Kenan Malik - From Fatwa to Jihad: The Rushdie Affair and Its Legacy
Atlantic Books, April 9th 2009, £16.99
Review by Marcus Dubois
On April 4th last weekend a leading British newspaper published details from a letter smuggled out of Long Lartin high-security jail in Worcestershire. Authored by the British-based Muslim cleric Abu Qatada, the main subject of the letter was the bold claim that his treatment has helped to radicalise a new generation of young British Muslims.
"A new generation of the Muslim youth has been raised and especially among our brothers who originate from the Indian subcontinent, who were no longer mesmerised by the English authority, nor English values - rather they hate it and they know its enmity towards them, so they have become enemies towards it as well," Abu Qatada proclaimed.
The above proved a stark reminder, as if we needed any, of the now-indigenous terror groups claiming the banner of a 'radical' Islam while also claiming British citizenship and its benefits.
The specific mention of 'brothers from the Indian subcontinent' is to be noted. A Palestinian cleric had singled out another ethnic division, celebrating a new alignment with this group while claiming the same familiar common ground.
It is within this context that From Fatwa to Jihad provides a timely, urgent and compelling analysis of how Islam's relationship to the west has become perhaps the key issue of our time.
Published to coincide with the eve of the 20th anniversary of the fatwa issued by Ayatollah Khomeini against author of The Satanic Verses Salman Rushdie, the book tells for the first time the full story of this defining episode.
Author Kenan Malik has some things in common with Rushdie. Both were born in India but educated in Britain. The two authors also share a similar sense of detachment: of not belonging to either culture while maintaining a strong identity of self. And both are highly educated writers who have explored multiculturalism, race and religion.
Raised in Manchester, Malik has gone on to become one of the foremost commentators on race. He is one of the most well-known critics of the modern phenomenon of 'multiculturalism', an idea given short shrift by Malik, especially in his recent work Strange Fruit: Why Both Sides Are Wrong In The Race Debate (2008).
Malik is therefore well-placed to take an objective look at the origins of fundamentalism in Britain. From the introduction entitled How Salman Rushdie Changed My Life there is the feel of a personal narrative which draws the reader into the complex arguments of the work.
Noting from personal experience he recounts how in Bradford during the height of the Rushdie affair he met one of his former comrades from the left, Hassan. A friend whose only indulgences were "Southern Comfort, sex and Arsenal" was now organising the book-burning demonstrations which would go on to characterise the reaction to the novel. Malik observes how Hassan had found "a need to defend our dignity as Muslims, to defend our values and beliefs".
This surprises Malik mostly because he knows it was racism, not religion which defined both his and Hassan's early radicalism, as it did that of many non-whites in this country.
Carefully building his argument in stages he describes how, alarmed by race riots in the 1980s, Britain embarked on a multicultural strategy. Instead of focusing on race, respect was to be given to different ways of life instead. This was later to prove fatal by placing differences under 'communities' instead of immigrant races, most crucially by appointing 'community leaders' as go-betweens.
He goes on to notes how, in part, this worked with regard to the decline of racism. In its place however came a new problem: tribalism. Malik notes previously many different races of Muslims often shared geographical areas without incident or cause for concern. "Hostility is not in the blood of Asians or African Carribeans: it is in the DNA of multicultural politics."
Such a strong statement may jar with some popular leftist thinking and this is what Malik does best. He sees the moment of Ayatollah Khomeini's death sentence against Rushdie as the point when the policy of multiculturalism began to fail as new tribal identities began to form around the event in Britain.
One is reminded of Malik's friend Hassan in Bradford at this point. A young Asian man who was once happy to just escape the radar of the BNP had suddenly become radicalised by an event stirred up largely by an Iranian leader.
And so we reach the central argument of From Fatwa to Jihad: that modern Islamic radicalism originated from the clever exploitation of identity. Those who had previously suffered racism were now encouraged to channel their discontent into defending Islam.
Malik is careful to underline how broad and unconnected this radical Islam is. He deftly describes how the political jostling of Jamaat-e-Islami in India was picked up by counterparts in England and then supported by people who previously had claimed no political affiliation to 'Islam'.
The same can be said of Khomeini's crude machinations against the Sunnis to build his Shia power base: by declaring a fatwa he created a global identity, but this also created a global focus for politically 'unattached' young Muslims to direct their energy.
What makes Kenan Malik's book so readable is his ability to constantly draw together historical threads and neatly explain the underlying ideas. Comparisons are made between using one man's novel to stir western (and often Sunni) Muslims to join a political cause, and the decrying of the 2006 Danish cartoons portraying Prophet Muhammad to stir up anger. The latter is shown to have been more of a political event than one of religious outrage.
Throughout Malik reminds us that not all Muslims supported the fatwa, just as many more denounced the 7/7 bombings. Special attention should be paid to the chapter The Rage of Islam in which he brilliantly explains how we travelled from the burning of a book to the horror of the London bombings. His understanding of the fierce intelligence of young Muslims and their problems with identity as children of immigrants in the modern West is key. He moves beyond the idea that terrorist acts are mainly fuelled by anger against western foreign policy. Identity is everything.
And it is this defence of freedom of identity which is the strongest voice in this book. He equally attacks the liberal view whilst never subscribing to the anti-immigrant right. Multiculturalism is a force which Malik feels emphasises difference, creating the seedbed for the alienated who go on to become radicals or even terrorists.
It is unfortunate that he rarely explores the big question that screams out from his critique. Namely, what is the real alternative to the homogeny of multiculturalism, when organisations such as al-Qaida are so intent on using 'lost' young Muslim men to exploit divisions within countries?
However it is by exploring the Rushdie fatwa and the Danish cartoon debacle that Malik brings forth an excellent argument indeed: that it is freedom of speech which has suffered the most, and it is this freedom he most rigorously defends in this commendable analysis.
In the end it's one of his many well-researched quotes, this time from writer Hanif Kureshi, which lingers in the memory.
"Nobody would have the balls today to write The Satanic Verses, let alone publish it. Writing is now timid because writers are terrified."