From the Satanic Verses to Charlie Hebdo

This is the transcript of a talk that Kenan Malik gave at the Integrity 20 conference in Brisbane, Australia on October 19th, 2017. First published on Pandaemonium, Malik’s personal website, we are republishing it on Areo.

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On 14 February 1989, Valentine’s Day, the Ayotollah Khomeini issued his infamous fatwa against Salman Rushdie. It was a brutally shocking act that forced Salman Rushdie into hiding for almost a decade.

26 years later, on 7 January 2015, came an even more viscerally shocking act, when two gunmen forced their way into the Paris offices of the satirical magazine Charlie Hebdo, sprayed the room with machine gun fire, killing 12, and injuring another 11.

What I want to look at today is what each of these events represented, and how we made the journey from the one to the other.

When The Satanic Verses was published in September 1988, Salman Rushdie was perhaps the most celebrated British novelist of his generation. The novel was not, it’s worth reminding ourselves, a novel solely, or even primarily about Islam. It was, Rushdie observed in an interview, about migration, metamorphosis, divided selves, love, death,” as well as an attempt to write about religion and revelation from the point of view of a secular person.”

It’s also worth reminding ourselves that until the fatwa most Muslims had ignored the book. The campaign against The Satanic Verses was largely confined to India, Pakistan and Britain. With the singular exception of Saudi Arabia, whose authorities bankrolled the initial efforts to ban the novel, there was little anti-Rushdie fervor in the Arab world or in Turkey, or among Muslim communities in France or Germany. When at the end of 1988 the Saudi government tried to persuade Muslim countries to ban the novel, few responded except those with large Indian subcontinental populations, such as South Africa and Malaysia. Even Iran was relaxed about Rushdie’s irreverence. It was available in Iranian bookshops and even reviewed in Iranian newspapers.

It was the fatwa that transformed the Rushdie affair into a global conflict with historic repercussions. It was through the Rushdie affair that many of the issues that now dominate political debate — multiculturalism, free speech, radical Islam, terrorism — first came to the surface. It was also through the Rushdie affair that our thinking about these issues began to change.

To understand these changes, and how they led to a world in which the Charlie Hebdo killings became possible, I want to look at three issues in the post-issues of the Rushdie world that are particularly pertinent to this discussion.

The first is the changing character of Islam and of Muslim identity. Until the late 1980s the idea of a Muslim community barely existed in the West, while Muslim identity meant something different to what it does today.

Take Britain. The first generation of Muslims in the 1950s and 60s, largely from South Asia, were religious, but wore their faith lightly. Many men drank alcohol. Few women wore a hijab, let alone a burqa or niqab. Most visited the mosque only occasionally. Their faith expressed for them a relationship with God, not a sacrosanct public identity.

The second generation of Britons with a Muslim background — my generation — was primarily secular. Religious organizations were barely visible. The organizations that bound together Asian communities (and we thought of ourselves as “Asian” or “black,” not “Muslim”) were primarily secular, often political.

It is only with the generation that has come of age since the late 1980s that the question of cultural differences has come to be seen as important. It was only now that the idea of a distinctly Muslim community emerged, as did a specific Muslim identity. Much the same process can be sketched out in France, in Germany, in the Netherlands.

The reasons for this shift are complex. Partly they lie in a tangled set of social and political changes, including the collapse of the left and of radical social movements. Partly they lie in international developments, from the Iranian Revolution of 1979 to the Bosnian war of the early 1990s, that helped foster a heightened sense of Muslim identity. Partly they lie in the growing influence of Saudi Arabia on Islamic institutions in the West and its aggressive promotion of Wahhabism. Partly they lie in the rise of the politics of identity, an issue I shall address shortly.

In the quarter of a century since the fatwa, Muslims in the West have come to see themselves as belonging to a single Muslim community, as they never had previously. Many have become deeply conservative in their social attitudes at the very time society more broadly has become more liberal. And Islamism has taken hold in a way that it had not previously.

Linked to these changes is the second post-Rushdie change: the rise of what we now call identity politics. It’s an issue that causes great confusion and controversy.

Identities are of great significance. They give each of us a sense of ourselves, and of our grounding in the world. Politics, however, is a means, or should be a means, of taking us beyond the narrow sense of identity given to each of us by the specific circumstances of our lives and the particularities of personal experiences.

