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kureishi on the rushdie affair

prospect, april 2009

Twenty years ago the Rushdie affair became a watershed in the relationship between British society and its Muslim minority. The campaign against The Satanic Verses, the book-burnings that accompanied the protests and Ayatollah Khomeini’s fatwa that forced Salman Rushdie into hiding for nearly a decade helped to transform the political and cultural landscape of Britain.

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

It was through the Rushdie affair that many of the issues that now dominate debate - multiculturalism, free speech, radical Islam - first came to the surface. It was also through the Rushdie affair that our thinking about these issues began to change. In the post-Rushdie world there has developed a much stronger sense that it is unacceptable in a plural society to give offence to other cultures or faiths. In 1989 few people had doubted Rushdie’s right to publish his novel. In 2005 there was widespread acceptance that the Danish newspaper Jyllands-Posten was wrong to publish cartoons that offended Muslim sensibilities. Politicians praised the British media for not publishing the cartoons and condemned as 'disrespectful' the decision of some European papers to reprint them.

Shabbir Akhtar is a Muslim philosopher who became a spokesman for the Bradford Council of Mosques after the book-burning. 'self-censorship', he wrote at the height of the Rushdie affair, 'is a meaningful demand in a world of varied and passionately held convictions. What Rushdie publishes about Islam is not just his business.' Many liberals have come to agree. 'If people are to occupy the same political space without conflict', as the sociologist Tariq Modood has put it, 'they have to limit the extent to which they subject each others’ fundamental beliefs to criticism'.

The impact of 9/11 and 7/7, and the murder of Dutch film-maker Theo van Gogh in 2004, have all helped to shape the cultural landscape. Particularly revealing is the story of The Jewel of Medina. The novel about Aisha, Muhammad’s youngest wife, written by Sherry Jones, an American journalist, was to have been published by Random House last year. But after an American academic described it as 'offensive', Random House dropped it. No other big publishing house would touch it. In 1989 Penguin continued publishing The Satanic Verses despite the fatwa, death threats and the murder of several publishers and translators. Twenty years on the fatwa has effectively become internalised.

The novelist Hanif Kureishi, a friend of Rushdie’s since before the fatwa, has long chronicled the changing experience of immigrants in Britain, through novels like The Buddha of Suburbia and screenplays such as My Beautiful Laundrette. I talked to him recently about the impact of the campaign against The Satanic Verses on his writing and on British culture.

 

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'Nobody', Kureishi suggests, 'would have the balls today to write The Satanic Verses, let alone publish it. Writing is now timid because writers are now terrified.'

Like Rushdie, Kureishi is a writer who came of literary age in the 1980s, exploring the relationship between race, culture, identity and politics in Thatcher’s Britain. But where Rushdie had been born in Bombay and his work deeply shaped by the politics and culture of the subcontinent, Kureishi was born in Bromley, south London, went to the same school as his hero David Bowie (although not at the same time), and his work is infused by the sounds and rhythms of the capital.

The writer Zadie Smith recalls as a 15-year-old reading The Buddha of Suburbia, Kureishi’s semi-autobiographical first novel, published in 1990. 'There was one copy going round our school like contraband', she says. 'When it was my turn I read it in one sitting in the playground and missed all my classes. It’s a simple pleasure that white readers take for granted: I’d never read a book about anyone remotely like me before.' Kureishi’s characters were not like traditional depictions of Asians either. They were as cocksure, streetwise and sexually charged as Kureishi himself. 'I was a Paki', he says. 'My family were Pakis. So there were lots of Pakis in my work. There were no representations of Pakistanis in films or novels in those days. Or not Pakistanis that I recognised.'

Even more than Rushdie, Kureishi became a talisman to a new generation of Asians who were kicking out not just against racism but also against the conventional image of what an Asian should be like. The writer Sukhdev Sandhu recalls that Kureishi changed the way that both he and his white friends saw what it meant to be Asian. Asians 'had previously been mocked for deference and timidity. We were too scared to look people in the eye. We weren’t gobby or dissing.' Not so Kureishi’s Asians. 'Kureishi’s language was a revelation. It was neither meek nor subservient. Instead it was playful and casually knowing.'

Kureishi hit the mark with My Beautiful Laundrette, his 1985 screenplay which told the story of a gay love affair between bored Asian teenager Omar and working-class white lad Johnny, set against the backdrop of racism and recession in 1980s Britain. It was shocking, sexy and funny, and quite unlike any other 'ethnic' film. But in detonating all manner of assumptions, it also upset the traditional narratives of immigrant life. Sandhu recalls how his father beat him up after he persuaded his family to watch the film on television. The teenage Sandhu knew nothing about the film, except that it was about Asians. 'The night it was on TV', he wrote, 'I swept the carpet, prepared snacks — some Nice biscuits and a mug of hot milk each - and sat my parents down'. But the nudity, gay sex, immoral Pakistani businessmen and drug smugglers disguised as mullahs did not go down well. 'Why are you showing us such filth?' Sandhu’s father yelled, his fists flying. 'Just as well we never got to the scene where Omar and Johnny start fucking in the laundrette,' Sandhu wryly observes.

'My father was right to be appalled', he added. 'The film celebrated precisely those things - irony, youth, family instability, sexual desire - that he most feared. It taught him, though it would take years for the lesson to sink in fully, that he could not control the future. And control - over wives, children, finances, was what Asian immigrants like him coveted.'

