'Modernists in medieval clothing'
by Theodore Dalrymple, City Journal, 16 July 2009
Review by Dan Margolis
Guernica, 17 November 2010
'Why Salman Rushdie's book was burned'
by Maureen Freely, Washington Post, 9 January 2011
Review by Lindsay Johns
New Humanist, March-April 2009
Review by Stuart Kelly
Scotsman, 5 April 2009
'Why the fatwa is still a burning issue'
by Robert McCrum, Observer, 5 April 2009
Review by Bryan Appleyard
Sunday Times, 5 April 2009
Review by Marcus Dubois
politics.co.uk, 9 April 2009
Review by Lisa Appignannesi
Independent, 10 April 2009
'Britain since the fatwa'
by Faisal Gazi, Comment is Free, 14 April 2009
Review by Nicholas Blincoe,
Daily Telegraph, 7 May 2009
Review by Arun Kundnani
Institute of Race Relations, I June 2009
Review by Henrik Gade Jensen,
Jyllands-Posten, 19 November 2010
Alt dette har vi (ikke) lært af 'De sataniske vers'
by Anders Jerichow Politiken, 19 November 2010
Historie: Fra Rushdie til Jyllands-Posten
by Bent Blüdnikow Berlingske Tidende, 22 November 2010
Review by Henning Lyngsbo
'De rancunisering van Europa'
by Sjoerd de Jong, NRC Boeken, 19 July 2009
Review by VV
Business Standard, 6 June 2009
by S Prasannarajan, India Today, 13 June 2009
Review by Sanjay Sipahimanali,
Hindustan Times, 14 June 2009
by Saif Shahin, Mail Today, 21 June 2009
by Sudeep Paul, Indian Express, 28 June 2009
'A slice of history in the making'
by Sonia Shukla, Business Standard, 5 August 2009
'A divided society: where did it all go wrong?'
by Sujit Chowdhury, Deccan Herald, 19 September 2009
'The art of taking offence'
by Insiya Poonawala, The Telegraph, 25 September 2009
'Politics of Islam'
by Shaikh Mujibur Rehman, The Hundu, 10 November 2009
by Nazneen Khan-Ostrem, Aftenposten, 5 April 2009
Ny bok om Islam
by Einar Pettersen, Tidens Krav, 6 November 2009
Review by Torbjörn Elensky
DN 5 August 2009
Här börjar en ny tid
by Magnus Eriksson, Svenska Dagbladet, 13 November 2009
It was February 1989. I was in Bradford, a grey town in northern England. Nestled in the hills of West Yorkshire, it was a place dominated by its woollen mills, huge Victorian structures that seemed to reach up into the clouds, though by the late eighties few were still producing any wool. Surrounding the now derelict mills were row upon row of dreary back-to-back houses that had become as decayed as the textile industry itself. The mood of the town was not improved by a climate grey like its brickwork.
It was a town of which few people outside of Britain would have
heard. Until, that is, a thousand Muslim protestors had, the previous month, paraded with a copy of Salman Rushdie’s The Satanic Verses, before ceremoniously burning the book. The novel was tied to a stake before being set alight in front of the police station. It was an act calculated to shock and offend. It did more than that. The burning book became an icon of the rage of Islam. Sent around the world by a multitude of photographers and TV cameras, the image proclaimed, ‘I am a portent of a new kind of conflict and of a new kind of world.’
Ten months after that January demonstration an even more arresting image captured the world’s imagination: protestors on top of the Berlin Wall hacking away at their imprisonment. These two images – the burning book in Bradford, the crumbling wall in Berlin – came in the following years to be inextricably linked in many people’s minds. As the Cold War ended, so the clash of ideologies that had defined the world since the Second World War seemed to give way to what the American political scientist Samuel Huntington would later make famous as ‘the clash of civilizations’ (a phrase he had borrowed from the historian Bernard Lewis).
The conflicts that had convulsed Europe over the past centuries, Huntington wrote, from the wars of religion between Protestants and Catholics to the Cold War, were all ‘conflicts within Western civilization’. The ‘battle lines of the future’ would be between civilizations. Huntington identified a number of civilizations, including Confucian, Japanese, Hindu, Orthodox, Latin American and African. The primary struggle, however, would be, he believed, between the Christian West and the Islamic East. Such a struggle would be ‘far more fundamental’ than any war unleashed by ‘differences among political ideologies and political regimes’. The ‘people of different civilizations have different views on the relations between God and man, the individual and the group, the citizen and the state, parents and children, husband and wife, as well as differing views of the relative importance of rights and responsibilities, liberty and authority, equality and hierarchy’.
