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A marketplace of outrage

British Muslims took to the streets and burned copies of Salman Rushdie’s The Satanic Verses. Here w

On 14 January 1989, 1,000 Muslim protesters marched through the centre of Bradford, parading a copy of Salman Rushdie’s novel The Satanic Verses tied to a stake. Stopping in front of a police station, they set the book alight. It was an act calculated to shock and offend. But it did more than that: the burning book became an icon of Islamic rage, and a portent of a new kind of conflict.

Conflicts between minority communities and the state were nothing new. From the Notting Hill riots of the 1950s to the further inner-city disturbances of the 1980s – in London, Liverpool, Bristol, Birmingham and Leeds – blacks and Asians had often been involved in bitter clashes with the ­authorities. But these were, in the main, political conflicts, or issues of law and order. The Rushdie affair was different. Muslim fury seemed to be driven not by questions of harassment or discrimination or poverty, but by a sense that Salman Rushdie’s words had offended some deeply held beliefs.

When The Satanic Verses was published in September 1988, Rushdie was perhaps the most celebrated British novelist of his generation. He had made his name with Midnight’s Children, the sprawling, humorous mock-epic of post-independence India, which won the Booker Prize in 1981. The Satanic Verses was, he said, a novel about “migration, metamorphosis, divided selves, love, death”. It was also a satire on Islam, “a serious attempt”, as he put it, “to write about religion and revelation from the point of view of a secular person”. For some that was unacceptable, turning the novel, in the words of the British Muslim philosopher Shabbir Akhtar, into a piece of “hate literature”.

Given the importance that the book burning has since acquired as a symbol of Muslim fury and hurt, what is striking is the indifference of most Muslims to The Satanic Verses when it was first published. Until the Ayatollah Khomeini’s infamous fatwa against Rushdie, the campaign against The Satanic Verses had been relatively low key and largely confined to the Indian subcontinent and Britain. It was in India that The Satanic Verses first became an issue, thanks to a campaign organised by Jamaat-e-Islami, a hardline Islamist group at which Rushdie had taken aim in his previous novel Shame. With an election looming and the government reluctant to alienate India’s 150 million-strong Muslim community, the novel was quickly banned. The controversy then spilled over into Britain, where there were a number of well-funded Jamaati front organisations.

The Jamaati campaign was funded by Saudi Arabia as part of its attempt to establish ­itself as leader of the Muslim ummah. But there was little enthusiasm for a campaign against the novel elsewhere in the Arab world, or among Muslims in France and Germany. Even in Iran, the book was openly available and was reviewed in many newspapers. Khomeini’s fatwa was issued for political, rather than religious, reasons. Ever since the revolution of 1979, which had turned Tehran into the capital of radical Islam, there had been a struggle between Iran and Saudi Arabia for the hearts and minds of Muslims worldwide. The fatwa was an attempt to wrestle the initiative back from the Saudis, as well as to put political reformers at home on the defensive.

In Britain, the anti-Rushdie campaign was a symptom of wider changes afoot. Both Britain and its Asian communities were very different in the 1980s. Racism was entrenched to a degree almost unimaginable now and was vicious, visceral and often fatal. Stabbings were common, firebombings almost weekly events.
In response, militant anti-racist movements had developed within Asian communities. Organisations such as the Asian Youth Movement had considerable support, challenging both racism and the power of the mosques. But many young, secular, left-wing Asian activists ended up in the anti-Rushdie campaign. Why? Principally because of disenchantment with the secular left and the institutionalisation of multiculturalism. The disintegration of the left in the 1980s, and the abandonment by radicals of the politics of ideology for the politics of identity, pushed many young Asians towards Islamism.

It was in the 1980s that what we now call “multicultural” policies were first developed. As a Bradford City Council document put it in 1982, every section of the “multiracial, multicultural city [had] an equal right to maintain its own identity, culture, language, religion and customs”. Policymakers turned to religious leaders to act as conservative bulwarks against secular militancy. The Bradford Council of Mosques, for instance, which organised the book burning, had been set up by the local authority. The new relationship between the council and the mosques gave greater credibility to the conservative religious leadership and marginalised secular Muslims, who were seen as betraying their culture.

