Islam and Rushdie

James Turley reviews Kenan Malik’s From fatwa to jihad: the Rushdie affair and its legacy Atlantic, 2009, pp266, £16.99

The year 2009 is the anniversary of many things - the 20th of the collapse of the eastern bloc countries that instigated the final death of a decrepit Stalinism; the 25th of the Miners’ Great Strike; and also the 20th of the publication of Salman Rushdie’s novel, The Satanic verses.

Rushdie, at the time, was a noted novelist - his books Shame and particularly Midnight’s children having been well-received among the literary establishment. The new novel was broadly similar to the others in its themes - identity and identity crises, migration and hybridity: the stock in trade, in other words, of what has been called ‘postmodernism’. Unlike most ‘postmodernists’, however, he remained at least a self-described socialist and slightly confused opponent of imperialism (associated in the early 1980s with the likes of the late Harold Pinter).

Now, of course, The Satanic verses is infamous for having first brought to the western heartlands the radical obscurantism of fundamentalist Islam, eventually provoking ayatollah Khomeini, then supreme leader of the Islamic Republic of Iran, to issue a holy death warrant. Twenty years on, political discourse in the imperialist countries (as well as, obviously enough, the majority-Muslim parts of the global periphery) is dominated by the question of radical Islam - and what is to be done about it. Rushdie, meanwhile, is only one of a great many erstwhile leftists to drift into pro-imperialism, supporting the Afghanistan war and only opposing the Iraq misadventure on the rather technical basis that it was ‘unilateral’.

As the title suggests, From fatwa to jihad follows, among other things, how precisely we got “from burning books to bombs on buses”, as Hanif Kureishi puts it on the dust jacket. Kenan Malik is a noted academic writer, who has written on race and human nature with a background in the hard sciences.

He also has a background in the Revolutionary Communist Party - a small, ultra-leftist Trotskyist group set up in the 1970s and formally dissolved in the mid-90s. Since then, its former members have remained close collaborators, operating the Spiked web magazine and several think tanks, polemicising for the most part against liberal sacred cows. Exactly what their positive project is in any real sense is hard to pin down, as opposed to what they are against - environmentalism (infamously), censorship and identity politics are probably the big three.

Ex-RCP material, as a result, tends to be either insightful and provocative or delusional gibberish. Their disgraceful lurch into soft-Zionism during the barbaric Israeli assault on Gaza over Christmas is a worrying example (www.spiked-online.com/index.php?/site/article/6105). Malik’s book, fortunately, is much closer to the former, with a number of lucid insights into the politics of anti-racism that should be required reading in particular for members of the Socialist Workers Party and other uncritical defenders of ‘multiculturalist’ orthodoxy. It does, however, lapse into gibberish in places towards the final chapters.

After an introductory chapter decorated with autobiographical flourishes and another covering the outbreak of the anti-Satanic verses movement in Britain, Malik moves on to a potted history of the ‘Muslim community’ in the years before the dispute. He puts the phrase in scare-quotes, as one of Malik’s key theses is that adherents to the Islamic faith did not previously identify above all else as ‘Muslims’ in the way that their radical descendents do now - those such as the July 7 2005 London bombers, young men who were born and grew up in this country.

Rather, young ethnic-minority people tended to identify as ‘black’ - meaning not, as in America, “of African origin”, but rather “a more inclusive identity rooted in politics”, that would encompass both African-Caribbeans and Asians (p51). This was particularly true down to the late 1970s - at that time, a new generation formed the Asian Youth Movements, which both fought back against the racist National Front, at that time the largest far-right group, and opposed reactionary opinions in their own communities. However, Malik considers the creation of a specifically Asian youth movement to be a portent of the eventual fragmentation of ethnic-minority resistance (pp51-52).

The early 80s, despite seeing a dramatic drop in the paper membership of the NF, did not produce any significant calming of racial tensions. In 1981, a large-scale riot took place in Brixton, which had an overwhelmingly black population; similar riots followed in Toxteth in Liverpool, Bristol and elsewhere. The response of the Greater London Council and other municipal governments was to give multiculturalism - already coined as a vague approach by Labour governments of the 60s and 70s - a very specific organised form: cash handouts to particular institutions that supposedly stood for the interests of the particular minority ‘community’ as a whole. This money, of course, came ultimately from Thatcher, who - despite a Tory press foaming at the mouth at ‘loony left’ councils, and statements along the lines of Norman Tebbit’s infamous ‘cricket test’ - considered these policies to be a perfectly pragmatic response to social unrest (pp56-57).