Huntington did not write those words until 1993. But already, four years earlier, many had seen in the battle over The Satanic Verses just such a civilizational struggle. On one side of the fault line stood the West, with its liberal democratic traditions, a scientific worldview and a secular, rationalist culture drawn from the Enlightenment; on the other was Islam, rooted in a pre-medieval theology, with its seeming disrespect for democracy, disdain for scientific rationalism and deeply illiberal attitudes on everything from crime to women’s rights. ‘All over again,’ the novelist Martin Amis would later write, ‘the West confronts an irrationalist, agonistic, theocratic/ideocratic system which is essentially and unappeasably opposed to its existence.’ Amis wrote that while still in shock over 9/11. The germ of the sentiment was planted much earlier, in the Rushdie affair.
Shocked by the sight of British Muslims threatening a British author and publicly burning his book, many people started asking a question that in 1989 was startlingly new: are Islamic values compatible with those of a modern, Western, liberal democracy? The Bible, the novelist, feminist and secularist Fay Weldon wrote in her pamphlet Sacred Cows, provides ‘food for thought’ out of which ‘You can build a decent society’. The Qur’an offers ‘food for no thought. It is not a poem on which a society can be safely or sensibly based. It forbids change, interpretation, self-knowledge, even art, for fear of treading on Allah’s creative toes.’ Or as the daytime TV chat-show host and one-time Labour MP Robert Kilroy-Silk put it, ‘If Britain’s resident ayatollahs cannot accept British values and laws then there is no reason at all why the British should feel any need, still less compulsion, to accommodate theirs.’
Even those who had originally welcomed Muslims into this country were having second thoughts. As one of Britain’s most liberal Home Secretaries, Roy Jenkins had, in 1966, announced an end to Britain’s policy of assimilation and launched instead a new era of ‘cultural diversity, coupled with equal opportunity in an atmosphere of mutual tolerance’ – one of the first expressions of what came to be known as ‘multiculturalism’. Nearly a quarter of a century later, the now ennobled Lord Jenkins mused in the wake of the burning book that ‘in retrospect we might have been more cautious about allowing the creation in the 1950s of substantial Muslim communities here’.
I had watched the burning of The Satanic Verses with more than a passing interest. Like Salman Rushdie, I was born in India, in Secunderabad, not far from Rushdie’s own birthplace of Mumbai (or Bombay, as it was then), but brought up in Britain. Like Rushdie, I was of a generation that did not think of itself as ‘Muslim’ or ‘Hindu’ or ‘Sikh’, or even as ‘Asian’, but rather as ‘black’. ‘Black’ was for us not an ethnic label but a political badge (although we never defined who exactly could wear that badge). Unlike our parents’ generation, who had largely put up with discrimination, we were fierce in our opposition to racism. But we were equally hostile to the traditions that often marked immigrant communities, especially religious ones. Today, when people use the word ‘radical’ in an Islamic context, they usually have in mind a religious fundamentalist. Twenty years ago ‘radical’ meant the very opposite: someone who was militantly secular, self-consciously Western and avowedly left-wing. Someone like me.
I had grown up in communities in which Islam, while deeply embedded, was never all-consuming – indeed, communities that had never thought of themselves as ‘Muslim’, and for which religion expressed a relationship with God, not a sacrosanct public identity. ‘Officially, as it were,’ observes Jamal Khan, the narrator of Hanif Kureishi’s novel Something to Tell You, ‘we were called immigrants, I think. Later for political reasons we were “blacks”... In Britain we were still called Asians, though we’re no more Asian than the English are European. It was a long time before we became known as Muslims, a new imprimatur, and then for political reasons.’ So what, I wanted to know, as I watched the pictures of that demonstration, had changed? Why, I wondered, were people now proclaiming themselves to be Muslims and taking to the streets to burn books – especially the books of a writer celebrated for giving voice to the migrant experience? And was the dividing line really between a medieval theology and a modern Western society?
My day job then was as a research psychologist. But I also wrote the occasional article for the Voice, Britain’s leading black newspaper. When the editor asked me to write something about the Rushdie affair, I jumped at the chance. I already knew Bradford, and many of the players in the Rushdie drama, having organized anti-racist protests in the town, including a march against racist attacks in 1986. And so I arrived that February to talk to Sher Azam, president of the Bradford Council of Mosques, the man who had helped torch the book. I came also to try to answer my own questions. It was a journey that would transform my own views about myself, my politics and my faith – and continues to do so. Little did I know that those questions would return to haunt me again and again over the next twenty years, or that the issues raised by the Rushdie affair – the nature of Islam, its relationship to the West, the meaning of multiculturalism, the limits of tolerance in a liberal society – would become some of the defining problems of the age, linking the burning book in Bradford to the burning towers in Manhattan on 9/11 and the burning bus in London on 7/7.
