Tendance Coatesy

Left Socialist Blog

From Fatwa to Jihad. Kenan Malik.

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 It is twenty years since Ayatollah Khomeini, Supreme Leader of the Islamic Republic of Iran, pronounced his Fatwa against Salman Rushdie. On 14th of February 1999 he sentenced to death all involved in its publication. The Cleric offered a reward of $3 million (or $1 million to a non-Muslim) for anyone who carried out the murder. The effects of this ‘judgement’ still reverberate. In this finely layered book, From Fatwa to Jihad (2009), Kenan Malik describes the campaign against the Satanic Verses. Its unfolding left a significant legacy in the United Kingdom. He concentrates on two important areas. How the Rushdie affair provided an opportunity for Islamists of various stripes to assert themselves on the national scene. Behind fronts, the latest being the Muslim Council of Britain, they have laid claim to being the true representatives of British Muslims. The other is an account of the way in which the British state’s accommodation to such groups has shaped multiculturalism. How the Rushdie Affair brought to the fore fundamental principles  of freedom of speech. That is, how these liberties have been eroded by the defence of the sacred in the name of difference.

Malik reminds us that the Satanic Verses, is a complex and densely textured piece of literature. It was initially considered as a playful ‘post-modernist’ kaleidoscope with pronounced anti-racist traits. Most today, however, remember the episodes involving ‘Mahound’ (an amusing caricature of Mohamed). These were loosely anchored on the ‘Satanic verses’. That is, revelations that did not fit with doctrine (accepting a compromise over traditional deities) that were later excluded from the Qur’an. The novel’s parody of Islam’s founder’s years of rule and, notably, of his wives – such as the (historically real) decision to execute poets critical of the Prophet immediately raised a few hackles. They were gleefully seized on. In recounting the less picturesque tale of the organised outbidding by Saudi Arabian inspired outrage, and Iran’s, Malik details the Moslem protests. These began on the Indian subcontinent, reached the streets of the UK and culminated in atrocities: the attack on William Nygaard, Rushdie’s Norwegian translator, the knifing to death of his Japanese confrère, Hitoshu Igarashi. In Turkey, a Hotel meeting at Sivas, of the liberal Alevi religious current, at which the Rushdie translator, Aziz Nesin attended was surround by a mob. It was razed to the ground. 37 people were killed. The killers were prosecuted but the Turkish state initially attempted to try Nesin. I had occasion to talk to a Kurdish Alevi (now an atheist)  a few days ago and she still seethed with rage at the inferno and the Islamist pogrom in the town that followed. These events, as much as the book itself and the furore in Britain, left their mark.

At the time many people, liberals and leftists, including his publishers, Penguin, defended Rushdie. Yet a few empathised with the ‘hurt’ caused to Islam by the ‘West’. Or considered that Rushdie was a foreign chap out to make trouble. The most notable case was the British Government. Its spokespeople expressed ‘understanding’ for the anti-Rushdie anger, and apologised for the publication of the Satanic Verses.

Meanwhile the British Islamists who marched, attracted a wider audience. They discovered pride and identity in Islam. Former leftists from a Muslim background began to join them. He does not delve deeply into this, but it was also a key moment not just in the state’s policy of co-option, but in leftist accommodation to Islamism. The process has been encouraged by those who consider this a repeat of assertions of anti-racist Black identity. Why these are not considered traitors to the left on a par with ex-Trotskyist neo-conservatives is but one of many shameful aspects of the affair. Their contribution to reaction, should, all proportions kept, never be excused. Malik takes great pains, bolstered by on-the-spot investigation, to prove how wrong this approach is. What has happened is a proliferation of religious and ethnic fragmentation – hardly a left-wing objective. A world in which the most rigorous forms of Political Islam have flourished.

