Review: 'From Fatwa to Jihad: The Rushdie Affair and its Legacy'

By Rupen Savoulian

July 8, 2011 -- Antipodean Athiest, posted at Links International Journal of Socialist Renewal with permission -- In the lead-up to the March 2003 US invasion of Iraq, the pop group the Dixie Chicks played a concert at the Shepherd’s Bush Empire theatre in London. One of the group’s members, Natalie Maines, a native of Texas, made a critical comment about a fellow Texan, George W. Bush who was then president of the United States. She said that “Just so you know, we’re on the good side with y’all. We do not want this war, this violence, and we’re ashamed that the president of the United States is from Texas.” A seemingly innocuous comment, you would think?

The comment was picked up by US media outlets. After that, the Dixie Chicks faced death threats, hate messages, their music was dropped from commercial country and western music radio stations, their CDs were publicly crushed by bulldozers in anti-Dixie Chicks protests, they faced accusations of being traitors, “Saddam’s Angels”, “Dixie Sluts”, and so forth. A Colorado radio station suspended two disc jockeys for playing Dixie Chicks songs. The group was not officially censored, but the full weight of commercial pressures was brought to bear on a group of artists for making a statement that was politically offensive to some people. If a musician, novelist or artist produces a work that is offensive to some people, should their work be censored and its broadcast or publication stopped?

Violence in the service of censorship is nothing new, sadly. The Dixie Chicks controversy, and the reaction to it, contains the faint echoes of an older episode, the 1989 Rushdie affair and the censorious violence directed against the author for the novel The Satanic Verses. Kenan Malik, an Indian-British journalist and researcher, attempts to answer disturbing questions about freedom of speech, the ability of authors to express political and religious viewpoints through their works, and how in Britain, a society with a long history of anti-racist struggles, a minority group came to be so alienated and despised that it ended up burning books. The book is titled From Fatwa to Jihad: the Rushdie Affair and its Legacy (Atlantic 2009, pp. 266).

Migration to Britain

The book is engagingly written, and should be read by every person wanting a deeper understanding of the cultural and political issues that affect our societies. The book covers diverse topics such as immigration in Britain from the 1950s, especially Muslim migrants from India, Pakistan and Bangladesh. Migrants had been settling in Britain, working, raising families, and while they were Muslim, it was never a central part of their identity as Malik explains. Malik was one of many Asian migrants (Asian in Britain means from the subcontinent) who participated in anti-racist struggles, from street-fighting against the white supremacist thugs attacking Asian families, speaking out against police brutality and the inaction of the police to protect newly-arrived migrants from racist gangs.

Malik was a member of the East London Workers Against Racism (ELWAR), a group established by the socialist Revolutionary Communist Party to take direct action against the racist gangs when the police and politicians had remained indifferent to the suffering of migrants. Official police attitudes blamed the victims for racist violence; they "had it coming" because they moved into a white neighbourhood. So socialist and anti-racist groups took the lead in protecting migrant workers as part of their campaign of solidarity against a racist capitalist system.

Political struggles such as these helped to unite disparate ethnic minorities for a common platform of economic justice, political equality and human rights. Malik documents the fascinating example of the Asian Youth Movement (AYM). This group brought together two distinct and mutually supportive political models – traditional working-class politics, with "bread-and-butter" demands for better conditions, and also the black power movements, the anti-racist demands for a just, egalitarian society that recognised ethnic minorities as equals. Trade unions took up the struggles of many of these migrant workers, and while the AYM was never necessarily an atheist or secular organisation, religion was never an important or significant marker of identity according to Malik. Race and class issues seemed to march in tandem. Then in 1989 came the Rushdie affair.

The Satanic Verses and British Muslim anger

In February 1989, Malik was in Bradford, England, to witness about 1000 Muslim demonstrators set alight a copy of  Salman Rushdie’s novel, The Satanic Verses, for its allegedly blasphemous depictions of the Prophet Muhammad and its purported attack on Islam. For Malik, the book burning was more than just a odd demonstration, it was a symbol of Islamic defiance and rage. How had British Muslims, who had lived and worked in that country for years, whose Islamic identity had been merely a background, suddenly explode into anger like that? How had Muslim youths – born and bred in Britain, who had participated in anti-racist struggles, just like Malik – end up joining a book burning for its alleged offence against Islam? Malik provides some insightful answers to these difficult questions. If I may use an analogy with sport – while Malik lands some strong punches and body blows, in other places he swings wildly and misses.