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. Not that he saw himself as British. He was, he said, someone inhabiting a world ‘in between’ three cultures: those of India, Pakistan and England. Midnight’s Children, his sprawling, panoramic, humorous mock-epic of post-independence India, was a literary sensation when it came out in 1981. It interlaced reality, myth, dream and fantasy, turned history into fable, and yet directly addressed highly charged contemporary political issues. The swagger of its historical sweep, the panache of its confident, modernist prose, the knowingness of its infectious humour, the confidence with which it drew upon European classics, Hindu myths, Persian fables, Islamic history, as well as popular cultures from Bollywood to Bob Dylan, and its insistence that the creative imagination was also a political imagination – all announced the arrival of not just a new literary voice but also a new kind of novel, the aim of which was to unlock the untold tales of those who, like Rushdie, inhabited the worlds ‘in between’. Politicians, Rushdie once remarked, ‘have got very good at inventing fictions which they tell us as the truth. It then becomes the job of the makers of fiction to start telling the real truth.’ Midnight’s Children won the Booker Prize in 1981, and went on to win in 1993 the Booker of Bookers, as the greatest of all Booker Prize winners. Fifteen years later, when Man Booker reran the competition to celebrate the fortieth anniversary of the prize, it again returned triumphant, having by now established itself as perhaps the most important British novel of the post-war years.
Two years after Midnight’s Children came Shame, which retold the history of Pakistan as a satirical fairy tale. Many saw it as a certainty to win the Booker Prize again, but it lost out to J.M. Coetzee’s Life and Times of Michael K. Nevertheless, Shame consolidated Rushdie’s reputation both as a novelist and as a controversialist. Midnight’s Children had been banned in India for its acid portrayal of the Nehru dynasty. Indira Gandhi sued for libel in a London court and won, which was not surprising, given that Britain’s libel laws were – and remain – as archaic as the regime that Rushdie was satirizing. Shame caused similar outrage among Pakistan’s political elite (the late Benazir Bhutto reputedly took particular exception to Rushdie’s mocking of her as the Virgin Ironpants) and was again banned.
And then came The Satanic Verses. Almost five years in the making, supported by a then almost unheard-of $850,000 advance from his new publishers, Penguin, and published in the wake of a much talked-about split between Rushdie and his long-time friend and publisher, Liz Calder of Bloomsbury, the novel had become myth even before the public had read a word of it. Rushdie could undoubtedly have written an acidly baroque tale about its gestation.
In an interview in the Australian literary magazine Scripsi in 1985, Rushdie mentioned that he was working on two novels. One was ‘about God… that was not just a secular sneer’; the other was ‘a much larger project… a novel set in the West that deals with the idea of migration’. Over the next three years, the two became stitched together into a not altogether coherent whole: one a fantastic tale about the migrant experience in Britain, the other a fable about the origins of Islam.
Rushdie himself seemed somewhat uncertain about the character of the novel, both describing it as ‘a serious attempt to write about religion and revelation from the point of view of a secular person’, and insisting that ‘the book isn’t actually about Islam, but about migration, metamorphosis, divided selves, love, death’.
The Satanic Verses opens with a hijacked jumbo jet exploding above the Sussex coast. There are only two survivors. Gibreel Farishta is a Bollywood superstar who depicts gods and is revered as one by his fans. Saladin Chamcha is an Anglophile – ‘more-loyal-than-the-Queen’ – so fanatically British that he wears a bowler hat even when tumbling from 29,002 feet (the height of Mount Everest and the very height at which the aircraft was blown up). As they fall, Saladin and Gibreel metamorphose. Saladin becomes hairy and goat-like, his feet turn to hoofs and he sprouts horns. Gibreel acquires a halo that he has to hide under a hat. The two men become the unwitting, and unwilling, protagonists in an eternal battle between good and evil, the divine and the satanic.
The progress of Saladin and Gibreel through the dark, surreal landscape of Vilayet (the Hindi word for ‘foreign place’, which Rushdie uses as a label for Britain) acts as the holding frame for the novel. Into this frame Rushdie inserts a number of novellas, each arising out of Gibreel’s dreams, and each of which confronts the nature of religion.
The first tells the story of God’s revelation to the Prophet Mahound and how the new religion of Submission swept through Jahilia, a city built entirely of sand. This is a fictionalized, satirical account of the creation of Islam. Mahound is an ancient Christian derogatory name for Muhammad, Submission is the literal translation of ‘Islam’, and jahiliyyah is an Arabic word for ‘ignorance’, used by Muslims to describe the condition in which Arabs found themselves before the revelation of the Qur’an to Muhammad. The second novella concerns an imam in London (who, as Rushdie would put it, both is and is not Ayatollah Khomeini exiled in Paris) and his uncompromising struggle against the ruler of contemporary Jahilia. A third tells of Ayesha, a visionary peasant girl shrouded in butterflies, who leads her entire Indian village on a pilgrimage to Mecca during which they all walk into the sea and drown, a story based on a real event. Rushdie weaves into this tapestry the threads of other stories, of love and passion, betrayal and faith, reconciliation and death.