Talking to former members of the Bradford based Asian Youth Movement, Malik explores how this has occurred on the ground. In place of this 1970s anti-racist movement, with its class based and inclusive agenda, we have “plural monoculturalism”, with competing ‘communities’ fighting it out for public resources. After the initial Black (political) identity of anti-racism, we were faced with a process of endless redefinition, frequently on religious grounds (Islam first, rapidly imitated by other faiths). This finished by “imposing identities on people”. Nor was this a matter of purely cultural politics. A crude power struggle for community grants was been encouraged by challenging funding through religious and ethnic ‘community leaders’ – from the Greater London Council’s policy during the Livingstone 1980s period (reintroduced by the new GLA in the second millennium) to Birmingham’s Umbrella Group. The scene is set by the process, of doling out cash on what Malik calls a ‘tribal’ basis. In this way “multiculturalism has helped create new divisions and more intractable conflicts which made for a less openly racist but a more insidiously tribal Britain.” Plenty of cases of ethnic and religious jostling, from Hindis, Sikhs, and Christians, to the opens sore between South Asians and those of black descent, follow. The complicity of some of the left in this spoils-system, and the bullying shown by those who wield the term Islamophobia to shout down their critics, is well known. Thus it is a shame the author of From Fatwa to Jihad did not interview at greater length leftist activists who have long expressed opposition to this kind of multiculturalism – communalism in all but name. Such opinions are shared beyond the stalwart anti-racists of Southall Black Sisters– rightly cited out by Malik for their persistence to fight fundamentalism of any ilk. It is becoming a key issue for grass-roots left politics in fighting the rise of another ‘community’ ethnic politics. That is the one Malik notes, parading under the label of ‘British identity’ – the BNP.

Malik does not follow the self-lacerating route of explaining Islamism through the ‘humiliation’ of Muslims. He covers the spectrum of Islamic social and theological doctrines. From Fatwa to Jihad centres on Islamism, that is, the political-religious forces  often called fundamentalists or intègrists. Getting to grips with the political and cultural roots of the phenomenon he draws on recent writings by Olivier Roy and others he detects a response to globalisation in the diverse tans-national movements. They are fixated on rules, and literal interpretations of the Qur’an. Yet many enthusiasts are strangely contemporary, with tinges of New Age individualism. Islamism “is very much a child of modern plural societies, with its celebration of ‘difference’ and ‘authenticity.” The screams of hate against any perceived insult of Islam are more about blaspheming their ‘feelings’ than serious theology. This is less clear. No doubt there are some forms of Islam that fit this mould. Locally there is the mysteriously wealthy Origo ‘community’ centre and café which acts as a cover for an Islamic version of the Alpha Course*. But what of more directly Political Islam?  If it is anything, it is organised. They have finance, they have class origins, not just the educated jihadis that Malik cites, but leaders in the pious Islamist bourgeoisie. Al-Qaeda may be dispersed around the world; other networks are rigidly structured, as Hizbt ut-Tahir indicates. The way these bodies operate offers an entry into religious revelation. The objectives may be the fantastic Cockaigne of an Islamic Republic in which only the pure may walk. But the effects are manifold. This inspires people’s whole lives, and cuts them off (when politically translated) from the rest of society. So both streams of Islam exist – alongside all the multiple forms of traditionalism and modernism. A recent case, the Danish caricatures, is an indication of both individualism and organisation, Malik has not rouble showing that the very act of representing Mohamed is not against traditional Islam. It is rather considered a personal attack on puffed up individualists. But it was the ‘Muslim community’ with its all-too eager offence seekers that arranged the protests, to which the British liberals and government so cravenly capitulated. They might not achieve their utopia but the Islamists search for political influence and power continues. Over the bodies of the impure.  

