing led to segregation and, ultimately, inter-ethnic hatred and violence.
Such arguments would, of course, be familiar to anyone who read A. Sivanandan from the 1980s onwards. Malik, however, deploys them without any acknowledgement of their origins. Moreover, the way in which he reinterprets them for the current context takes him onto new and dangerous terrain. Whereas for Sivanandan, the anti-racist critique of multiculturalism is, first and foremost, directed at its denial of the political reality of racism, for Malik, the objection to multiculturalism is more that it fosters an illiberal Asian culture that is out of step with modernity. For Sivanandan, what matters is how culture is politicised: does it divide and ossify or is it, as Amilcar Cabral put it, a ‘combusting force’? For Malik, on the other hand, politics must be rigorously policed for any intrusion of ‘culture’ at all.
This leads Malik to claim that, for Asians, the issue today is whether ‘second-generation migrants’ are able to throw off ‘their parents’ cultures and traditions’; failure to do so, he says, leaves them ‘adrift’. Moreover, Malik argues that racism is no longer a problem that Asians face. He thus echoes the argument of US neoconservative Dinesh D’Souza’s 1995 bookThe End of Racism: it is not society that needs to be less racist but minorities who need to be more liberal; there are no racist barriers to lower, only non-white individuals who need enlightening. It is a position which Malik will, of course, find easier to sell to his editors than his older anti-racist radicalism.
‘There is,’ claims Malik, ‘no evidence of any kind of systematic targeting of minorities of the kind that was common in Britain just twenty years ago.’ Incidents of racist harassment are ‘so rare that every one makes a national headline’. He contrasts this with the late 1970s and 1980s, writing that in the ten years from 1978, there were forty-nine racist murders. No doubt readers of IRR News will know that, every week, racist attacks take place that are barely reported, even in the local press. It is worth adding that in the ten years from 1998, the IRR recorded sixty-eight deaths with a known or suspected racist element. Even allowing for different methods of recording, this hardly suggests that Britain has solved its racism problem over the last twenty years. On the question of a specifically anti-Muslim element to contemporary racism, Malik is even more in denial. Negative discrimination against Muslims barely exists as a social reality, he says. Indeed, ‘if Muslims are singled out in Britain, it is often for privileged treatment’. The real problem, he says, is not discrimination but the ‘desire to play the victim’.
While the existence of racism once made a desire for community-specific political movements such as the AYMs ‘understandable’, today, states Malik, they lead directly to ‘tribalism’. He writes about his friend Hassan, who, in response to racism, drifted from secular Leftism into Islamic identity politics. Hassan knew nothing of the Qur’an but ‘anger about racism created in him resentments towards British society out of which radical arguments about the Muslim community could breed’. His drift towards Islamism, which began with the Rushdie protests, was thus rooted in injustice. Yet Malik refuses to countenance that what was true of his former comrade Hassan might be true also of young Muslims today. Insisting that there is no longer any racism to fuel identity politics and that imperialist wars are not really imperialist, Malik argues that the ‘rage of Islam’ is a self-sustaining ‘culture of victimhood’ which has detached itself from any real political injustice and is sustained by the currency multiculturalism gives to ‘offence’ and ‘grievance’.
For Malik, the problem with multiculturalism is that it gets in the way of freeing Asians from their ‘traditional cultures’ so that they can be fully integrated into Europe’s liberal values. He takes the essence of progressive minority politics in this ostensibly post-racist era to be the critique of Muslim and Asian identity. Rushdie’s Satanic Verses is regarded as an exemplar while multicultural notions of cultural and religious sensitivity are seen as unwelcome restraints on such a politics. He argues that the Satanic Verses affair marks the beginning of a change in attitudes towards freedom of expression, which has resulted in the ‘criminalisation of criticism of Islam’. The demands for censorship which, he says, some Muslims have made has ended up backfiring as Muslims themselves now find themselves criminalised for their opinions. As his own examples illustrate, though, the only cases in which a person’s freedom of expression has actually been criminalised have been Muslims considered by the state to have ‘unacceptable opinions’. Yet, for Malik, these are not examples of ‘targeting a minority’; rather the real story is that the ‘fatwa has become internalized’ so that writers and artists are no longer free to criticise Islam. The media class, it seems, has its own ways of ‘playing the victim’.
The attack on multiculturalism was once a progressive stance within a radical anti-racist framework. But to abstract that position from its historical anti-racist context and apply it in today’s different circumstances is to end up endorsing, effectively, the French republican model of assimilation, with its fear of minority culture as a threat to its superior values and its denials of the continued existence of racism. Whereas twenty years ago, minority and majority ‘cultures’ were still regarded by the state as a means of stabilising political conflicts of race and class, today ‘culture’ and ‘religion’ are the vectors of new liberal racisms, the symbols of all that is threatening in the non-western world. Liberal anti-multiculturalism now serves, by default if not intent, to reinforce the ideological underpinnings of today’s racism and imperialism.
Malik claims the radical mantle of the AYMs. Yet their true heritage lies in those who continue to do grassroots support work for victims of racism outside of the glare of the media. Malik, on the other hand, in his journey from East End anti-racist to West End anti-multiculturalist has completely converged with the status quo.
It is 20 years since the late Ayatollah Khomeini declared that everyone involved in the publication and sale of Salman Rushdie’s novel The Satanic Verses should be killed. The Rushdie affair has become a key event in our understanding of free speech and blasphemy, as well as Islam, faith, politics and even international diplomacy. But there is a problem: since the affair touches so many hot topics it is difficult to pinpoint its lasting significance. From Fatwa to Jihad attempts to extract a message but leaves me as confused as ever: I see conflict everywhere, but few signs of understanding. If this sounds pessimistic, at least Malik’s book proves that conflict rarely leads to enlightenment.
The idea that conflict is the motor of history is an article of faith for thinkers as diverse as Hegel, Mill, Marx and Khomeini. Malik is a true believer. He argues that the Rushdie affair has made us fearful of conflict. His solution is to protect the space of discussion with stronger laws so that people can be as rude as they like about other cultures and religions without risk to themselves. This would remove any sense of danger from such conflicts, which sounds brilliant until one realises this is why we invented the word oxymoron.