The Satanic Verses is held together not by a conventional narrative structure but by a cat’s cradle of cross-referenced names, images and allusions. Mount Cone is the mountain on which Mahound receives his revelation; Allie Cone is the mountaineer whom Gibreel loves. Allie Cone’s dream is a solo ascent of Everest; in Bombay, Gibreel lives at the very top of the Everest Apartments. Hind was the wife of the Grandee of Jahilia and Mahound’s mortal enemy; she is also the wife of Muhammed Sufyanin, in whose café Saladin finds refuge. Ayesha is the visionary who leads the suicidal pilgrimage to Mecca; she is also the empress of present-day Jahilia, against whom the exiled imam wages war. The imam’s henchmen are avatars of those in the service of Mahound. And so it goes on. The result is a complex, chaotic novel, the sheer bravura of which sweeps the reader along.
A work as boisterous, allusive and transgressive as The Satanic Verses would never give itself up to a single reading. Yet it was also, as Rushdie’s previous novels had been, a politically engaged work which, through its imaginative reworkings of modern Vilayet and ancient Jahilia, confronted many of the most charged questions of our time, religious and secular. Inevitably, many readers overlooked the unruliness of the novel and took instead a one-eyed view of Rushdie’s words. Western critics rarely saw beyond a migrant’s tale. Many Muslims were blind to anything aside from what they perceived as a gratuitously blasphemous assault on their faith.
The Satanic Verses, the novelist Angela Carter observed in a review in the Guardian, was ‘an epic hung about with ragbag scraps of many different cultures’. It was peopled ‘mostly by displaced persons of one kind or another. Expatriates, immigrants, refugees.’ Not once in her review did she mention Islam. For the Muslim philosopher Shabbir Akhtar, on the other hand, Rushdie’s novel was an ‘inferior piece of hate literature’ which ‘falsified historical records’ in ‘a calculated attempt to vilify and slander Muhammad’. From the space between these two readings emerged the Rushdie affair.
The Rushdie affair was the moment at which a new Islam dramatically announced itself as a major political issue in Western society. It was also the moment when Britain realized it was facing a new kind of social conflict. From the very beginnings of post-war immigration, blacks and Asians had been involved in bitter conflicts with authority. In 1958 the Notting Hill race riots in west London led the local Labour MP George Rogers to declare that ‘the tremendous influx of coloured people from the Commonwealth’ had helped ‘foster vice, drugs, prostitution and the use of knives’. He added that ‘For years white people have been tolerant. Now their tempers are up.’
Two decades later, Notting Hill had become home to the largest carnival outside the Caribbean – and to explosive confrontations between police and black youth. In 1976, as reggae star Junior Murvin’s ‘Police and Thieves’ pumped out of the sound systems – ‘Police and thieves in the streets / Fighting the nation with their guns and ammunition’ – the carnival degenerated into bitter street battles. The following year came the Grunwick dispute, in which the struggle of a group of low-paid Asian women to form a union led to violent confrontation and became a national cause célèbre, with mass pickets outside the factory gates and miners and postal workers taking industrial action in support of the women. And, of course, there were the inner-city riots of the 1980s, culminating in the Broadwater Farm confrontation in 1985.
All these conflicts raised tensions and generated widespread and often fractious debates about the desirability of mass immigration. But these were also in the main political struggles, or issues of law and order. Confrontations over unionization or discrimination or police harassment were of a kind that was familiar even prior to mass immigration.
The Rushdie affair was different. It was the first major cultural conflict, a controversy 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. Where did such hurt come from, and why was it being expressed now? How could a novel create such outrage? Could Muslim anguish be assuaged, and should it be? How did the anger on the streets of Bradford relate to traditional political questions about rights, duties and entitlements? Britain had never asked itself such questions before. Twenty years on, it is still groping for the answers.
The Rushdie affair was a turning point in the relationship between British society and its Muslim communities. It was a turning point for me too. I was born in India, but came to Britain in the sixties as a five-year old. My mother came from Tamil Nadu in southern India. She was Hindu. My father’s family had moved to India from Burma when the Japanese invaded in 1942. It is through him that I trace my Muslim heritage.
Mine was not, however, a particularly religious upbringing. My parents forbade me (and my sisters) from attending religious education classes at school, because they did not want us to be forcefed Christianity. But we were not force-fed Islam or Hinduism either. I still barely know the Hindu scriptures, and while I read the Qur’an in my youth, it was only after the Rushdie affair that I took a serious interest in it.