What impulse, detached from the realities of  human needs, and based on religious delirium, encourages these forces? How do they recruit? Their propaganda is telling. Fear plays a big part. The height of this trend, Malik demonstrates, can be found in warning about an immanent Endlösung for European Muslims, as if the whiff of the gas chambers had crept into our streets. Malik shows that this is “hysterical to the point of delusional” While restrictions on civil liberties in the ‘war against terrorism’ (a very real terror, as 7/7 indicates domestically), infringe human rights, and there are some bouts of aggression against Moslems, there is little evidence of systematic attacks on British Muslims. Still less the kind of religious  descrimination against, say, Copts in Egypt. On stop-and search alone it is youths of an Afro-Caribbean background who are overwhelmingly targeted. The BNP rails against foreigners en bloc,  and are equal opportunity racists. Malik indeed argues, “If Muslims are singled out in Britain, and it is often for privileged treatment.” That is, public figures from Prince Charles to Tony Blair, go out of their way to praise its contribution to the world, and there are constant arrangements made to accommodate believers – subsidies, provisions for observance of ritual, and even efforts to incorporate Sharia ‘law’ into British jurisprudence. Nevertheless the effect of this rhetoric may be, he observes, to legitimate slaughtering the ‘kufer’, as acts of resistance.

The upshot is a poisonous legacy. Today Malik remarks, there is “widespread acceptance that it had been wrong to publish, and even more wrong to republish. Writers and artists, political leaders insisted, had a responsibility to desist from giving offence and upsetting religious sensibilities.” The law of blasphemy has been repealed but the first steps towards prosecuting criticism of religion have been taken through other legislation. Against this the wholly misguided view has been expressed that this is a battle between the ‘West’ and Islam. The latter Martin Amis opines, should be made to pay by collective punishment. Even the Enlightenment has been conscripted to this distorted cause. Destroying the very universalism which is its mark. An insult to the beloved Alevi martyrs who paid with their lives in Sivas for the defence of the Enlightenment’s most cherished values. The upshot? The failure to advance genuine Enlightenment canons of freedom of speech, and universalistic anti-racism, has “helped build a culture of grievance, in which being offended is a badge of identity, cleared a space for radical Islamists to flourish and made secular and progressive arguments less sayable, particularly within Muslim communities.” 

This book cannot be recommended too much. The dilemma of how to promote real equality, and universalism, in the face of the demands of anti-democratic religious groups, remains a key political issue. This is not a problem just of the ‘unrepresentative’ nature of bodies like the Muslim Council of Britain. It’s deeper. There can be absolutely no compromise or flexibility on the core principles of the Enlightenment, freedom of thought, enquiry and expression, at their head. In the meantime I wish that all those attending the meeting I went to last night at a Council for Racial Equality, would read From Fatwa to Jihad.

* Though this apparently harmless group soon reveals its links to organised obscurantism here.

Written by Andrew Coates

May 21, 2009 at 11:07 am

2 Responses

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  1. ‘alik reminds us that the Satanic Verses, is a complex and densely textured piece of literature. It was initially considered as a playful ‘post-modernist’ kaleidoscope with pronounced anti-racist traits.’

    In other words a pile of pretentious trash. I bought the thing in an act of misguided solidarity with Rushdie despite being offended by how bad Midnight’s Children and Shame were.

    The recent TV documentary revealed Rushdie to be an arrogant bastard who knew exactly what he was doing, got the reaction (but not the overreaction) he wanted and refused to listen to anyone’s advice.

    Sadly the price of freedom of speech is defending people who abuse it. I’d like the money I foolishly shelled out for his books back though.


    May 21, 2009 at 8:02 pm

  2. Great piece, Mr Coates.

    The Rushdie affair always seem to me the occasion for Iran to proclaim its primacy as an Islamic nation over Saudi and Pakistan. That is to say, via the fatwa, it regilded its credentials as the ‘first nation’ of Allah.

    Domestically, one might argue forcably that the Satanic Verses was used by Islamists and proto-Islamists to create a condition of social scission. The community is suddenly under threat, identity and counter identity are made stark and a mass discipline is instituted. The Islamists themselves then control both the norms of that identity and the wider preception of the communty. Islamist use of the Bosnian wars, though not of course Operation Storm, followed the same pattern.

    Thinking on it, I see in Leftist fellow travellers something of the Russian nihilist left’s cry of ‘the worse, the better’. If the social scission between the Muslim community and say, White Nationalists became catastrophic, then the fellow travellers might just have the crisis they need to reach political ‘critical mass’. A strategy that is mirrored by the fellow travelers of the Nationalists too


    May 22, 2009 at 2:17 pm

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