In September 1988, Salman Rushdie, an Indian-born British author and ex-Muslim, published The Satanic Verses. There were protests in some Muslim countries, and Pakistan and Bangladesh banned the sale of the book, but the controversy was largely simmering beneath the surface. Malik says that the book was freely available in the vast majority of Muslim countries, even after the Organisation of the Islamic Conference demanded a ban. In 1989, the Ayatollah Khomeini of Iran, issued a fatwa (a religious ruling or decree) that not only banned The Satanic Verses, but pronounced a death sentence on its author and decreed that anyone who published or distributed the book should be killed. As Malik explains, this was a cultural controversy that was quite different from anything else Britain had experienced. But rather than being a product of religion or Islamic theology, the fatwa was more so a product of Iranian and Middle Eastern politics.


Khomeini’s regime in Iran was on the defensive in 1989. Having failed to export its particular brand of Islamic revolution to Iraq, and having lost all the ground it had gained by the end of the Iran-Iraq war in 1988, Iran’s Islamic revolution was losing legitimacy in the eyes of Muslims around the world. Iran’s main nemesis in the region, Saudi Arabia, appeared on the ascendant. Its brand of extreme Wahhabist fundamentalism was being exported to other countries, mainly thanks to the petrodollars of the oil industry. Saudi-supported Muslim institutions were gaining ground, not only in the Middle East but among the unemployed, disenfranchised Muslim youth of Europe. It is in this political context that the issue of the fatwa must be understood, Malik explains.

Iran seized upon the Rushdie book as a way of regaining its influence with Muslims around the world, portraying itself as a defender of Islamic values and integrity against attacks by secular governments and writers. The controversy over the novel seemed to divide Muslim ethnic minorities from the "white" Westerners, and this "clash of civilisations" was reinforced by the weakening of the traditional socialist, anti-racist ideals of secular humanism, workers' rights and group solidarity.

Tariq Ali, writing in The Clash of Fundamentalisms, says that most of the Muslim community in Britain did not react violently against the publication of The Satanic Verses. They wanted their scholars and activists to write a withering critique of the novel. Other British Muslims, like the scholar Anwar Shaikh, have written stridently critical evaluations of the Quran and Islamic philosophy, and have also faced intimidation and threats. It was the community leaders, the mullahs, who agitated for a violent response to Rushdie’s novel. But Malik examines the issue more deeply, and finds that the real blame for this tribal response resides with the policies of multiculturalism.


In the 1970s and 1980s, as Malik explains, Britain was gripped by race riots, and an ever-growing proportion of migrants and their children found political expression with socialist, anti-racist and militant groups. They were winning the battle of the streets and ideas. The Conservative Party government of PM Margaret Thatcher launched a new policy of state multiculturalism, which was intended to divide the ethnic minorities on the basis of race.

While couched in terms of respecting ethnic diversity, Thatcher's official state multiculturalism, according to Malik, segmented the black, Asian and Muslim communities into hierarchical structures. Creating a black middle class was the intent of state multiculturalism. The British government elevated an identity-politics policy, emphasising a single component of identity, into the main mechanism for handing out funding and official recognition. Self-appointed community leaders and official bodies arose which corralled the myriad ethnic groups into rigid tribal identities. Where once there was a unified response to economic inequalities and racial discrimination, there is now a segmented, arbitrarily grouped set of communities that challenged the very notion of a common human identity. Malik scores some direct hits with his criticism of multiculturalism.

While in Australia multiculturalism has been an enormous step forward compared to the racist "white Australia" policy, it has made society less openly racist, but only in the cultural arena. There are now multilingual radio and television stations, ethnic-based sports clubs, restaurants and literature. All these gains of multiculturalism should be defended against the attacks by racist politicians and media commentators. But to stop at the cultural sphere, without extending anti-racism into the political and economic arenas, is a major failing.

In the 1980s, the Australian Labour Party became the main repository of migrant political expression – ethnic minorities voted en masse for the ALP, and in return, funding was handed out to migrant bodies that were the official representatives of ethnic communities. While multiculturalism has scored gains against overt racism, I think it has had a consequence of encouraging ethnic minorities to view one another as the enemy, rather than the common enemy of a corporate-industrial elite.

Here I think Malik misses the mark, downplaying the extent of tribalism and racism prevalent even before the advent of multiculturalism. Australia was already a tribal society prior to the introduction of multiculturalism. The various ethnic groups that had come here to work and study, retreated into their own cultural areas. This is understandable on the one hand, because migrating to a completely new country is a cultural shock, so people congregate around their own language group and culture. In the 1970s and 1980s, trade unions had taken up the struggle of migrant workers, not just as migrants, but also as working-class people, advocating equal treatment in the context of workers' rights. As Malik points out, political and economic struggle unites people of different cultures.

