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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 appears in the 16 March 2009 issue of the New Statesman, The year of the crowd