What shaped my early experiences was not religion but racism. I arrived in Britain just as ‘Paki-bashing’ was becoming a national sport. ‘Paki’ was the abusive name for any Asian, and ‘Paki-bashing’ was what racists called their pastime of hunting out and beating up Asians. My main memory of growing up in the 1970s was of being involved almost daily in fights with racists, and of how normal it seemed to come home with a bloody nose or a black eye. (A few years ago I was making a TV documentary on which the runner was a young, hip, street-wise Asian, just out of university. During a conversation I happened to mention ‘Paki-bashing’. ‘What’s Paki-bashing?’ he asked, genuinely puzzled, never having heard the phrase, still less having experienced its effects – an indication of how much Britain has changed in the past thirty years.)
Like many Asians of my generation, I was drawn towards politics by my experience of racism. I was left-wing, and, indeed, joined a number of far-left organizations in my twenties. But if it was racism that drew me to politics, it was politics that made me see beyond the narrow confines of racism. I came to learn that there was more to social justice than the injustices done to me, and that a person’s skin colour, ethnicity or culture was no guide to the validity of his or her political beliefs. Through politics, I was introduced to the ideas of the Enlightenment, and to concepts of a common humanity and universal rights. Through politics, too, I discovered the writings of Marx and Mill, Kant and Locke, Paine and Condorcet, Frantz Fanon and C.L.R. James.
By the end of the 1980s, however, many of my friends had come to see such Enlightenment notions as dangerously naive. The Rushdie affair gave notice not just of a new Islam but also of a new left. Radicals slowly lost faith in secular universalism and began talking instead about multiculturalism and group rights. They became disenchanted with Enlightenment ideas of rationalism and humanism, and many began to decry the Enlightenment as a ‘Eurocentric’ project. Where once the left had argued that everyone should be treated equally, despite their racial, ethnic, religious or cultural differences, now it pushed the idea that different people should be treated differently because of such differences. Lee Jasper, who became the Mayor of London’s race advisor in 2000, cut his teeth in anti-racist campaigning in the late 1980s, being a founder member of such organizations as the National Black Caucus and the National Assembly Against Racism. ‘You have to treat people differently to treat them equally,’ he told me when I interviewed him for a Channel 4 TV documentary in 2003.
Over the past two decades many of the ideas of the so-called ‘politics of difference’ have become mainstream through the policies of multiculturalism. We’re All Multiculturalists Now, observed Nathan Glazer, the American sociologist and former critic of pluralism, in the title of a book. And indeed we are. The celebration of difference, respect for pluralism, avowal of identity politics – these have come to be regarded as the hallmarks of a progressive, anti-racist outlook and as the foundation stones of modern liberal democracies.
Yet there is a much darker side to multiculturalism, as the Rushdie affair demonstrated. Multiculturalism has helped foster a more tribal nation and, within Muslim communities, has undermined progressive trends while strengthening the hand of conservative religious leaders. While it did not create militant Islam, it helped, as we shall see in this book, create for it a space within British Muslim communities that had not existed before.
I was in the drab Victorian semi near the university that housed the Bradford Council of Mosques, waiting to speak to the Council’s chairman, Sher Azam. Suddenly, I heard a familiar voice.
‘Hello, Kenan, what are you doing here?’
It was Hassan, a friend from London, whom I had not seen for over a year. ‘I’m doing some interviews about Rushdie,’ I told him. ‘But what are you doing in this God-forsaken place?’
Hassan laughed. ‘Trying to make it less God-forsaken,’ he said. ‘I’ve been up here a few months, helping in the campaign against Rushdie.’
And then he laughed again when he saw my face. ‘No need to look so shocked,’ he said. He had had it with the ‘white left’. He had got tired of all those dreary political meetings and the hours spent on street corners selling newspapers that no one wanted. But it had also become something more than simply disaffection with radical politics. He had, he said, lost his sense of who he was and where he’d come from. So he had returned to Bradford to try to rediscover it. And what he had found was a sense of community and a ‘need to defend our dignity as Muslims, to defend our values and beliefs’. He was not going to allow anyone – ‘racist or Rushdie’ – to trample over them.
The Hassan I had known in London had been a member of the far-left Socialist Workers Party (as I had been for a while). Apart from Trotskyism, his other indulgences were Southern Comfort, sex and Arsenal. We had watched the Specials and the Clash together, smoked dope together, argued together about football. We had marched together, chucked bricks together at the National Front, together been arrested.
There was nothing unusual about any of this. This was what it was like for many an Asian growing up in Britain in the 1980s. Hassan had been born, as I had, on the subcontinent (in Pakistan, not India) but brought up in Britain. His parents were observant Muslims, but, like many of their generation, were of the kind that only visited the mosque whenever the ‘Friday feeling’ gripped them. Hassan had attended mosque as a child, and learnt the Qur’an. But by the time he left school God had left him. ‘There’s a hole inside me where God used to be,’ Salman Rushdie once told an interviewer. I had never detected any such hole in Hassan. He seemed to have been hewed from secular rock. A football fanatic, the only God he worshipped was Liam Brady, Arsenal’s magical midfielder. But now here he was in Bradford, an errand boy to the mullahs, inspired by book-burners, willing to shed blood for a thousand year- old fable that he had never believed in.