Malik demonstrates a dreamy confidence in the power of the state, matched by a chronic despair at the impotence of real governments. When Khomeini delivered his fatwa, the British Conservative government reacted by downgrading relations with Tehran. Malik sees this as weakness, arguing that Iran proved stronger when it responded by severing its ties to Britain. Among the various appeasers, Malik singles out Norman Tebbit – then a backbench MP – who agreed that The Satanic Verses may actually be offensive.
There may be a debate to be had over the success of Iran’s foreign policy; I am not convinced that international vilification is working out for them, but I am ready to listen to other views. However, the real issue of the fatwa was never free speech and certainly not literary criticism: it was the death threat. Tebbit did the two things one could reasonably demand of a backbench Tory: he stuck up for a fellow citizen and he disliked The Satanic Verses.
Let us not forget that the book is supposed to be objectionable. Rushdie is a tornado of a writer: an essential part of his power is his talent for the exuberantly scurrilous. Prior to The Satanic Verses, his two previous novels had been banned in India and Pakistan. Benazir Bhutto was said to have been offended at being lampooned as the Virgin Ironpants in Shame(1984), and who can blame her? Malik might have preferred Thatcher to dispatch gunboats and enforce a global response of praise for The Satanic Verses, but this would not have helped Rushdie: it would have neutered him as a writer. The Government did its job by reminding Iran and its leaders that they could not make threats with impunity.
Opinions carry consequences, good and bad. Only idealists and revolutionaries – Khomeini and Malik, for instance – believe that a truly strong government would ensure only positive consequences flow from publicly expressed opinions. Has the response to the Rushdie affair dulled our capacity for trouble-making? Undoubtedly, but on the plus side, perhaps we have grown more thoughtful and less punk rock about outrage. Malik sees a decline from the Seventies and he knows who to blame: Birmingham City Council. In one of his most bizarre passages, he claims the Brums created a series of quasi-official ethnic societies, thereby inventing multiculturalism. I would have loved to have been at the meeting where the aldermen discussed names: ‘I like the Sikh Council of Gurdwaras and the Council of Black-Led Churches, but I still feel the Birmingham Chinese Society sounds a little tame: can we move for a vote on the Swords of the Wu-Tang?’ Malik’s is a mind that believes government, not people, makes things happen.
Malik’s big idea is that multiculturalism – by which he means organised ethnic interest groups – has led to a culture of grievance which renders ‘secular and progressive arguments less sayable’. The word ‘multiculturalism’ stirs outrage as reliably as stories about straight bananas in Europe. The fact that an investigation into its history ends with the Birmingham Chinese Society should give us pause for thought. One legacy of the Rushdie affair is that it has revived debate over the future of multi-ethnic, multi-faith states. Those who believe that pluralist nations end in disaster do not need straw men like ‘multiculti’ to disguise their views. Why allow them to duck the debate so easily?
Twenty years ago I was standing in a football field in a school in Bradford, watching a group of mullahs burn The Satanic Verses. I was then a university student from nearby Leeds, from where I had come with a group of Muslim protesters to gather on a cold Saturday morning in March, to chant slogans calling for the death of Salman Rushdie. After the speeches in English and Urdu were delivered an awkward moment of inertia elapsed. A shout went up to burn the book but the organisers seemed reluctant to begin until the camera crews from BBC Yorkshire had turned up to film them. The protagonists were savvy enough, even then, to stage their indignation with one eye firmly on the cameras.
Islamic identity politics did not suddenly appear on the scene after the Rushdie affair. It was already fully formed and operational in many parts of Britain like Birmingham and Bradford. By then Britain had come a long way from the race riots that had engulfed it in the early eighties. It was no longer a society cleaved along lines of race. Society was undergoing the effects of multiculturalism and the focus had shifted to religious and cultural issues.
In the 1970s Asian immigrants to Britain organised their activism in a unified secular battle against racism. But by the 1980s organisations like the Asian Youth Movement, one of the beacons of anti-racism politics, began to disintegrate as multiculturalism spread across the fabric of society. As racism receded what replaced it was a society fragmented. Different groups asserted their particular identities more fiercely and unelected community leaders became the handlers the government used to engage with communities identified by religion.
In From Fatwa to Jihad, Kenan Malik takes a panoramic view of England before and after the seismic events of the Rushdie affair. In a collection of punchy chapters in razor sharp prose comes an intelligent and insightful analysis of how racism, multiculturalism, religion and terrorism has affected British society over the last twenty years.
Malik was born in India to a Muslim father and a Hindu mother and came to England when he was five. ‘Like Rushdie’, he says, ‘I was of a generation that did not think of itself “Muslim” or “Hindu” or “Sikh” or even as “Asian”, but rather as “black”. “Black” for us was not an ethnic label but a political badge.’ Rushdie himself described The Satanic Versesas ‘about migration, metamorphosis, divided selves, love, death’ and one of the ironies Malik returns to again and again, is to is show how Khomeini’s fatwa, rooted as it was in the illusion of tradition and immutability, transformed the religious and cultural landscape of Britain.
It was political expediency, not divine law, that motivated Khomeini to issue his fatwa in February 1989. His regime was struggling to retain legitimacy amongst his own followers, most of it lost to political reformists in Tehran. Abroad, he was losing the battle for spiritual supremacy to Saudi Arabia and he was desperate to regain some of the face that he had personally lost. The Saudis were in the ascendant with the growth of Salafi Islam, its denomination of choice and its Trojan horse into thousands of mosques and universities all over the world.
In a chapter on the growth of Islamist radicalism in the Muslim community, Malik’s commentary takes us to North Yorkshire to show us the Mullah Boys of Beeston, the gang led by Mohammed Sidique Khan and Shehzad Tanweer, two of the perpetrators of the July 7 terrorist attacks in London. He dismisses the idea that they were compelled by foreign policy, but rather by rage, a loss of identity and getting ‘caught between no cultures’. They were worldly Muslim men who had found the expression for their personal alienation in the spurious legitimacy of extremism.