As a teenager, I was drawn to politics because of my experience of racism. Britain was a very different place then. Racism was vicious, visceral and often fatal. Stabbings were common, firebombings almost weekly events. I spent much of my youth organizing street patrols in East London to protect Asian families from racist thugs.

But if it was racism that drew me to politics, it was politics that made me see beyond the narrow confines of racism. I came to learn that there was more to social justice than challenging the injustices done to me, and that a person’s skin color, ethnicity or culture provides no guide to the validity of his or her political beliefs. Through politics, I was introduced to the ideas of the Enlightenment, and to the concepts of a common humanity and universal rights. Through politics, too, I discovered the writings of Marx and Mill, Baldwin and Arendt, James and Fanon. Most of all, I discovered that I could often find more solidarity and commonality with those whose ethnicity or culture was different to mine, but who shared my values, than with many with whom I shared a common ethnicity or culture but not the same political vision. Politics, in other words, did not reinforce my identity, but helped me reach beyond it.

By the end of the 1980s, much of this had changed. The anger, bitterness and bravado that defined my response to racism, and that of many of my peers, had not disappeared. But the political vehicles that gave it shape were beginning to.

The erosion of the power of labour movement organizations, the demise of radical social movements, the expansion of the market into social life, all of which gathered force in the 1980s, transformed politics. As the left disintegrated, so did the idea of a common struggle against racism. Indeed, the left itself came to abandon universalism for particularism, coming to see common struggles and universal values as themselves in some sense racist.

People started increasingly to see themselves in narrower, ethnic terms: African-Caribbean, Sikh, Muslim. Every group began to insist that it had its own specific culture, rooted in its own particular history and experiences. Many of my friends on the left from Muslim backgrounds joined the anti-Rushdie campaign, seeing it as a means of standing up for the dignity of Muslim communities.

This process has been entrenched by the growth of multiculturalism. Let me be clear what I mean here. Part of the problem in talking of multiculturalism is that we often confuse two notions: the lived experience of diversity, on the one hand; and, on the other, multiculturalism as a political process, the aim of which is to manage that diversity.

The experience of living in a society that is less insular, more vibrant and more cosmopolitan is obviously positive. It’s a case for open borders and open minds. As a political process, however, multiculturalism means something very different. It describes a set of policies, the aim of which is to manage diversity by putting people into ethnic and cultural boxes, defining individual needs and rights by virtue of the boxes into which people are put, and using those boxes to shape public policy. It is a case not for open minds but for the policing of borders, whether physical, cultural or imaginative.

This conflation of lived experience and political process has proved highly invidious. On the one hand, it has allowed many to stigmatize migrants and to portray minorities as a social problem. On the other hand, it has forced many traditional liberals and radicals to abandon classical notions of freedom and liberty in the name of defending diversity.

This brings me to the third change I want to address: that in our understanding of free speech. It is worth recalling how extraordinary, in contemporary terms, was the response to the fatwa. Not only was Rushdie forced into hiding, but bookshops were firebombed, translators and publishers murdered.

Yet the publisher Penguin, and its CEO Peter Mayer, never wavered in their commitment to The Satanic Verses. They recognized, Mayer recalled later, that what we did now affected much more than simply the fate of this one book. How we responded to the controversy over The Satanic Verses would affect the future of free inquiry, without which there would be no publishing as we knew it, but also, by extension, no civil society as we knew it.”

It is an attitude that today seems to belong to a different age. Far from standing up to bombs and death threats, all it takes today to make publishers to think again is for one person to feel offended. And sometimes not even a threat is required. Simply the fear of giving offence is sufficient to enforce self-censorship.

In the post-Rushdie world, it has become accepted that it is morally wrong to give offense to other cultures and belief-systems. For plural societies to function and to be fair, many argue, we need to restrict what we say about, and to, each other. As the British sociologist Tariq Modood has put it, “If people are to occupy the same political space without conflict, they mutually have to limit the extent to which they subject each others’ fundamental beliefs to criticism.”