Unlike Gibreel Farishta and Saladin Chamcha, Hassan sported neither horns nor a halo. But his metamorphosis from left-wing wide boy to Islamic militant was no less extraordinary than that of the anti-heroes of The Satanic Verses. In that metamorphosis lies the story of the wider changes that were taking place both in Britain and in other Western nations, changes that made possible not just the Rushdie affair but eventually 9/11 and 7/7 too. This book is the story of that metamorphosis. It is a guidebook to the road from fatwa to jihad.
From Fatwa to Jihad:
The Rushdie Affair and its Legacy
'The kindness of strangers'
by Mark Pagel, Prospect, June 2008
by Steve Cave,Financial Times, 14/15 June 2008
'Putting the race cards on the table'
by Ian Hacking, New Scientist, 21 June 2008
Review by Dominic Lawson
Sunday Times, 22 June 2008
'It's not a black and white issue'
by Andrew Anthony, Observer, 29 June 2008
'A very modern malady'
by John Gray,Independent, 4 July 2008
'A different race'
by Robin Walsh,Culture Wars, 9 July 2008
Review by William Leith
Sunday Telegraph, 20 July 2008
Review by Steven Poole
Guardian, 30 August 2008
Why Both Sides Are Wrong in the Race Debate
‘I am inherently gloomy about the prospect of Africa… All our social policies are based on the fact that their intelligence is the same as ours – whereas all the testing says not really.’
So claimed the Nobel Laureate, James Watson, in an interview in Britain’s Sunday Times in October 2007. Watson is one of the most eminent living scientists. In 1953, he and Francis Crick unravelled the extraordinary double helix structure of DNA, perhaps the single most important scientific breakthrough of the twentieth century. For forty years he was director of the Cold Spring Harbor Laboratory on Long Island, New York, one of the most prestigious biological research institutions in the world. He was also director of America’s Human Genome Project, until he resigned over plans to patent genes, to which he was passionately opposed.
But Watson also has a darker reputation. He has been mired in controversy throughout his life, such as when he claimed a link between skin colour and libido or seemed to suggest that it might be right to abort ‘gay’ foetuses (he later insisted that his words had been taken out of context). The journal Science once said of him that ‘To many in the scientific community, Watson has long been something of a wild man, and his colleagues tend to hold their collective breath whenever he veers from the script.’
The Sunday Times interview was one of several that Watson had given to promote his autobiography called, perhaps unsurprisingly, Avoid Boring People. Despite the title, the book is quite bland. Watson refers to the issue of race only briefly and obliquely. ‘There is no firm reason’, he writes, ‘to anticipate that the intellectual capacities of people geographically separated in their evolution should prove to have evolved identically. Our wanting to reserve equal powers of reason as some universal heritage of humanity will not be enough to make it so.’ In the Sunday Times interview, conducted by his former student Charlotte Hunt-Grubbe, Watson translated the careful wording of the book into the language of the street. People expect everyone to be equal, he claimed, but ‘people who have to deal with black employees find this is not so.’
Censure was swift and universal. Steven Rose, professor of biology at the Open University, condemned the comments as ‘scandalous’. The Mayor of London, Ken Livingstone, fulminated against ‘ignorant comments’ that ‘are utterly offensive and give succour to the most backward in our society.’ Britain’s newly-formed Equality and Human Rights Commission studied the remarks to see if it could bring any legal action. London’s Science Museum, at which Watson was to have delivered a lecture, cancelled his appearance, claiming that the Nobel Laureate had ‘gone beyond the point of acceptable debate.’
In America, too, the criticism was almost total. The Federation of American Scientists condemned Watson for choosing ‘to use his unique stature to promote personal prejudices that are racist, vicious and unsupported by science.’ Francis Collins, director of the National Human Genome Research Institute, described Watson’s comments as ‘racist’ and as both ‘profoundly offensive and utterly unsupported by scientific evidence.’ Cold Spring Harbor Laboratory not only ‘vehemently’ disowned Watson’s remarks but suspended his chancellorship of the institution, forcing him eventually to resign.
The row over Watson’s comments shows all that is wrong with the current debate about race. On the one hand, Watson got his facts in a double helix. On the other, the arguments of Watson’s critics were equally in a twist. There are certainly real genetic differences between human populations and the scientific study of these differences can help unravel the roots of disease, develop new medicines, unpick the details of deep human history; perhaps eventually even tell us something about the nature of intelligence. Such genetic differences are, however, not the same as racial differences. Race provides a means, not just of categorising humanity, but also of imputing meaning to those categories and of selecting certain categories, based on skin colour, appearance, or descent, as being of particular importance. Racial thinking divides human beings into a small set of discrete groups, sees each group as possessing a fixed set of traits and abilities and regards the differences between these groups as the defining feature of humanity. All these beliefs run counter to scientific views of population differences.