In the last third of the book in, Malik delves into the restrictions of free speech in the post-Rushdie world. As Hanif Kureishi puts it, ‘Nobody would have the balls today to write The Satanic Verses, let alone publish it. Writing now is timid because writers are terrified.’ He is probably right when you consider the Muhammad cartoons scandal and Random House’s decision to retract the publication of Sherry Jones’ novel The Jewel of Medina, based on a message thread on an online discussion forum.
These are just two instances of how the grievance culture of radical Islam is winning the battle against Enlightenment values, helped along, Malik believes, by multicultural policy and laws like the Racial and Religious Hatred Act (2006), which has made it an offence to incite hatred against a person on grounds of their religion. Its aim was to protect the faith and dignity of minority communities. But the paradox is that these laws are now exploited to undermine the civil liberties of those very same communities they were meant to protect. The censorship that the anti-Rushdie protestors demanded is the same censorship of offensive thought that imprisoned the cartoon protestors.
The great appeal of From Fatwa to Jihad is its pitiless observation and it is this which raises it above the easy standards of one-sided polemic. No one gets away – certainly not Islamic radicalism and multiculturalism and its penchant for ethnic and religious particularism, the monomaniacal Melanie Phillips and the chauvinism of Daniel Pipes and Mark Steyn are all roundly criticised. If Malik’s book advocates anything, it is a social order based on universalist Enlightenment values, the importance of free speech and for the elevation of secular and progressive ideas within minority, particularly Muslim, communities.
Twenty years ago last January, a thousand Muslim protesters in Bradford burned Salman Rushdie’s The Satanic Verses in front of the city police station. It is an event as firmly engraved on my mind as the Ayatollah Khomeini’s proclamation of a Fatwa on Rushdie and the novel’s publishers exactly a month later. The murderous review – final clarion-call of an Ayatollah worried about his floundering revolution in the wake of the disastrous Iran-Iraq War – flew across borders to confine one of our great writers to the shadow life of a man of no address and under constant police protection.
In the wake of book burnings and Fatwa, attendant riots and deaths, the category ‘Muslim’ acquired new meanings. The gap left by the end of the Cold War was being filled by new, contending historic forces which would reconfigure global and local arenas. ‘The burning book,’ Kenan Malik states in this important and incisive study of the affair and its legacy, was to become ‘an icon of the rage of Islam’. It declared: ‘I am a portent of a new kind of conflict and of a new kind of world.’
With this new world came another round in the ongoing battle between the defenders of free imaginative expression and authoritarian powers. These latter were now ‘religious’. But other silencing players also emerged: the upholders of so-called ‘responsible expression’ for sensitive multi-culti times. Fearful of the social cost of giving offence, these new chillers of free speech were sometimes oddly reminiscent of Lady Chatterley days when responsible censors – themselves, of course, superior readers – conveyed their anxiety about the impact of the novel on less robust servants and wives.
Malik’s book is a riveting political history of contemporary Britain and the changes that have taken place over the last 30 years. He grew up within immigrant communities where Islam ‘while deeply embedded was never all-consuming’. As a young journalist, he covered the book burning in Bradford.
Within his own cohort, he witnessed the transformation of a radicalism which had meant being militantly secular, Western and left-wing into one which entailed a search for a so-called ‘authentic’ Islam. He lived the shift from the racism of the 1970s and 1980s when ‘Paki-bashing’ was a daily occurrence, and colour and geography trumped any religious identification, to the multicultural moment when ‘Muslim’ became a totalising identity covering over a host of internal differences between people who came from different countries and traditions.
In tracing the legacy of the Rushdie Affair into our post-9/11 present, Malik marries the attributes of a clear-eyed investigative journalist and a sensitive political analyst. He challenges the cultural myths which have grown up during this period and sets out to slay their attendant monsters. Samuel Huntington’s ‘clash of civilisations’ – which lines up liberal, democratic, rationalist and scientific forces on the Western side and on the other an authoritarian pre-medieval Islam, hostile to democracy, scientific rationalism and liberal social relations – is one of these.
In Malik’s bracing analysis, both of these positions emerge as dubious. The liberal enlighteners have traduced the Enlightenment by robbing it of its universal force, as if it were too good for the others, and engaging in the politics of difference. Meanwhile, the supposed pre-medieval Islam of the jihadists is a thoroughly modern movement, spawned out of empire and a sense of grievance.
Terror, itself, is an expression, Malik argues, of the impotence of Islamism. Unable to win for themselves a mass following through the vote, the Islamists resort to spectacular displays of violence in order to gain the attention they can’t win by political means.
Another of Malik’s monsters is multiculturalism, and he traces its rise in detailed case histories. In the wake of the Rushdie Affair, politicians at a loss were keen to find ‘leaders’ who could both contain and speak for their supposed ‘communities’. Neither were, as yet, anything of the kind. But bolstered by grants and the ear of government, self-elected figures, often enough in the pay of foreign regimes, became the representatives of British Muslims. Tribalism was fostered and a conservative Islam came to the fore.
Ever ready to pounce on dissent within their own groupings, these leaders were equally ready to shout ‘offence’ whenever fiction, film or art portrayed their own identity group in a critical way. Needless to say, this was particularly the case when those who took free expression to heart came from their own communities.
Malik’s analysis of the rise of the home-grown radical Islamist groupings and the 7/7 bombers is persuasive. Less the products of traditional Islam than of adolescent rage, not so much trapped between two cultures as the embodiments of a nihilistic, contemporary no-man’s-land, these often middle-class young yearn for an authenticity which has no homeland, neither in Afghanistan nor the Koran. As for the local war on terror and the outbreak of Islamophobia, Malik’s statistics thoroughly debunk the assumption that any generalised phobia exists.
One of the most deplorable effects of the history of the last 20 years has been the culture of fear it has spawned, together with the curtailing of the arena of free expression. Rushdie’s publishers stood by him in the worst of times; their contemporaries today too often have an eye on possible complaint, protest or libel suits, and simply don’t publish or put on work which might cause offence. Malik names instances.