Malik also correctly mentions that in 1989, with the dissolution of the Soviet Union, the political left was weakened around the world. The vision of a common, united struggle of workers achieving their political and economic emancipation had taken a battering. The one area that a migrant could rely on for support was their ethnic grouping. Here, state multiculturalism encouraged the co-opting of migrants into the official, government-approved ethnic channels rather than into militant, anti-capitalist alternatives. The Australian Labour Party, particularly since the 1980s, has retreated from a traditional, labour-union class struggle approach, to a conciliatory, business-accommodation approach. As the labour organisations retreat, and with them their vision of a multiracial, egalitarian society, the vacuum created is taken up by religion.

The trade unions, which had been the only organisations that had raised migrants' issues, were also co-opted, retreating from a class-struggle based politics, into a class-conciliation political stand. The labour unions gradually abandoned the traditional demands of anti-racist social justice for which they had long stood. The remaining avenue for a migrant worker was to compromise their political demands and devote themselves to the cultural arena.

While Malik does correctly identify the tendency of state multiculturalism to fragment ethnic groups along cultural lines, I think Malik has retreated from a socialist perspective into a left-liberal critique of multiculturalism. While he would not agree with today’s right-wing critics of multiculturalism, Malik has given some ground to those critics, like the current British Prime Minister David Cameron, who blames immigrants for not doing enough to integrate into the wider society. While state multiculturalism is conducive to a sense of tribalism, to single it out as the original cause is to widely miss the mark. The broader social and economic inequalities, and the retreat of the trade unions and their accommodation with big-business policies, is the wider context in which the growth of tribalism must be understood.

With the retreat of the unions and the political struggle alternative, many migrants and their children face the prospect of either devoting themselves to their own ethnic group – the Armenians go to Armenian clubs and events, the Greeks, Croats, Serbs and so on retreat into their own bastions – or devote their energies to religion. In the case of the Christian communities, this was never a problem for the Australian ruling class. The Armenians have their church, the Greeks have the Orthodox denomination and so on.

While attendance at the traditional churches has declined, the 1980s witnessed the growth of the right-wing evangelical fundamentalist Christian churches. Their agenda is to turn Australia (and Britain and the other countries in which they reside) into a basic theocracy. They are opposed to, among other things, secular education, homosexuality and contraception. They have gained ground, especially among the youth, with a clever tactic of social inclusion. The kind of society they advocate contains many similarities to the kind of society proposed by advocates of sharia law, but of course with different religious underpinnings. As fundamentalist Christianity advanced among the mainstream Anglo-Australian society, fundamentalist Islamism gained ground among the disaffected Muslim youth of Britain and Europe, especially when the society in which they live does not provide an adequate, anti-racist political alternative.

Freedom of speech

Malik explains that in November 1997, the Muslim Council of Britain was born, and its secretary general was Iqbal Sacranie. In 2006 Sacranie gave an interview to the BBC Radio where he stated, among other things, that homosexuality was immoral, spreads disease, and that same-sex couples do not make a solid foundation for the raising of children or stable families. These type of sentiments have been promoted by religious, faith-based groups for many years. Sacranie was investigated by Scotland Yard’s community safety unit to determine whether he had breached the 1986 Public Order Act which prohibits threatening, insulting or abusive words or behaviour. In response, Muslim leaders in Britain, and 22 imams, demanded that freedom of speech be observed, and thay anyone, no matter how repugnant their views, should be allowed to express them free of intimidation and harassment.

Here, Malik does raise an interesting point – those who wanted to ban The Satanic Verses because of its alleged blasphemy were now calling for freedom of speech in defence of one of their colleagues. Malik explains the change of heart by Inayat Bunglawala, the media secretary of the Muslim Council of Britain. When you ban one book, where does it end? After supporting the fatwa on Rushdie, Bunglawala changed his mind when he saw that the right-wing neo-fascist Dutch politician Geert Wilders, who has incited hatred against Muslims, calling for a ban on the Quran. Bunglawala, chariperson of Muslims4UK, has not only courageously changed his mind about the book-banning fatwa, but also called upon his fellow Muslims to seriously engage with science, especially the theory of evolution and cease denying its veracity.

'Culture of grievance?'

While Malik is correct to criticise the conservatism of fundamentalist Islamist groups in the UK, he downplays and dismisses the Islamophobia of the mainstream society, especially when he makes statements like this, “If Muslims are singled out in Britain, it is often for privileged treatment.”