Malik derides this, using the example of Birmingham council’s response to a 1985 riot: outreach with such groups as the Bangladeshi Islamic Projects Consultative Committee, the Birmingham Chinese Society and the Council of Black-led Churches. “Why should the Council for Black-led Churches presume to speak for the needs and aspirations of all African Caribbeans in Birmingham? ... Cosmologists believe that the physical universe in its infancy was homogenous and uniform. Multiculturalists seem to think the same about the social universe of minority groups” (p66). The municipal money, however, tended to turn this into a ‘fact on the ground’ - by doling out cash to religious and patriarchal organisations, it became the case that ethnic minorities were more reliant on these structures - a logic brought out very well by Malik (pp68-69).

It is this minefield that the likes of the SWP have simply strode into carefree. Socialist Worker routinely parrots official multicultural dogma, or at best simply ducks the issue. The infamously low level of cadre development in this revolving-door organisation means that conventional ‘wisdom’ on racial issues reasserts itself with alarming regularity.

The fact is, however, that being ‘against racism’ is simply not enough in an age when state institutions proclaim themselves to fight it too. Racism persists in society, and in no small part as a direct result of the systematic failure of state anti-racism to get rid of it. Tailing official anti-racism means tailing an anti-racism that is objectively fake, and that can only function through the state and labour bureaucracies. The result is the likes of Unite Against Fascism, which not only call for state proscriptions on racist organisations, but become censorship’s most slavering devotees.

Censorship is the number one target of Malik’s book, and he is admirably catholic in his prosecution of the case. The resurgent Islamic organisations, of course, called for The Satanic verses to be banned; many liberals, horrified by Khomeini’s fatwa, called for the state to repress organisations who backed it. Yet 20 years later, we have the likes of the Racial and Religious Hatred Act to contend with, whose wording is so loose it could be used to ban half the literary canon; its counterpart is the anti-terror laws, under which self-styled ‘Lyrical Terrorist’ Samina Malik was convicted in 2007 for incitement on the basis of Jihadist doggerel posted on the internet (the conviction was overturned on appeal).

Malik’s lesson is simple: “If we invite the state to define the boundaries of acceptable speech, we cannot complain if it is not just speech to which we object that is curtailed” (p191).

The weakness in the book resides rather in Malik’s diagnosis of radical Islam. He criticises two preponderant accounts of its growth: firstly, the rightwing version, that Islam is simply a base and wicked faith that preaches intolerance, violence and murder; and, secondly, that of the left, that it is all simply a result of western foreign policy - America’s chickens, in the words of Malcolm X, coming home to roost.

The first story, of course, is simply ludicrous. Religious people - even the observant, broadly speaking - are perfectly capable of picking and choosing which bits of the religion they follow, and Malik has Mohammed Sidique Khan, the oldest of the 2005 London bombers, “happy to smoke dope and drink vodka, and often [use] the local massage parlour cum brothel” (p99). Moreover, large-scale Muslim migration antedates the rise of Islamism in the imperialist countries considerably (p84). The second account is countered in much the same way - that is, “Western governments were attacking Muslim lands long before Osama bin Laden took to a cave in Afghanistan” (p85).

Part of Malik’s explanation is, of course, his critique of multiculturalism, which has left Britain “a more tribal nation” (pxx). Unfortunately, this is buttressed by what amounts to amateur psychology. In a memorable chapter section, Malik takes apart Sidique Khan’s final video message, wondering at the “narcissism that oozes out of every line” (p118). Seasoned (ex-)RCP-watchers will be unsurprised to find this straight after a reference to guru-sociologist Frank Furedi’s notion of ‘therapy culture’ (p116).

The notion of therapy culture as a serious structural cause of these political movements is ultimately self-defeating - the problem is a psychological mindset, the turn towards “emotionalism”, and therefore the only natural solution is ... a more effective therapy. It is a perfect circle.

This psychobabble is enough, apparently, to distance the new jihadists from older, more ‘political’ organisations like the Provisional IRA - but this is to underestimate the role of religion in the psychic economy of the Irish struggle. It also underestimates the role of real political struggles in galvanising Islamism. While Malik is surely right to argue against the view that western policy is a “sufficient explanation for jihadi Islamism”, the sharpening of western meddling in the Muslim world cannot be rejected as critical to the background of the 7/7 attacks. Between this and the poisonous effect of bureaucratic anti-racism (with a dash of good old racism itself), the thing is explained; poor Frank Furedi is surplus to requirements.

For all these flaws, Malik has produced a splendid, eminently readable work - about the best the RCP/Spiked crew has to offer these days, hinting at their weaknesses and playing to their strengths. Its core message against censorship and the bureaucratic propping up of patriarchal structures is salutary, and for that alone it is required reading for a left increasingly parasitic on the state.