If Watson’s arguments seemed to show a disregard for the facts of human differences, those of many of his critics appeared to be indifferent to the spirit of free inquiry. For the Science Museum, Watson went ‘beyond the point of acceptable debate’. But what is acceptable debate? Two years ago, the then Harvard chancellor, Larry Summers, caused outrage by suggesting, in a speech, that evolved brain differences, rather than gender discrimination, may explain why men dominate science. Like Watson, Summers faced condemnation. Like Watson, he had to apologise for his comments. And like Watson, he was forced eventually to resign his post. The evolutionary psychologist Steven Pinker was asked whether Summers had put himself beyond the pale of legitimate academic discourse with his comments. ‘Good grief’, Pinker exclaimed, ‘Shouldn’t everything be within the pale of legitimate academic discourse, as long as it is presented with some degree of rigor? That’s the difference between a university and a madrassa.’
Of course, there was more than a little lack of rigour to Watson’s comments. Yet the issue of race, and of the relationship between race and intelligence, remains the subject of legitimate scientific debate. Almost on the same day as Avoid Boring People hit the bookshops, so did Craig Venter’s autobiography, A Life Decoded. Venter is a geneticist, almost as distinguished as Watson. He was one of the driving forces behind the Human Genome Project and the founder of Celera, the private sector biotechnology company without which the unravelling of human genome would have taken considerably longer. His view on race is the opposite of Watson’s. ‘The concept of race’, he writes, ‘has no genetic or scientific basis’. Nor, he suggests, is there any ‘basis in scientific fact or in the human gene code for the notion that skin colour will be predictive of intelligence’.
There is, as we shall see in Chapter 2, a growing questioning of the idea that race has no genetic basis and a burgeoning use of racial categories in scientific and medical research. Nevertheless, Venter’s argument broadly accords with the current scientific consensus. It certainly accords with current moral and political sensibilities. Nevertheless, it is as legitimate for Watson to express his opinion as it is for Venter to express his, even if Watson’s appears to be factually wrong, morally suspect and politically offensive. As in many controversies about the human condition, the debate about race is less about the facts of human differences than about the meaning of these facts. It is only through open debate that we are able to decide which interpretation of the facts is the most meaningful. A scientific debate that is policed to ensure that opinions do not wander beyond acceptable moral and political boundaries is no debate at all and itself loses any meaning.
For many, though, science is political. In recent years, there has grown a greater scepticism about the idea that science provides an objective view of the world, a view that is universal and valid across all societies and cultures. Belief in the objectivity of the scientific method and the universality of scientific knowledge developed through the Scientific Revolution of the seventeenth century and the Enlightenment of the eighteenth. It is a belief that traditionally has been associated with progressive thought – but no longer. Where radicals once championed scientific rationalism and Enlightenment universalism, now they are more likely to decry both as part of a ‘Eurocentric’ project. ‘All knowledge systems’, the philosopher Sandra Harding has written, ‘including those of modern science are local ones.’ Western science has taken over the world ‘not because of the greater purported rationality of Westerners or the purported commitment of their sciences to the pursuit of disinterested truth’ but ‘primarily because of the military, economic and political power of European cultures.’ Science, Harding concludes, ‘is politics by other means.’ And if that is the case, then science clearly must be policed for its moral and political rightness. That is why Watson was sandbagged as much by moral outrage as by rational argument.
The irony is that, for all the vitriol directed at Watson, racial talk today is as likely to come out of the mouths of liberal anti-racists as of reactionary racial scientists. The affirmation of difference, which once was at the heart of racial science, has become a key plank of the anti-racist outlook. We’re All Multiculturalists Now observes the American sociologist Nathan Glazer, in the title of a book. Indeed we are. The celebration of difference, respect for pluralism, avowal of identity politics – these have come to be regarded as the hallmarks of a progressive, anti-racist outlook and as the foundation of a modern liberal democracy. The paradoxical result, as we shall see, has been to transform racial thinking into a liberal dogma. Out of the withered seeds of racial science have flowered the politics of identity. Strange fruit, indeed.
This book challenges both sides of the race debate. There are three broad parts to my argument. The first two chapters explore the meaning of race as a scientific category. Race, I argue, is a social, not a scientific category, but it is precisely because it is a social category that it may be useful in scientific and medical research. Chapters 3 to 7 examine the rise and fall historically of the idea of race and explain its sublimation into the idea of culture. Chapters 8 to 10 look at the contemporary clash between claims of scientific rationality and those of cultural identity and at how much modern liberal thinking has been infected by a racial view of the world. The final chapter is an afterword on the Watson row, which re-examines the debate over his comments in light of the argument in this book.