In the two decades since the book burnings, policymakers have come to accept radical ­Islamism as the authentic voice of British Muslims. The United Kingdom Action Committee on Islamic Affairs, the principal anti-Rushdie campaign, was largely made up of organisations linked to Jamaat-e-Islami. These groups would form the core of the Muslim Council of Britain, which was set up in 1997 and quickly became accepted by policymakers and journalists as the voice of British Islam. And though polls have consistently found that only around 5 per cent of Muslims think that the MCB represents them, the official support given to such organisations in the post-Rushdie era has distorted perceptions of Muslims in this country and, to a certain extent, Muslim self-perceptions, too.

I­f the Rushdie affair was a turning point for Muslim communities, it was also a watershed for liberals. Two kinds of liberal response to the book burning have came to shape much of the subsequent debate about Islam and the west: one was to view Muslim fury as part of a “clash of civilisations”; the other was to argue that as a plural society, Britain would have to make concessions to Muslims and dilute traditional liberal notions of freedom and liberty accordingly.

The sight of British Muslims threatening a British author and publicly burning his book caused many people to ask a question that in 1989 was startlingly new: are Islamic values compatible with those of a modern, western, ­liberal democracy? “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”.

Other liberals responded to the book burnings by arguing that minorities in a plural society have a right not to be offended. “Self-censorship,” Shabbir Akhtar suggested 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. It is everyone’s – not least every Muslim’s – business.”

Increasingly western liberals have come to agree. The avoidance of offence is now regarded as more important than the abstract right to freedom of expression. And the upshot has been to create not a more tolerant society but a more fractious one. Liberals’ fear of giving offence has made it easier to take offence, creating what the novelist Monica Ali has called “a marketplace of outrage”. The only winner in all this is the state, which gets to regulate more tightly what anyone is able to say to anyone else.

Kenan Malik’s book ,“From Fatwa to Jihad: the Rushdie Affair and its Legacy”, is published next month by Atlantic Books (£16.99)

Share your memories of the year of the crowd with us by emailing: 1989@newstatesman.com. A selection will appear on our website

This article first appeared in the 16 March 2009 issue of the New Statesman, The year of the crowd

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Why Jeremy Corbyn is a new leader for the New Times

In an inspired election campaign, he confounded his detractors and showed that he was – more than any other leader – in tune with the times.

There have been two great political turning points in postwar Britain. The first was in 1945 with the election of the Attlee government. Driven by a popular wave of determination that peacetime Britain would look very different from the mass unemployment of the 1930s, and built on the foundations of the solidaristic spirit of the war, the Labour government ushered in full employment, the welfare state (including the NHS) and nationalisation of the basic industries, notably coal and the railways. It was a reforming government the like of which Britain had not previously experienced in the first half of the 20th century. The popular support enjoyed by the reforms was such that the ensuing social-democratic consensus was to last until the end of the 1970s, with Tory as well as Labour governments broadly operating within its framework.

During the 1970s, however, opposition to the social-democratic consensus grew steadily, led by the rise of the radical right, which culminated in 1979 in the election of Margaret Thatcher’s first government. In the process, the Thatcherites redefined the political debate, broadening it beyond the rather institutionalised and truncated forms that it had previously taken: they conducted a highly populist campaign that was for individualism and against collectivism; for the market and against the state; for liberty and against trade unionism; for law and order and against crime.

These ideas were dismissed by the left as just an extreme version of the same old Toryism, entirely failing to recognise their novelty and therefore the kind of threat they posed. The 1979 election, followed by Ronald Reagan’s US victory in 1980, began the neoliberal era, which remained hegemonic in Britain, and more widely in the West, for three decades. Tory and Labour governments alike operated within the terms and by the logic of neoliberalism. The only thing new about New Labour was its acquiescence in neoliberalism; even in this sense, it was not new but derivative of Thatcherism.

The financial crisis of 2007-2008 marked the beginning of the end of neoliberalism. Unlike the social-democratic consensus, which was undermined by the ideological challenge posed by Thatcherism, neoliberalism was brought to its knees not by any ideological alternative – such was the hegemonic sway of neoliberalism – but by the biggest financial crisis since 1931. This was the consequence of the fragility of a financial sector left to its own devices as a result of sweeping deregulation, and the corrupt and extreme practices that this encouraged.