Recent history has a way of becoming too quickly forgotten, its shifts naturalised so that current assumptions take on the aura of ‘forever’. Impeccably researched, brimming with detail, yet razor-sharp in its argument, this book provokes a necessary re-examination. It demands, particularly, to be read by faint-hearted politicians and all those worried by the ongoing erosion of our liberties.
Marcus Dubois, politics.co.uk, 9 April 2009
On April 4th last weekend a leading British newspaper published details from a letter smuggled out of Long Lartin high-security jail in Worcestershire. Authored by the British-based Muslim cleric Abu Qatada, the main subject of the letter was the bold claim that his treatment has helped to radicalise a new generation of young British Muslims.
‘A new generation of the Muslim youth has been raised and especially among our brothers who originate from the Indian subcontinent, who were no longer mesmerised by the English authority, nor English values – rather they hate it and they know its enmity towards them, so they have become enemies towards it as well,’ Abu Qatada proclaimed.
The above proved a stark reminder, as if we needed any, of the now-indigenous terror groups claiming the banner of a ‘radical’ Islam while also claiming British citizenship and its benefits.
The specific mention of ‘brothers from the Indian subcontinent’ is to be noted. A Palestinian cleric had singled out another ethnic division, celebrating a new alignment with this group while claiming the same familiar common ground.
It is within this context that From Fatwa to Jihad provides a timely, urgent and compelling analysis of how Islam’s relationship to the west has become perhaps the key issue of our time.
Published to coincide with the eve of the 20th anniversary of the fatwa issued by Ayatollah Khomeini against author of The Satanic VersesSalman Rushdie, the book tells for the first time the full story of this defining episode.
Author Kenan Malik has some things in common with Rushdie. Both were born in India but educated in Britain. The two authors also share a similar sense of detachment: of not belonging to either culture while maintaining a strong identity of self. And both are highly educated writers who have explored multiculturalism, race and religion.
Raised in Manchester, Malik has gone on to become one of the foremost commentators on race. He is one of the most well-known critics of the modern phenomenon of ‘multiculturalism’, an idea given short shrift by Malik, especially in his recent work Strange Fruit: Why Both Sides Are Wrong In The Race Debate (2008).
Malik is therefore well-placed to take an objective look at the origins of fundamentalism in Britain. From the introduction entitled How Salman Rushdie Changed My Life there is the feel of a personal narrative which draws the reader into the complex arguments of the work.
Noting from personal experience he recounts how in Bradford during the height of the Rushdie affair he met one of his former comrades from the left, Hassan. A friend whose only indulgences were ‘Southern Comfort, sex and Arsenal’ was now organising the book-burning demonstrations which would go on to characterise the reaction to the novel. Malik observes how Hassan had found ‘a need to defend our dignity as Muslims, to defend our values and beliefs.’
This surprises Malik mostly because he knows it was racism, not religion which defined both his and Hassan’s early radicalism, as it did that of many non-whites in this country.
Carefully building his argument in stages he describes how, alarmed by race riots in the 1980s, Britain embarked on a multicultural strategy. Instead of focusing on race, respect was to be given to different ways of life instead. This was later to prove fatal by placing differences under ‘communities’ instead of immigrant races, most crucially by appointing ‘community leaders’ as go-betweens.
He goes on to notes how, in part, this worked with regard to the decline of racism. In its place however came a new problem: tribalism. Malik notes previously many different races of Muslims often shared geographical areas without incident or cause for concern. ‘Hostility is not in the blood of Asians or African Carribeans: it is in the DNA of multicultural politics.’
Such a strong statement may jar with some popular leftist thinking and this is what Malik does best. He sees the moment of Ayatollah Khomeini’s death sentence against Rushdie as the point when the policy of multiculturalism began to fail as new tribal identities began to form around the event in Britain.
One is reminded of Malik’s friend Hassan in Bradford at this point. A young Asian man who was once happy to just escape the radar of the BNP had suddenly become radicalised by an event stirred up largely by an Iranian leader.
And so we reach the central argument of From Fatwa to Jihad: that modern Islamic radicalism originated from the clever exploitation of identity. Those who had previously suffered racism were now encouraged to channel their discontent into defending Islam.
Malik is careful to underline how broad and unconnected this radical Islam is. He deftly describes how the political jostling of Jamaat-e-Islami in India was picked up by counterparts in England and then supported by people who previously had claimed no political affiliation to ‘Islam’.
The same can be said of Khomeini’s crude machinations against the Sunnis to build his Shia power base: by declaring a fatwa he created a global identity, but this also created a global focus for politically ‘unattached’ young Muslims to direct their energy.
What makes Kenan Malik’s book so readable is his ability to constantly draw together historical threads and neatly explain the underlying ideas. Comparisons are made between using one man’s novel to stir western (and often Sunni) Muslims to join a political cause, and the decrying of the 2006 Danish cartoons portraying Prophet Muhammad to stir up anger. The latter is shown to have been more of a political event than one of religious outrage.
Throughout Malik reminds us that not all Muslims supported the fatwa, just as many more denounced the 7/7 bombings. Special attention should be paid to the chapter The Rage of Islam in which he brilliantly explains how we travelled from the burning of a book to the horror of the London bombings. His understanding of the fierce intelligence of young Muslims and their problems with identity as children of immigrants in the modern West is key. He moves beyond the idea that terrorist acts are mainly fuelled by anger against western foreign policy. Identity is everything.
And it is this defence of freedom of identity which is the strongest voice in this book. He equally attacks the liberal view whilst never subscribing to the anti-immigrant right. Multiculturalism is a force which Malik feels emphasises difference, creating the seedbed for the alienated who go on to become radicals or even terrorists.
It is unfortunate that he rarely explores the big question that screams out from his critique. Namely, what is the real alternative to the homogeny of multiculturalism, when organisations such as al-Qaida are so intent on using ‘lost’ young Muslim men to exploit divisions within countries?