The final change I want to discuss is that in the perception of Islam. In the wake of the Rushdie affair, many commentators, shocked by the sight of British Muslims threatening a British author and publicly burning his book, questioned whether a modern, Western, liberal democracy could safely accommodate Muslims. The Bible, the novelist, feminist and secularist Fay Weldon wrote in her 1989 pamphlet Sacred Cows, provides “food for thought” out of which “You can build a decent society.” The Qur’an offers “food for no thought. It is not a poem on which a society can be safely or sensibly based.”

The idea of the “clash of civilizations” began to take hold. The phrase was coined by the historian Bernard Lewis and subsequently popularized by the American political scientist Samuel Huntington. The conflicts that had convulsed Europe over the past centuries, Huntington wrote, from the wars of religion between Protestants and Catholics to the Cold War, were all “conflicts within Western civilization.” The “battle lines of the future,” on the other hand, would be between civilizations. And the most deep-set of these would be between the Christian West and the Islamic East, which would be “far more fundamental” than any war unleashed by “differences among political ideologies and political regimes.”

In the wake of 9/11, and then of the emergence of Islamic State, the very presence of Muslims has come to be seen by many as incompatible with Western values. The irony is that it is a worldview that mirrors that of the Islamists.

je suis charlie
Charlie Hebdo’s first cover after the January 7th attack

These shifts — in the meaning of Islam, of identity, of free speech, and of the relationship between Islam and the West — provide the background to the Charlie Hebdo killings.

Over the past quarter of century, Islamism has taken hold in a way it had not previously. But Islamism is not simply the creation of Muslim communities. Western Islamists are often as estranged from Muslim communities as they are from wider Western society.  Most detest mainstream forms of Islam and cut themselves off from traditional community institutions. Disengaged from both Western societies and Muslim communities, some reach out to Islamism.

What Islamism provides is not religion in any old-fashioned sense, but identity, recognition and meaning. It is the product of identity politics as it is of religious faith. Disembedded from social norms, finding their identity within a small group, shaped by black and white ideas and values, driven by a sense that they are warriors in the clash of civilizations, taking part in some kind of existential struggle between Islam and the West, it becomes easier to commit acts of horror. Such as the Charlie Hebdo killings.

Attitudes to free speech have similarly become more illiberal. Shock and outrage at the brutal character of the slaughter led many in the immediate aftermath of the Charlie Hebdo killings to close ranks with the slain. “Je Suis Charlie” became the phrase of the day, to be found in every newspaper and Twitter feed.

Yet, none of this could mask the fundamental shift that had taken place in attitudes to free speech. The discussion following the Charlie Hebdo killings showed how ideas and arguments that 25 years ago had dwelt largely in the margins now occupied the mainstream. Hardly had news begun filtering out about the Charlie Hebdo shootings, than there were those suggesting that the magazine was a “racist institution” and that the cartoonists had brought it on themselves through their incessant attacks on Islam.

Perhaps the most disgraceful refusal of solidarity came, a few months after the attack, with the boycott a host of writers — including such Australian stalwarts as Peter Carey — of the annual gala of PEN America in protest against PEN’s decision to award Charlie Hebdo its annual Freedom of Expression Courage Award.

What much of the discussion after the Charlie Hebdo killings showed was how Salman Rushdie’s critics had lost the battle, but won the war. They lost the battle because The Satanic Verses continues to be published. They won the war because the argument at the heart of the anti-Rushdie campaign — that it is morally wrong to offend other peoples and cultures — has become accepted by the mainstream. We have all, in a sense, internalized the fatwa.

The journey from the Satanic Verses controversy to the Charlie Hebdo killings shows how the response to the first helped lay the ground for the second. We have learnt the wrong lessons of the Rushdie affair. a quarter of a century on, it’s time we started learning the right ones.

Kenan Malik

Kenan Malik is a writer, lecturer and broadcaster. His books include From Fatwa to Jihad: How the World Changed from The Satanic Verses to Charlie Hebdo and The Quest for a Moral Compass: A Global History of Ethics. He blogs at Pandaemonium (https://kenanmalik.wordpress.com)
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Kenan Malik

Kenan Malik is a writer, lecturer and broadcaster. His books include From Fatwa to Jihad: How the World Changed from The Satanic Verses to Charlie Hebdo and The Quest for a Moral Compass: A Global History of Ethics. He blogs at Pandaemonium (https://kenanmalik.wordpress.com)

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