Well that would be news to the victims of the December 2005 Cronulla beach racist riots in Australia, where anyone of "Middle Eastern apperance" was assaulted by riotous Anglo-Australian mobs, instigated by racist radio shockjocks like Alan Jones, who encouraged "Aussies" to go and bash "Middle Eastern grubs". A strong element of the ideological encouragement given to the people who rioted was anti-Arab and anti-Islamic prejudice.

Racism against Arabic-speaking people, and by extension Muslims, has long been part of the Australian political landscape. If the Islamic communities have developed a "culture of grievance", as Malik asserts, they do have legitimate grounds for strong complaint. While official multiculturalism may have to shoulder some of the blame, to single out that policy while ignoring the widening economic gap is short-sighted. I would have to agree with Priyamvada Gopal, who states that targeting multiculturalism on its own ignores the deflects attention from the increasing economic inequalities. Poor white Britons do suffer discrimination she states; not racial, but economic.

In 2005, while the Cronulla riot occurred in Australia, seemingly highlighting a cultural fault-line between "us" in the West and "them" in the Islamic East, another equally shocking event occurred in Britain. On July 7, 2005, terrorist bombings rocked London, killing 56 people (including the bombers) and wounding 700. Malik makes the chilling observation that “more people died on 7/7 than in any single IRA attack in Britain or Ireland”. Even more disturbing, Malik recounts, is that this bombing was perpetrated by British citizens. Three out of the four were born and bred in England; the fourth was Jamaican-born but had lived in Britain since the age of five. What drove these apparently well-established, educated, middle-class youths – the products of the English education system – to turn so violently against the country that nurtured them?

Malik tries to steer a middle course – he states that neither "blame it all on Islam" is satisfactory, and neither is the "blame it all on the West" explanation. As Malik rightly observes, Muslims have been living in Britain for half a century, the jihadist mindset is only a recent phenomenon. Blaming passages in the Quran flies in the face of recent history. Islam comprises not just a text, but a body of clerics, a history and culture, with many different interpretations. Malik also observes that Western governments have been attacking Muslim countries long before the anti-US jihad of Osama bin Laden and the 2003 US attack on Iraq and Afghanistan. As one example, Winston Churchill ordered the use of mustard gas, a chemical weapon, to suppress a 1920 nationalist uprising by Iraqi insurgents in their struggle for independence. What is the explanation? Malik does not make any explicit statements, but he does allude to a possible accounting.

Prior to the 1990s, the political left was quite strong in many Western countries. Many young Muslims were members of, or sympathetic to, left-wing and socialist groups. With the weakening of the left in the early 1990s, many such Muslims were left adrift, looking for a new political home. Fundamentalist political Islam, which seemed to be on the rise at that time, provided an alternative ideological umbrella. Islamist parties made sweeping electoral gains in Turkey; in Algeria an openly Islamist party won democratic elections, only to be subverted by the Algerian military and its members put down in a vicious civil war. Hamas in Palestine, Hezbollah in Lebanon – the star of political Islam appeared to be rising. Couple this with the outrageously hypocritical US and British foreign policies in the Middle East – the unstinting support for Israel against the Palestinians, the 1991 US attack on Iraq and subsequent continuation of that war through sanctions for much of the 1990s – and one can get a sense of the alienation from the wider Western society that a Muslim must feel.

Terrorism is the response of the weak. Individual acts of savagery are never acceptable, and are a dead-end ethically and politically. The British Labour Party government’s foreign policy was singled out for criticism by Home Office advisers seeking an explanation for the terrible July 7 atrocity. They warned that Prime Minister Tony Blair’s close alignment with the United States' objectives in the Middle East fueled the extremism that resulted in the terrorist bombings in London. Long-time war correspondent Robert Fisk wrote a perceptive column in 2005 stating that Britain was unfortunately a target since the Blair government lined up with the "war on terror" and George W. Bush’s 2003 invasion of Iraq.

Notwithstanding the criticisms, I think that From Fatwa to Jihad: the Rushdie Affair and its Legacy is a riveting, outstanding book and would be indispensable reading for anyone who wishes to understand the origins of the cultural faultlines that confront us today. Malik forces us to ask serious questions about ourselves, our attitudes to freedom of speech, our policies towards the Islamic communities and the successes and shortcomings of multiculturalism. If we are to move forward in constructing a more humane, equitable, socialist society, we need to understand the grievances and resentments that fuel so many of today’s conflicts.