However it is by exploring the Rushdie fatwa and the Danish cartoon debacle that Malik brings forth an excellent argument indeed: that it is freedom of speech which has suffered the most, and it is this freedom he most rigorously defends in this commendable analysis.
In the end it’s one of his many well-researched quotes, this time from writer Hanif Kureshi, which lingers in the memory.
‘Nobody would have the balls today to write The Satanic Verses, let alone publish it. Writing is now timid because writers are terrified.’
Bryan Appleyard, Sunday Times, 5 April 2009
Alarmed by race riots in the 1980s, local and national government in Britain embarked on a multicultural strategy. Respect was to be accorded to different ways of life and, fatally, these ways of life were to be classified as communities with their own ‘community leaders’.
In a way, it worked. Racism did, indeed, decline. But the price was high. The creation of ‘communities’ replaced racism with tribalism and, in 2005, tribal riots between blacks and Asians broke out in Birmingham. These riots were caused by multiculturalism. Before the council told them they were members of a ‘community’, they were just people living together in the same place. ‘Hostility,’ writes Kenan Malik, ‘is not in the blood of Asians or African-Caribbeans. It is in the DNA of multicultural policies.’
The creation of communities in the name of multiculturalism was an admission of government incompetence. When Tony Blair wanted to fight extremism in the ‘Muslim community’, he said it was not his job but that of ‘community leaders’. Britain had become a patchwork of non-white no-go areas.
From Fatwa to Jihad tells, for the most part brilliantly, this baleful tale. Malik is well-placed to do so. He was born in India and came to Britain at the age of five. His mother was Hindu and his father Muslim, but he did not have a religious upbringing. Racism, not religion, formed his early radicalism as it did that of many non-whites in this country.
Racism is a cause that unites all creeds and colours. It is a universal enemy that can be attacked with the universalist Enlightenment belief that there are values that can be rationally and justly applied to all human societies. Splitting the world into ‘communities’, celebrating difference at all costs, is a counter-Enlightenment strategy.
Ayatollah Khomeini’s fatwa — death sentence — issued against Salman Rushdie because of his supposedly blasphemous novel The Satanic Versesin 1989 put a sword to the throat of universalism. Malik, rightly, sees the moment as critical. A British writer had to go into hiding and books were burnt. In the same year the Berlin Wall came down. We were putting the horrors of 20th-century totalitarianism behind us, only to be confronted by an ostensibly religious absolutism that challenged our dreams of progress.
Writers found their previously marginal craft suddenly flung into the front line. Rushdie’s publisher, Penguin, passed this crucial test, keeping the book in print in spite of all the attendant dangers. But, otherwise, Khomeini won. In July last year, Random House in America pulled out of publishing Sherry Jones’s The Jewel of Medina for fear of Muslim reprisals; the book led to the firebombing of its London publishers, Gibson Square, two months later. And, meanwhile, writers, understandably, cowered. Malik quotes Hanif Kureishi: ‘Nobody would have the balls today to write The Satanic Verses, let alone publish it. Writing is now timid because writers are now terrified.’
To post-revolutionary Iranian zealots, western liberal values were just one more step along the anti-Islamic road that began with the crusades. Thus colonial guilt was effectively recruited to render western attitudes ambivalent. This, in spite of the fact that it was being recruited in the name of a brutal religious autocracy.
Khomeini’s Islamic truth was nonsense on stilts, nothing more than a Shia attempt to wrest power from the Sunnis and the Saudis. It worked. At a stroke, the fatwa provided a new, global identity for any already radicalised young Muslims. Suddenly, to his amazement, Malik saw hitherto secular, left-wing young Muslims turn into Islamic fundamentalists. Khomeini had legitimised their discontent by shifting their gaze from the universal enemy of racism to the specific image of one man and his book.
This happened in spite of the fact that, before the fatwa, most Muslim readers of The Satanic Verses had just shrugged. It was the intensity of the focus on one specific issue and the exploitation of the inanities of identity politics that made the fatwa so effective. Islamist patriarchs have learnt their lesson. The 2006 Danish cartoons portraying Muhammad were used in precisely the same way.
This supports one of the central arguments of Malik’s book: that Islamism is not, as some lazily say, a reversion to a pre-medieval world-view. Would that it were. There was never an Islam like that of Khomeini or Al-Qaeda; these are specifically modern movements. To this should be added the now well-established fact that the vast majority of Muslim terrorists come from the educated middle class, the sort of people who understand and can use modernity.
Such a view is a challenge to boneheads on both the right and the left. Some on the right have argued that Islamic terrorism is, somehow, intrinsic to Islam itself, that the Koran is a warmongering book. But all religion is interpretation and to hold such a view of Islam means rejecting at least 1,500 years of historical evidence to the contrary. On the left, terrorism is seen as a response to western evils, primarily colonialism. But we have been visiting evils on the Muslim world for centuries; we have only had Muslim terrorism for a few decades. The truth is that, as the publicity power of the fatwa and the cartoons made clear, modern terrorism is the creation of modernity. Al-Qaeda is one thing and one thing only: a brand.
From Fatwa to Jihad sags in its last third. Up to then, Malik does a terrific job of making points through stories; after that he descends into mere argument. This narrows his focus when it should be broadened. It also means that he effectively evades the biggest issue of all.
He wants to defend the universal values of the Enlightenment, but he doesn’t confront the real problem with this – people. We are tribal creatures, requiring enemies and exclusive identities. Civilisation temporarily restrains our tribalism, which is why multiculturalism was such a barbaric idea; but civilisation is local, not global. Khomeini, Al-Qaeda and the liberals have all tried to go global. The result, as always, is slaughter and, for the West, a huge curtailment of our liberties, not least our freedom of speech. Nobody now would publish The Satanic Versesand nobody now goes through an airport unmolested and unhumiliated. Such is modernity.
