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the rushdie affair twenty years on

battle of ideas, london, 2 november 2008

When The Satanic Verses was published in September 1988, it had been expected to set the world alight, though not quite in the way that it did. Salman Rushdie was then perhaps the most celebrated British novelist of his generation. His reputation had been established by Midnight's Children, his sprawling, humorous mock-epic of post-independence India, which won the Booker Prize in 1981, and went on to win the Booker of Bookers, as the greatest of all Booker Prize winners.

Two years after Midnight's Children came Shame, which retold the history of Pakistan as a satirical fairy tale. And then came The Satanic Verses. Almost five years in the making, and supported by a then almost unheard of $850,000 advance from Penguin, there was something mythical about the novel even before it had been published. But it was after publication that the real myths about the novel emerged.

Within a month The Satanic Verses had been banned in Rushdie's native India. By the end of the year, protestors had burnt a copy of the novel on the streets of Bolton. And then on 14 February 1989 came the event that transformed the affair - the Ayatollah Khomeini's fatwa. The fatwa transformed the Rushdie affair from a dispute largely confined to Britain and the subcontinent into a global conflict with historic repercussions, from a quarrel about blasphemy and free speech into a matter of terror and geopolitics.

For many, the controversy seemed to come out of the blue. For many too, especially in the West, the image of the burning book and the fatwa seemed to be portents of a new kind of conflict and a new kind of world. From Notting Hill riots of the 1950s to the Grunwick dispute in 1977 to the inner city disturbances of the 1980s, blacks and Asians had often been involved in bitter conflicts with British authorities. But these were in the main political conflicts, or issues of law and order. Confrontations over unionisation or discrimination or police harassment were of a kind that was familiar even prior to mass immigration.

The Rushdie affair seemed different. It was the first major cultural conflict, a conflict quite unlike anything that Britain had previously experienced. Muslim fury seemed to be driven not by questions of harassment or discrimination or poverty, but by a sense of hurt that Salman Rushdie’s words had offended their deepest beliefs.

Twenty years later, the Rushdie affair seems equally like a conflict from a different age - but for the opposite reason. Not only have the issues that it raised - the nature of Islam, and its relationship to the West, the meaning of multiculturalism, the boundaries of tolerance in a liberal society, the limits of free speech in a plural world - become some of the defining problems of the age, but it is the politics of the pre-Rushdie age that now seems anomalous.

It has become widely accepted that we live in a multicultural world, and that in such world it is important not to cause offence to other peoples and cultures. As the sociologist Tariq Modood has put it, 'If people are to occupy the same political space without conflict, they mutually have to limit the extent to which they subject each others' fundamental beliefs to criticism.'

Shortly before The Satanic Verses was published, Rushdie told a journalist that 'It would be absurd to think that a book can cause riots. That's a strange sort of view of the world.' Today, we have come to accept that books do indeed cause riots and that therefore we must be careful about what books we write - or what cartoons we draw, or jokes we tell, or art we create. To see how much the ground has shifted in the past twenty years, we only have to compare the responses to The Satanic Verses and to The Jewel of Medina. Written by an American journalist, Sherry Jones, The Jewel of Medina is a breezy, romantic, almost Mills-and-Boonish tale, about Aisha, the Prophet Muhammad's youngest wife. It had originally been bought by Random House for a $100,000 advance and due to be published this autumn. Then an American academic, Denise Spellberg, an associate professor of Islamic History at the University of Texas, to whom the book had been sent in the hope of getting an endorsement, condemned it as 'offensive'. Random House immediately dropped it. No other major American publishing house would touch it.

In 1989 even the Ayatollah's death sentence could not stop the publication of The Satanic Verses. Salman Rushdie was forced into hiding for almost a decade. Translators and publishers were killed, bookshops bombed and Penguin staff forced to wear bomb-proof vests. Yet Penguin never wavered in its commitment to keep it published.

Today, all it takes for a publisher to run for cover is a letter from an outraged academic. In the 20 years between the publication of The Satanic Verses and the withdrawal of The Jewel of Medina, the fatwa has in effect become internalised.

This shift in the political and cultural landscape has created its own myths about the Rushdie affair, about what caused it and about what should be the lessons we draw from it. It is worth relooking at the affair because those myths now shape our attitudes towards free speech, multiculturalism and radical Islam.

The first myth is that the controversy over Rushdie's novel was driven by religion. It wasn't. It was a political conflict. The Satanic Verses first became an issue in India because an election was due in November 1988, two months after the novel was published. Hardline Islamist groups used Rushdie's book to try to win political concessions. It subsequently became an issue in Britain as it turned into a weapon in the faction fights between various Islamic groups.

Even more important was the struggle between Saudi Arabia and Iran for supremacy in the Islamic world. From the 1970s onwards Saudi Arabia had used oil money to fund Salafi organisations and mosques worldwide to cement its position as the spokesman for the ummah. Then came the Iranian Revolution of 1979 that overthrew the Shah, established an Islamic republic, made Tehran the capital of Muslim radicalism, and Ayatollah Khomeini its spiritual leader, and posed a direct challenge to Riyadh.

The Rushdie affair became a key part of that conflict between Saudi Arabia and Iran. The Saudis helped set up the UK Action Committee on Islamic Affairs, the principal anti-Rushdie group in Britain. It provided the funding and its co-chairman was a Saudi diplomat. (The other co-chairman, incidentally, was Iqbal Sacranie, who would later become the first secretary general of the Muslim Council of Britain when it was set up in 1997; it was Sacranie who said of Rushdie in the wake of the fatwa that 'death is too good for him'.) The fatwa was an attempt by Iran to wrestle the initiative back from the Saudis, especially at a time when Iran had lost face by pulling out of war with Iraq and when political reformists were gaining the upper hand in Tehran.