It was not just Sandhu’s father who took umbrage. Three years before The Satanic Verses, Kureishi’s screenplay incurred the wrath of Islamists. 'There were demos in New York against it', Kureishi recalls, 'organised by something called the Pakistani Action Group. About 100 middle-aged men would turn up every Friday to demonstrate outside cinemas shouting "No homosexuals in Pakistan".'

What particularly upset Kureishi’s critics was his refusal to play along with the idea that Asian writers had to treat Asian characters with respect. 'I am a professional businessman, not a professional Pakistani', the landlord Nasser tells his white sidekick Johnny in Kureishi’s screenplay for My Beautiful Laundrette when he evicts a black tenant. 'It was a new idea of being Asian', Kureishi says, 'not the traditional notion of victims cowering in the corner. I wanted to show that Asians were not all progressive or nice - so I had an Asian as a vicious Thatcherite.'

But the idea of victimhood not only proved highly seductive, it also helped to create strange bedfellows. 'It was the first time that I remember the left and Muslim fundamentalists joining hands', Kureishi recalls. 'Islamic critics would say, "You’re saying we’re all homosexuals" and "You shouldn’t wash dirty linen in public". And the left would say "You should be standing up for your community" and "You should not attack minority communities".'

Despite Kureishi’s brush with Islamism, he never saw The Satanic Verses controversy coming. 'I first read The Satanic Verses in proof copy. I didn’t notice anything about it that might rouse the fundamentalists. I saw it as a book about psychosis, about newness and change. The 1980s was an age of fusion—in music, in food, in literature. The Satanic Verses was part of that postmodern fusion.' Even when the protests began, he didn’t take them seriously. 'The demos against My Beautiful Laundrette fizzled out. I thought the same would happen with The Satanic Verses.'

Kureishi does not even remember the book-burning. 'It didn’t register', he says. 'Only with the fatwa did it become clear how serious and dangerous it was. It seemed mad to imagine that someone could be killed over a book. I was flabbergasted. How could a community that I identified with turn against a writer who was one of its most articulate voices?'

The fatwa was traumatic for Kureishi, and not just because he was, and remains, a friend of Rushdie. 'It changed the direction of my writing. Unlike Salman I had never taken a real interest in Islam. I come from a Muslim family. But they were middle-class - intellectuals, journalists, writers - very anti-clerical. I was an atheist, like Salman, like many Asians of our generation were. I was interested in race, in identity, in mixture, but never in Islam. The fatwa changed all that. I started researching fundamentalism. I started visiting mosques, talking to Islamists.'

Six years after the fatwa Kureishi produced The Black Album his first major post-Rushdie work (he is now working on a stage version to be shown at the National Theatre this summer). Set in 1989 it tells the story of Shahid, a lonely, vulnerable student torn between liberalism and fundamentalism - between Deedee, his lecturer and lover, who introduces him to Lacan, sex, Madonna and Prince (the title of the novel is borrowed from a Prince album), and Riaz, for whom all pop music is decadent and who teaches Shahid how to pray, fast and submit. Shahid was terrified that his ignorance of Islam 'would place him in no-man’s-land'. At a time when 'everyone was insisting on their identity, coming out as a woman, gay, black, Jew - brandishing whichever features they could claim, as if without a tag they wouldn’t be human', so 'Shahid, too, wanted to belong to his people. But first he had to know them, their past, and what they hoped for.'

Two years later came My Son the Fanatic, a short story, later turned into a film, about the fraught relationship between Parvez, a Bradford taxi driver who dreams of material riches and of 'fitting in' to British culture, and his son, Ali, who turns to Islamic fundamentalism to find a sense of moral order and belonging. 'I love England', Parvez tells his son. 'They let you do almost anything here.' 'That is the problem', Ali replies.

The fundamentalists in Kureishi’s stories are not first-generation immigrants, bemoaning a world that has been taken from them, but their children, yearning for an Islam they have never known. It is less a clash of civilisations than a war of generations. The first generation desires material prosperity, the second seeks to fill a spiritual void. 'I have a belief', Shahid’s father says in The Black Album. 'It’s called working until my arse aches.' When Ali confronts Parvez about his drinking in My Son the Fanatic, the father explains 'that for years he had worked more than ten hours a day, that he had few hobbies and never went on holiday. Surely it wasn’t a crime to have a drink when he wanted one?' Ali insists it is and accuses his father of being 'too implicated in western civilisation'.

'The fundamentalists I met', says Kureishi, 'were educated, integrated, as English as David Beckham. But they thought that England was a cesspit. They had an apocalyptic view of the future. They lived in a parallel universe. They had no idea what life would be like in an Islamic country but they yearned for everything sharia. And they had a kind of Islam that would have disgusted their parents.' Kureishi recalls visiting the house of Farid Kassim, one of the founders of the British branch of Hizb ut-Tahrir. 'Four women brought in the food. They came into the room backwards, bent over, so we could not see their faces. I have never seen that anywhere else.'

The Rushdie affair, Kureishi believes, transformed not just his own work, but also 'the very notion of writing'. The fatwa 'created a climate of terror and fear. Writers had to think about what they were writing in a way they never had to before. Free speech became an issue as it had not been before. Liberals had to take a stand, to defend an ideology they had not really had to think about before.'  How have they borne up to the task? 'The attacks on Rushdie showed that words can be dangerous. They also showed why critical thought is more important than ever, why blasphemy and immorality and insult need protection. But most people, most writers, want to keep their heads down, live a quiet life. They don’t want a bomb in the letterbox. They have succumbed to the fear.'