‘Why the fatwa is still a burning issue’,
Robert Mccrum, Observer, 5 April 2009
Twenty years on, what are we to make of the Valentine’s Day fatwa against the author of The Satanic Verses? Was it a punctuation mark, a footnote or the start of a new chapter? Was it about Islam and the west, or free speech, or a Booker Prize-winning novelist, or an unholy mix of all these things? After the fatwa, nothing would ever be quite the same again. Everyone was scorched by the affair.
At the time, I remember, the episode gave British publishing a buzz. Muslim radicals were burning books, a writer had fled into hiding with Special Branch protection and thousands of column inches were being devoted to the proper conduct of a free society. In the age of greed, it was almost reassuring to know that the printed word was still a matter of life and death.
In hindsight, the human cost was terrible. Several people were killed in Turkey, a Norwegian publisher was shot and the novel’s Japanese translator was knifed to death in Tokyo. Rushdie himself became universally famous in a way no serious writer could possibly enjoy. For a decade his existence was transformed into a living nightmare. Somehow, with great dignity and good humour, he kept his sanity.
In the slipstream of history, these things are forgotten. Set against the broader canvas of 9/11, the war on terror, the 7/7 bombings of London and New Labour’s assault on our civil liberties, the Rushdie affair wears the strange innocence of an ancient war. It has also become hoary with commentary: hundreds of articles, at least one novel, and no fewer than five books, from Lisa Appignanesi’s The Rushdie File to Malise Ruthven’sA Satanic Affair.
Now, in this latest anniversary year, Kenan Malik’s From Fatwa to Jihad(Atlantic £16.99, pp266) is an enthralling but not entirely successful attempt to place ‘the Rushdie affair’ in context.
Malik is a seasoned commentator on multicultural Britain. The best parts of his book are his analysis of the complex dynamics that turned The Satanic Verses from an expensive literary novel for which Penguin paid an unprecedented $850,000 into the best-known, least-read book on the planet.
Malik shows that it wasn’t the book but its symbolic status that ignited the campaign. And it wasn’t Rushdie’s critics in Britain but his enemies in India who started it. Like almost all its opponents, Syed Shahabuddin, a champion of India’s 150 million Muslims, had not opened the novel. ‘I do not have to wade through filth to know what filth is’, he said.
When the first protests began in the UK, three months after publication, first in Bolton and then in Bradford, the burning of The Satanic Verses did not attract much attention. Not even a British Pakistani writer like Hanif Kureishi saw it coming.
Refreshingly, Kureishi is the first to admit this. ‘I saw it as a book about psychosis, about newness and change’. Even when the book was burned in Bradford, ‘it didn’t register’, he says.
Then global politics kicked in. No one really knows why Khomeini issued his fatwa. Was it a political tactic to wrong-foot some internal enemies ? An emotive reaction to television images of Muslim riots in Islamabad? One thing is certain: the fatwa transformed an obscure British row into a global conflagration.
The European Union withdrew its ambassadors. Iran broke off diplomatic relations with Britain. America uttered weasel words but did nothing. Rushdie stayed in hiding.
Since then, there has been a succession of test cases in the fraught co-existence of Islamist and liberal Britain in the aftermath of 9/11 and the age of jihad: the affair of the Danish cartoons, the fire-bombing of Gibson Square publishers over the publication of a piece of soft porn, The Jewel of Medina, and the row over the location filming of Monica Ali’sBrick Lane.
As much as Baghdad or Helmand province, enlightenment values like democracy and the rule of law have become a battleground in the war on terror. The vocabulary of this debate was forged in the white heat of the fatwa. Malik is right. We are still living with the legacy of Khomeini’s vengeful curse.
This year is the 20th anniversary of the Fall of the Berlin Wall, the Soviet withdrawal from Afghanistan, the Velvet Revolution and the ends of the Ceausescu regime in Romania and the Zhikov regime in Bulgaria.
At the time, 1989 seemed, in the now infamous words of the neo-con Francis Fukuyama, to be ‘the end of history’. It is also the 20th anniversary of the Ayatollah Khomeini’s fatwa against the novelist Salman Rushdie. In the light of two wars in Iraq and terrorist atrocities in New York, Bali, Madrid and London, it might be argued that the Rushdie Affair was actually the precursor for a wholly new kind of historical narrative: the so-called ‘clash of civilisations’. Kenan Malik’s study of the Rushdie Affair and its consequences is an admirable piece of reportage, charting the rise of ‘radical Islam’ and the erosion of freedom of speech.
Malik argues that opportunism, not theology, was the motivating factor in the Iranian cleric’s call for the murder of the magic realist novelist. Khomeini’s call was a piece of PR genius: suddenly he spoke for, and defended the rights of, all Muslims, trumping the Saudis and outflanking the Iraqis. It is chilling to read the words of the chair of the Bradford Council of Mosques: ‘Salman Rushdie has been good for us Muslims.’
Betrayed by the left, attacked by the right and alienated from the regressive traditional values of their parents, a minority found themselves disenfranchised to the point of violence. Malik discusses a friend, Hassan, who had been a Trotskyist, dope-smoker and Arsenal fan, now co-ordinating anti-Rushdie campaigns and claiming there was a ‘need to defend our dignity as Muslims’. Hassan, it seems, had tried to embrace secularism. But ‘being like’ the white English didn’t mean that the white English liked him. The furore over The Satanic Verses was a chance to assert an identity. Coupled to this was the insidious way in which ‘multiculturalism’ actively encouraged individuals to define themselves by ethnicity.
After Rushdie, the scandal over Danish cartoons of the prophet Muhammad and Random House’s decision not to publish Sherry Jones’s novel The Jewel Of Medina shows, Malik claims, the extent to which the Islamic radicals lost the battle and won the war. Fear of giving offence can lead to turning a blind eye to abuses of human rights, whatever the religion of the perpetrator. When Tony Blair said that he was ‘not the person to go into the Muslim community’ – as if there were just one – ‘and explain to them that this extreme view is not the true face of Islam’, he was effectively saying there was an intellectual no-go area for a democratically elected leader.