The second myth is that all Muslims were offended by The Satanic Verses. In fact most Muslims were little concerned it. Until the fatwa the campaign against The Satanic Verses was largely confined to the subcontinent and Britain. Aside from the involvement of Saudi Arabia, there was little enthusiasm for a campaign against novel in the Arab world or in Turkey, or among Muslim communities in France or Germany. When Saudi Arabia tried at the end of 1988 to get the novel banned in Muslim countries worldwide, few responded except forthose with large subcontinental populations, such as South Africa or Malaysia. Even in Iran the book was openly available and was reviewed in many newspapers.

What are now called 'Muslim' communities were very different in those days. Today 'radical' in the Islamic context refers to someone is a religious fundamentalist. Twenty years ago it meant the opposite - radicals were militantly secular activists. In Britain, organisations such as the Asian Youth Movements had considerable support, challenging both racism and the power of the mosques. To many such secular Muslims, Rushdie was a hero not a villain, because he was seen as an outspoken champion of both anti-racism and anti-clericalism.

The third myth lies in the perception of the anti-Rushdie campaigners as male, middle aged, poorly-educated, badly integrated, devout to the point of blindness - the same kind of image as exists about Islamic terrorists today. Many were indeed like that. But many, equally, were young, left-wing, articulate, educated, integrated. Few of these were religious, let alone fundamentalist. Many were members of the Asian Youth Movement, many were in left-wing organisations, and many saw Rushdie as an important figure in their struggle.

So why were these people drawn to the anti-Rushdie campaign? Largely because of disenchantment with the secular left, on the one hand, and the institutionalisation of multicultural policies, on the other. The disintegration of the left in the 1980s, the abandonment by leftwing organisations of the politics of universalism in favour of ethnic particularism, and the wider shift from the politics of ideology to the politics of identity, pushed many young, secular Asians towards Islamism as an alternative worldview. This process was fuelled by the growth of multiculturalism as a political policy.

Every section of the 'multiracial, multicultural city', one Bradford council document of the time declared, had 'an equal right to maintain its own identity, culture, language, religion and customs'. Such multicultural policies helped encourage a more fragmented sense of identity. At the same time, faced with secular militancy on the streets, policy makers, at both local and national level, often turned to religious leaders to act as conservative bulwarks. The Bradford Council of Mosques, for instance, which organised the famous demonstration in January 1989 on which a copy of The Satanic Verses was burnt, had been set up by Bradford Council to act as a voice for Bradford Muslim communities. The new-found relationship between the local council and the mosques gave greater credibility to the conservative religious leadership within those communities, and marginalised the more secular movements. Secular Muslims came to be seen as betraying their culture (they belonged to the 'white left') while radical Islam became not just more acceptable but, to many, more authentic.

Multiculturalism didn't create radical Islam, but it did help create space for it within British Muslim communities that had not existed prior to the late 1980s. Anti-racist protest shifted through the 80s from political issues, such as policing and immigration, to religious and cultural issues: a demand for 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.

The anti-Rushdie protest did not, therefore, come out of the blue. It was an expression of the changing social and political landscape within Western societies in the 1980s. It also helped transform that landscape. It was able to do so because liberals to a large extent abandoned their own principles.

Twenty years ago most liberals defended Salman Rushdie’s right to publish The Satanic Verses despite the offence it caused many Muslims. Today, many argue that whatever may appear to be right in principle, in practice one must appease religious and cultural sensibilities because such sensibilities are so deeply felt. The avoidance of cultural pain is seen as more important than what is seen as an abstract right to freedom of expression.

But such a policy helps create the very problems to which it is supposedly a response. Take the furore over The Jewel of Medina. Not a single Muslim had objected before Random House pulled the book. It is quite possible that none would have had the publishers gone ahead as planned. But once Random House had made an issue of the book's offensiveness, then it was inevitable that some Muslims at least would feel offended.

After Random House had dropped The Jewel of Medina, it was picked up in Britain by the small independent publisher Gibson Square, whose director Martin Rynja is a staunch advocate of free speech. On 26 September - exactly 20 years after the publication of The Satanic Verses - Gibson Square offices were firebombed. Martin Rynja is still in hiding.

Whether the firebombing would have happened had Random House simply published the book without any fuss, it is difficult to tell. There will always be extremists of the sort that firebombed Gibson Square's office and there is little we can do about them. The real problem is that their actions are given a spurious legitimacy by liberals who proclaim it morally unacceptable to give offence, and are terrified at the thought that one could or should give offence in this fashion.

The lesson of the Rushdie affair that has never been learnt is that liberals have made their own monsters. It is the liberal fear of giving offence that has helped create a culture in which people take offence so easily. There's a scene in The Satanic Verses in which, one of the characters, Saladin Chamcha, finds himself in an immigration detention centre. All the inmates have been turned into monsters - manticores and water buffalos. 'How could they do it?', Saladin wants to know. 'They describe it', comes the reply, 'that's all. They have the power to describe it and we succumb to the pictures they construct.'

Rushdie was writing about the impact of racism. But he might as well have been writing about the response to the Rushdie affair. By accepting the fiction that hostility to The Satanic Verses was driven by theology, that all Muslims were offended by the novel and that in a plural society speech must necessarily be less free, liberals have helped create a culture of grievance in which being offended has become a badge of identity. The myths about the Rushdie affair have created many of the post-Rushdie monsters. If we want to slay those monsters, we also have to get rid of those myths.