The Rushdie Affair and Its Aftermath

In his astonishing work, From Fatwa to Jihad, Kenan Malik draws a direct line from the fatwa against Salman Rushdie, in 1989, to recent acts of terrorism in Europe, especially Britain. “The Rushdie affair was the moment at which a new Islam dramatically announced itself as a major political issue in Western society.” The trajectory—the day the Ayatollah Khomeini issued the fatwa (Feb. 14, 1989)–launched the beginning of a culture of outrage, particularly with second-generation Muslims living in Europe who couldn’t understand the acquiescence of their elders. Although Malik doesn’t mention them, the youths in South Africa came to a similar feeling of offense at their elders’ impotence against apartheid. These youths also lashed out more violently against the entrenched status quo than their parents did and, arguably, helped being forth the collapse of white control.

Malik doesn’t suggest that European cultures will be overthrown by Islam, though there are plenty of people who predict such a result. Rather, he contextualizes the growth of the jihadists in Europe, placing much of the blame on Multiculturalism. But first he covers the response to the publication of Salman Rushdie’s The Satanic Verses in more detail and with more understanding than earlier critics, highlighting the virtual ignorance of the book before the Ayatollah Khomeini raised the stakes against Rushdie himself and, more importantly, the West. Published in the autumn of 1988, Rushdie’s novel was widely discussed, even in Tehran. Malik quotes Ghayasuddin Siddiqui, who observed that “There was very little hostility to the novel…. There were even some good reviews in the press.”

Khomeini regarded the novel as an attack on True Islam and an opportunity to turn the tables against renewed damage against the faith. When violent protests against Rushdie broke out around the world, one Muslim patriarch observed, “Salman Rushdie has been good for us Muslims,” activating an immigrant population in England, especially, that had lost much of its identity since the arrival of so many immigrants after World War II. Kenan demonstrates how many Muslims, especially, had begun to identify with other immigrants:

“The very name of the Indian Progressive Youth Association showed how insignificant in the 1970s were the markers of ‘identity’ that appear so important today. Young Pakistanis and Bangladeshis were so open-minded about their origins and identity that they were quite willing to call themselves ‘Indian,’ notwithstanding the bloodshed and turmoil of Partition. But while they were happy to be labeled ‘Indian,’ it never entered their heads to call themselves ‘Muslim.’ As [Tariq] Mehmood puts it, ‘In the 1970s, I was called a black bastard and a Paki, but not a coloured bastard and very rarely was I called a Muslim.'”

That would all change as the growing skepticism about a common identity was replaced with the birth of multiculturalism–encouraged, in fact, by the British government. The Parekh report of 2000 “concluded that Britain was ‘both a community of citizens and a community of communities, both a liberal and a multicultural society.’ Since citizens had ‘differing needs,” equal treatment required ‘full account to be taken of their differences.’ Equality, the report insisted, ‘must be defined in a culturally sensitive way and applied in a discriminating but not discriminatory manner.'” It didn’t hurt, of course, that government funds became available for supporting ethnic and religious differences. Groups became insular, segregated from one another, more tribal.

Malik argues, then, that radical Islam–that slowly evolved from within the context of these multicultural pockets–is not a throwback to the past but modern. Call it identity politics, but also insular and narcissistic, producing wannabe terrorists who largely act alone, though inspired by international currents. He cites the young men who attacked the London transportation system in 2007 and the subsequent response, again around the world, to the Danish cartoons depicting the Prophet in 2006. Ironically, while all these fringe groups attained instant visibility within the academy, tolerance for others decreased. “The attempt to demonize Muslims [was] matched by the attempt to institutionalize respect for Islam.”

Malik chronicles what he regards as a double standard some Muslims demonstrate in their litany of victimization, arguing that “Critics of Rushdie did not speak for the Muslim community any more than Rushdie himself did.” One group of twenty-two imams in 1986 who attempted to silence liberal views about homosexuality at the same time professed that The Satanic Verses should still be banned. The writer, Monica Ali, encountered a backlash over her novel, Brick Lane, which resulted in the cancellation of a planned movie of the work. Ali’s own words encapsulate the crux of the issue: “What we have developed today…is a marketplace of outrage. And if you set up a marketplace of outrage you have to expect everyone to enter it. Everyone now wants to say, ‘My feelings are more hurt that yours.'”

Thus, “The Rushdie affair is shrouded by myths—that the hostility to The Satanic Verses was driven by theology, that all Muslims were offended by the novel, that Islam is incompatible with Western democracy, that in a plural society speech must necessarily be less free. In describing the controversy in this way, by ignoring the political heart of the Rushdie affair, the diverse character of Muslim communities and of the Muslim response to The Satanic Verses, and the importance of free speech to minority groups, and by abandoning their attachment to Enlightenment universalist values, liberals have not just created a particular picture of the Rushdie affair, they have also ensured that Western societies have succumbed to the picture they have constructed. 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.”

Note: As I finished the first draft of this review (February 6, 2011), The New York Times ran an article with the headline, “Prime Minister Criticizes British ‘Multiculturalism’ as Allowing Extremism.” The opening paragraph reads as follows: “Faced with growing alarm about Islamic militants who have made Britain one of Europe’s most active bases for terrorist plots, Prime Minister David Cameron has mounted an attack on the country’s decades-old policy of ‘multiculturalism,’ saying it has encouraged ‘segregated communities’ where Islamic extremism can thrive.”

Rarely has a writer had has work so instantly validated. For the record, Kenan Malik is Indian, and From Fatwa to Jihad needs to be on every educated person’s reading list.

From Fatwa to Jihad: The Rushdie Affair and Its Aftermath
By Kenan Malik
Melville House, 266 pp., $25

CHARLES R. LARSON is Professor of Literature at American University, in Washington, D.C.


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Charles R. Larson is Emeritus Professor of Literature at American University, in Washington, D.C. Email = clarson@american.edu. Twitter @LarsonChuck.

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