Race is not a rational, scientific category. Anti-racism has become an irrational, anti-scientific philosophy. The challenge we face is to confront racial thinking while defending scientific rationality and promoting Enlightenment universality. The aim of this book is to do just that.
'Een academische oorlog' by Maarten Derksen,
De Academische Boekengids (Holland), No 32, April 2002
Review by Jean-Paul Baquiast, Les automates intelligents.
9 April 2001
Review by Marcin Szwed, Endeavour, vol26, no1 (2002)
'Undermining Man' by Noga Arikha,TLS, 9 February 2001
'Peace for political animals' by Jonathan Ree, Independent, 16 December 2000
'Losing both soul and self' by Hugh Lawson-Tancred, Spectator, 2 December 2000
'War of the world views' by Bob Tait, Glasgow Herald, 18 November 2000
'Whatever happened to free will and reason?' by John Cornwell,
Sunday Times, 12 November 2000
'The owl of Minerva flies at dusk' by Bryan Appleyard, Literary Review, November 2000
'Taking the beast out of mankind' by Mary Midgley,
London Evening Standard, 23 October 2000
'Scary monsters' by Hugo Barnacle, New Statesman, 23 October 2000
'Reclaiming humanism' by AC Grayling, Independent on Sunday, 22 October 2000
'Just fancy chimps with attitude?' by Christian Tyler, Financial Times, 21&22 October 2000
'How different are humans?' by Anthony Daniels, Sunday Telegraph, 15 October 2000
Are humans just animals? Are minds just machines? And what does it say about our age that such ideas appear both scientifically plausible and culturally acceptable? These are the issues at the heart of Man, Beast and Zombie.
In the book, I question the ways in which we understand what it means to be human, both scientifically and culturally. Recent advances in evolutionary biology, neuroscience, genetics and AI seem to make possible the understanding of humans as simply animals or machines. I argue that this is an illusion fostered by a culture that is deeply pessimistic in its view of human beings. A century's worth of bloodshed and barbarism has created disillusionment with human capacities and opened the way for a science that views humans as beasts or zombies.
Man, Beast and Zombie is in part an exploration of scientific arguments about human nature, and in particular of evolutionary psychology and cognitive science. In part it is a study of cultural history, of the impact of intellectual and cultural changes on scientific conceptions of the human. And, in part, it is an attempt to understand the philosophical framework within which the contemporary science of Man works.
Through a discussion of historical figures such as Descartes, Darwin, Spencer, Konrad Lorenz, Franz Boas and Margaret Mead, and of contemporary thinkers like Richard Dawkins, EO Wilson, Stephen Jay Gould, John Searle, Daniel Dennett and Peter Singer, I provide a critique both of the contemporary science of human nature and of the culture that has given rise to it.
Roy Porter called it 'The most insightful and thoughtful account of the contemporary claims of science', while Ray Tallis said of it in Prospect that 'it is wonderfully written, rigorously argued, witty, knowledgeable and balanced in its judgements.'
Man, Beast and Zombie:
What Science Can and Cannot Tell Us About Human Nature
Weidenfeld & Nicolson (2002) / Rutgers University Press (2002)
Journal of Ethnic and Migration Studies, vol24, no1 (1998)
Ethnic and Racial Studies, vol20, no2 (1998)
Sociological Review, vol45, no2 (1997)
'The colour purpose', by Desmond King, Times Higher Education Supplement, 21 March 1997
'Collected works', by Beulah Ainley, New Scientist, 1 February 1997
'Hue and cry' by Stephen Howe, New Statesman, 13 December 1996
'Pluralism or equality: A review', by Kaushika Amin, Runnymede Trust Bulletin, November 1996
'Time for another social revolution', by AC Grayling, Financial Times, 10&11 August 1996
The Meaning of Race has two key themes. First it explores the intellectual and philosophical basis of racial thinking, examining the origins and development of the concept of race from the Enlightenment to the present day. Second, it also looks at the way in which recent social and political developments - such as the end of the Cold War, the erosion of the postwar liberal consensus, and the demise of the left - have shaped our ideas about race.
Controversially, the book argues that much of contemporary antiracism is rooted in the same antihumanist philosophies of human differences that gave rise to the idea of race in the first place.Only a philosophy based on a universalist and humanist outlook, I suggest, can hope to transcend the discourse of race.
The Meaning of Race was described by AC Grayling as 'brilliantly ambitious' and by the Sociological Review as 'a work of prodigious learning'.
The Meaning of Race:
Race History and Culture in Western Society
Macmillan Press / New York University Press (1996)
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