The origin of the crisis lay not in the Labour government – complicit though it was in the neoliberal indulgence of the financial sector – but in the deregulation of the banking sector on both sides of the Atlantic in the 1980s. Neoliberalism limped on in the period after 2007-2008 but as real wages stagnated, recovery proved a mirage, and, with the behaviour of the bankers exposed, a deep disillusionment spread across society. During 2015-16, a populist wave of opposition to the establishment engulfed much of Europe and the United States.

Except at the extremes – Greece perhaps being the most notable example – the left was not a beneficiary: on the contrary it, too, was punished by the people in the same manner as the parties of the mainstream right were. The reason was straightforward enough. The left was tarnished with the same brush as the right: almost everywhere social-democratic parties, albeit to varying degrees, had pursued neoliberal policies. Bill Clinton and Tony Blair became – and presented themselves as – leaders of neoliberalism and as enthusiastic advocates of a strategy of hyper-globalisation, which resulted in growing inequality. In this fundamental respect these parties were more or less ­indistinguishable from the right.

***

The first signs of open revolt against New Labour – the representatives and evangelists of neoliberal ideas in the Labour Party – came in the aftermath of the 2015 ­election and the entirely unpredicted and overwhelming victory of Jeremy Corbyn in the leadership election. Something was happening. Yet much of the left, along with the media, summarily dismissed it as a revival of far-left entryism; that these were for the most part no more than a bunch of Trots. There is a powerful, often overwhelming, tendency to see new phenomena in terms of the past. The new and unfamiliar is much more difficult to understand than the old and familiar: it requires serious intellectual effort and an open and inquiring mind. The left is not alone in this syndrome. The right condemned the 2017 Labour Party manifesto as a replica of Labour’s 1983 manifesto. They couldn’t have been more wrong.

That Corbyn had been a veteran of the far left for so long lent credence to the idea that he was merely a retread of a failed past: there was nothing new about him. In a brilliant election campaign, Corbyn not only gave the lie to this but also demonstrated that he, far more than any of the other party leaders, was in tune with the times, the candidate of modernity.

Crises, great turning points, new conjunctures, new forms of consciousness are by definition incubators of the new. That is one of the great sources of their fascination. We can now see the line of linkage between the thousands of young people who gave Corbyn his overwhelming victory in the leadership election in 2015 and the millions of young people who were enthused by his general election campaign in 2017. It is no accident that it was the young rather than the middle-aged or the seniors who were in the vanguard: the young are the bearers and products of the new, they are the lightning conductors of change. Their elders, by contrast, are steeped in old ways of thinking and doing, having lived through and internalised the values and norms of neoliberalism for more than 30 years.

Yet there is another, rather more important aspect to how we identify the new, namely the way we see politics and how politics is conceived. Electoral politics is a highly institutionalised and tribal activity. There have been, as I argued earlier, two great turning points in postwar politics: the social-democratic era ushered in by the 1945 Labour government and the neoliberal era launched by the Tory government in 1979.

The average Tory MP or activist, no doubt, would interpret history primarily in terms of Tory and Labour governments; Labour MPs and activists would do similarly. But this is a superficial reading of politics based on party labels which ignores the deeper forces that shape different eras, generate crises and result in new paradigms.

Alas, most political journalists and columnists are afflicted with the same inability to distinguish the wood (an understanding of the deeper historical forces at work) from the trees (the day-to-day manoeuvring of parties and politicians). In normal times, this may not be so important, because life continues for the most part as before, but at moments of great paradigmatic change it is absolutely critical.

If the political journalists, and indeed the PLP, had understood the deeper forces and profound changes now at work, they would never have failed en masse to rise above the banal and predictable in their assessment of Corbyn. Something deep, indeed, is happening. A historical era – namely, that of neoliberalism – is in its death throes. All the old assumptions can no longer be assumed. We are in new territory: we haven’t been here before. The smart suits long preferred by New Labour wannabes are no longer a symbol of success and ambition but of alienation from, and rejection of, those who have been left behind; who, from being ignored and dismissed, are in the process of moving to the centre of the political stage.

Corbyn, you may recall, was instantly rejected and ridiculed for his sartorial style, and yet we can now see that, with a little smartening, it conveys an authenticity and affinity with the times that made his style of dress more or less immune from criticism during the general election campaign. Yet fashion is only a way to illustrate a much deeper point.