Subtle and intelligent though this book is, I can’t help regretting Malik didn’t deal with some of the wider issues. Rushdie’s career after The Satanic Verses is barely mentioned – and his latest novel is a terrible example of bland multiculturalism. The racism of the 80s was more than just National Front thugs: Rushdie’s own publishers also published the Koran as a ‘classic’, but with all the suras re-ordered (imagine a version of the Bible beginning with Romans and ending with Hosea).
There are now many good books on Islamic history, politics, art, science and theology, and many memoirs written by authors with Islamic backgrounds: back then, the ‘other’ really was unknown. When I first readThe Satanic Verses, as a first-year student at university, I had no knowledge of what hajj or Avicenna or jihad might actually mean. That, at least, has changed for the better.
‘At last, a novel’,
Max Dunbar, 3:AM Magazine
“The most extended thing I’ve ever written about England is The Satanic Verses, which no one thinks of as a novel about England, but is actually, in large part, a novel about London. It’s about the life of immigrants in Thatcherite London.”
– Salman Rushdie, interview with The Paris Review, 2005
The title will resonate forever, but the fiction is forgotten now. “It felt as though Rushdie had plundered everything I hold dear and despoiled the inner sanctum of my identity,” said the Muslim writer Ziauddin Sardar. “Every word was directed at me and I took everything personally. This is how, I remember thinking, it must feel to be raped.” He went on to compare the novel to a “physical genocide” threatened against Muslims. Hundreds of believers demonstrated in provincial mill towns and burnt copies of Rushdie’s book.
The Tory government of the time seemed to empathise. Norman Tebbit erupted at the sheer gall of a man “whose public life has been a record of despicable acts of betrayal of his upbringing, religion, adopted home and nationality… How many societies, having been so treated by a foreigner accepted in their midst, could go so far to protect him from the consequences of his egotistical and self-opinionated attack on the religion into which he was born?’ With honourable exceptions, support was scarce even from Rushdie’s peers. In ‘Not Dead Yet,’ an essay on the treatment of his friend, Christopher Hitchens reported that ‘John le Carre, John Berger, Roald Dahl, Hugh Trevor-Roper, and others began a sort of auction of defamation in which they accused Rushdie variously of insulting Islam, practising Western-style cultural colonialism and condescension, and damaging race relations. (They also accused him, most amazingly of all, of writing for money. What next?)”
We forget the fiction. Like its Indian-born, British-educated author, The Satanic Verses was a product of multiculturalism. Rushdie wanted his book to celebrate “hybridity, impurity, intermingling, the transformation that comes of new and unexpected combinations of human beings, cultures, ideas, politics, movies, songs.”
Actors Gibreel Farishta and Saladin Chamcha are the only survivors of a hijacked plane that has exploded above the Home Counties. Their attempts to build new lives in London are hampered by strange metamorphoses. Gibreel becomes a stereotypical physical angel, with “a halo that he has to hide under a hat” while Saladin gradually transforms into a classical demon: we feel his excruciation as the forked tail grows from the base of his spine.
I finished the novel with the sense that Saladin was the true hero, acting on love and compassion while his angelic counterpart loses himself in dreams of power. In one of these visions we meet the prophet Mahound, in the process of writing a holy book dictated by God himself. There is a possibility that Mahound is simply putting words in God’s mouth to claim earthly power, or that he is unwittingly taking scripture from the devil – as in the old heresy of the ‘satanic verses’; a theory that Muhammed wrote a part of the Quran at the behest of Satan, thinking he was listening to God. That was the offence, the declaration of war: a reworking of an ancient legend in the disintegrating mind of a fictional character.
In the book the Islamic aspect seems incidental. Angela Carter never saw it. In her Guardian review she didn’t mention Islam but described The Satanic Verses as “an epic hung about with ragbag scraps of many different cultures” peopled “mostly by displaced persons of one kind or another. Expatriates, immigrants, refugees.” Rushdie’s focus was on the immigrant experience in the UK.
He had a lot of material. In the 1980s racism didn’t slink and dissemble as it does now but was casual, unapologetic, in your face. Kenan Malik was a regular victim of white street thugs. He tells the story of Nasreen Saddique, a fourteen-year-old resident of West Ham whose family were attacked night after night by forty or so white fascists: they painted swastikas, smashed windows, gave Nazi salutes. This went on for six years. It was such a common occurrence that the local paper did not bother to report it. The area police superintendent wrote that: “The arrival of a demonstrative Asian family in a predominantly whites’ playground area had unpleasant effects.” Racism was the fault of the victim.
Malik charts a fascinating history of race relations from the Brixton riots to segregated swimming pools. He argues that after nationwide disorder the authorities decided that something had to be done to keep the lid on the savages’ cauldron. The plan was typically colonial: government would accommodate the ‘community leaders’ of different faiths and provide them with funding and influence, with the agreement that the conservative elders would, in turn, keep the natives in order. This had the effect of British Muslims coming to be seen as one monolithic bloc with a single voice. Liberal, secular, creative, gay Muslims, in fact any Muslims who didn’t agree with their self-appointed representatives, were ignored, and many outsiders even doubted their existence. This has led to the situation where the reactionary Muslim Council of Britain, which can claim the support of only four per cent of British Muslims, is treated by the UK media as if it speaks for all.
This was far from the liberty the original anti-racist campaigners had wanted. Malik discusses the Asian Youth Movement, a 1980s group that would stand watch outside the homes of people like Nasreen Saddique. It was a populist and popular organisation that transcended religious differences. It fought for pay and conditions not religious separation. At the end of the 1980s, its leader Mukhtar Dar realised what was coming. “The AYM’s symbolic black secular clenched fist split open into a submissive ethnic hand with its divided religious fingers holding up the begging bowl for the race relations crumbs.”