The end of neoliberalism, once so hegemonic, so commanding, is turning Britain on its head. That is why – extraordinary when you think about it – all the attempts by the right to dismiss Corbyn as a far-left extremist failed miserably, even proved counterproductive, because that was not how people saw him, not how they heard him. He was speaking a language and voicing concerns that a broad cross-section of the public could understand and identify with.

***

The reason a large majority of the PLP was opposed to Corbyn, desperate to be rid of him, was because they were still living in the neoliberal era, still slaves to its ideology, still in thrall to its logic. They knew no other way of thinking or political being. They accused Corbyn of being out of time when in fact it was most of the PLP – not to mention the likes of Mandelson and Blair – who were still imprisoned in an earlier historical era. The end of neoliberalism marks the death of New Labour. In contrast, Corbyn is aligned with the world as it is rather than as it was. What a wonderful irony.

Corbyn’s success in the general election requires us to revisit some of the assumptions that have underpinned much political commentary over the past several years. The turmoil in Labour ranks and the ridiculing of Corbyn persuaded many, including on the left, that Labour stood on the edge of the abyss and that the Tories would continue to dominate for long into the future. With Corbyn having seized the political initiative, the Tories are now cast in a new light. With Labour in the process of burying its New Labour legacy and addressing a very new conjuncture, then the end of neoliberalism poses a much more serious challenge to the Tories than it does the Labour Party.

The Cameron/Osborne leadership was still very much of a neoliberal frame of mind, not least in their emphasis on austerity. It would appear that, in the light of the new popular mood, the government will now be forced to abandon austerity. Theresa May, on taking office, talked about a return to One Nation Toryism and the need to help the worst-off, but that has never moved beyond rhetoric: now she is dead in the water.

Meanwhile, the Tories are in fast retreat over Brexit. They held a referendum over the EU for narrowly party reasons which, from a national point of view, was entirely unnecessary. As a result of the Brexit vote, the Cameron leadership was forced to resign and the Brexiteers took de facto command. But now, after the election, the Tories are in headlong retreat from anything like a “hard Brexit”. In short, they have utterly lost control of the political agenda and are being driven by events. Above all, they are frightened of another election from which Corbyn is likely to emerge as leader with a political agenda that will owe nothing to neoliberalism.

Apart from Corbyn’s extraordinary emergence as a leader who understands – and is entirely comfortable with – the imperatives of the new conjuncture and the need for a new political paradigm, the key to Labour’s transformed position in the eyes of the public was its 2017 manifesto, arguably its best and most important since 1945. You may recall that for three decades the dominant themes were marketisation, privatisation, trickle-down economics, the wastefulness and inefficiencies of the state, the incontrovertible case for hyper-globalisation, and bankers and financiers as the New Gods.

Labour’s manifesto offered a very different vision: a fairer society, bearing down on inequality, a more redistributive tax system, the centrality of the social, proper funding of public services, nationalisation of the railways and water industry, and people as the priority rather than business and the City. The title captured the spirit – For the Many Not the Few. Or, to put in another way, After Neoliberalism. The vision is not yet the answer to the latter question, but it represents the beginnings of an answer.

Ever since the late 1970s, Labour has been on the defensive, struggling to deal with a world where the right has been hegemonic. We can now begin to glimpse a different possibility, one in which the left can begin to take ownership – at least in some degree – of a new, post-neoliberal political settlement. But we should not underestimate the enormous problems that lie in wait. The relative economic prospects for the country are far worse than they have been at any time since 1945. As we saw in the Brexit vote, the forces of conservatism, nativism, racism and imperial nostalgia remain hugely powerful. Not only has the country rejected continued membership of the European Union, but, along with the rest of the West, it is far from reconciled with the new world that is in the process of being created before our very eyes, in which the developing world will be paramount and in which China will be the global leader.

Nonetheless, to be able to entertain a sense of optimism about our own country is a novel experience after 30 years of being out in the cold. No wonder so many are feeling energised again.

This article first appeared in the 15 June 2017 issue of the New Statesman, Corbyn: revenge of the rebel

Martin Jacques is the former editor of Marxism Today. 

This article first appeared in the 15 June 2017 issue of the New Statesman, Corbyn: revenge of the rebel

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