Rushdie thought of The Satanic Verses as a State of England novel, and the Rushdie affair was curiously parochial. In From Fatwa to Jihad, his masterful study of the novel and society’s reactions, Malik reports that outrage was more or less confined to Britain plus the Indian subcontinent. Even though Khomeini placed an open bounty on Rushdie’s life, his subjects read and discussed the book without horror in street cafes and in Iran’s literary journals. There was no protest in France, not in Germany, not in America or much of the Middle East. Arab, Persian and Kurdish writers penned an anthology of essays in support of Rushdie. What is it about this country? Reading Malik’s interview with Bradford cleric Sher Azam, I was struck by how typically British his views were. He described the UK as “a country where the values have gone. People drink, take drugs, have sex like dogs. If people believed in God, most of these problems would disappear.” Anglicise the name and that’s a Daily Mail leader. Only Wahabbism could save Broken Britain.
Malik’s prognosis is that Rushdie and his defenders won the battle but lost the war. There was never any question of Penguin yanking The Satanic Verses from the Waterstone’s racks. Yet Malik can list recent works of art that never made it to the stage or the printing press because of the concern for the violent sensitivities of religious conservatives. We are in what Monica Ali calls a “marketplace of outrage”; quivering oversensitivity lashed up, higher and higher, survival of the loudest. The act of writing could be seen, almost literally, as manslaughter. Overt censorship has become self-censorship: iron in the soul. Hanif Kureishi: “Nobody would have the balls today to write The Satanic Verses, let alone publish it.” Ali adds: “Consciously you make sure you don’t censor yourself. But unconsciously?”
Yet From Fatwa to Jihad is such an uncompromised cry for freedom of expression, for the living over the dead, that it is impossible to finish the polemic without a sense of liberation. More optimism comes from Rushdie himself, whose book is now becoming to be seen as something more than a tract or thesis. He told the Paris Review:
“I get letters that don’t even mention the Islamic stuff. I get letters from people responding to the comedy in the novel, which is one of the things nobody ever talked about – how could it be funny when the thing that happened to it was so unfunny – and I think: Finally! In a way, it makes it worth having fought the battle, that this book has managed somehow to survive, and can now finally be a book instead of being a hot potato, a sloganized scandal. It is, at last, a novel.
With images of Geert Wilders being turned back at Heathrow fresh in our minds, seldom can a book have had a more searing relevance to contemporary events. Seldom has a book offered a more revealing portrait of both a religion and a nation’s frail carapace and intellectual and moral failings. And seldom do we see so clearly that one of the lessons of history is that no one learns the lessons of history.
The government’s shameful and self-defeating ban on Wilders, continuing a policy of appeasement in the face of extremist threat, makes Malik’s case for him: that the Rushdie affair continues to cast a long, baleful shadow over the British cultural landscape.
Malik, an Indian-born, Manchester-raised writer and broadcaster, is perhaps best known as an acute commentator on race and a staunch critic of multiculturalism, a case he has refined in his previous books The Meaning of Race (1996) and Strange Fruit: Why Both Sides Are Wrong in The Race Debate (2008). This book is both a social and intellectual history and a personal journey, since the Rushdie affair stands as a decisive turning point in his own relationship with the left, where, as a member of the Socialist Workers’ Party in the 1980s, he cut his political teeth.
Malik’s opening chapter, laying out the sequence of events which led from the publication of The Satanic Verses to the issuing of Khomeini’s fatwa and its consequences across the Muslim world, not only highlights the commendably steadfast reactions of the publisher, Penguin, but also explains how the fatwa helped to irrevocably alter the geography of Islam. Previously a fatwa only had validity in states under Islamic authority, but the Iranian ayatollah’s 1989 edict (a cynical attempt, as Malik reminds us, to divert attention from difficulties at home) relocated the confrontation between Islam and the West to the heart of Western Europe.
In clear, racy prose he remorselessly exposes the fallacy that The Satanic Verses was an attack on Muslim cultural identity; reminding us that not all Muslims supported the fatwa, and many more had not even noticed it until it was brought to their attention by the crude opportunism of demagogues. Making the most of his own experience Malik discusses how some of his former confrères in the SWP ended up in Bradford organising anti-Rushdie demonstrations for the Islamist activist group Hizb ut-Tahrir. Malik explains this counter-intuitive switch by pointing out what a poor job the left had done, failing to offer a compelling version of modern British identity that could match the appeal of radical Islam.
In a chapter called ‘The Rage of Islam’ Malik convincingly maps the road to the 7/7 bombings. In attempting to understand how British-born Muslims could carry out such atrocities, he dismisses the idea that the rage was driven by Western foreign policy and instead looks at internal contradictions within British-Asian culture, between modern and globally aware young Muslims and the traditional and in some cases anti-modern culture of their parents.
In his discussion of the now infamous Danish cartoons, Malik shows how the preposterous Islamic reaction was fuelled more by extremist political expediency than by a genuine sense of religious outrage, and how the global response to cartoons – the normalisation of claims of offence, the increasingly cowardly response of Western governments in the face of threats – led to the landscape of free speech being irrevocably changed for the worse.
The book asks some difficult but critical questions, and is not afraid to answer them: is Islam really the religion of peace or an irredeemably violent belief incompatible with Western values? For Malik, though he is decidedly secular, the problem lies in false interpretations rather than in the Koran itself. Is the ‘recolonisation of Europe by Islam’ taking place before our eyes, or is this just a right-wing myth? There are critical issues being fought through in European cities, but we must not fall for the anti-immigration rhetoric of the far right. How far should we go to maintain freedom of speech? Malik is Voltairian in his commitment to supporting anyone’s right to express themselves, no matter the message.
From Fatwa to Jihad is a powerful critique of both Islamic fundamentalism and Britain’s multicultural policy. Malik readily sees that multiculturalism, with its emphasis on difference as opposed to a common identity and shared citizenship, has created an environment where Islamic alienation and ostracism are all too possible, and his critique of the liberal establishment is refreshing as well as necessary. Although in some respects Malik’s arguments share much with those made by polemicists on the right, like Melanie Phillips or Mark Steyn, and the so-called ‘decent left’, like Nick Cohen and Christopher Hitchens, he would not welcome the company. He is rigorously critical of both camps, as he projects an image of the left which is based on Enlightenment principles of free speech and universal values, and less concerned with protecting putatively authentic identities than it is with addressing social inequality and injustice.