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Books and Documents ( 12 Jul 2009, NewAgeIslam.Com)

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From Fatwa to Jihad by Kenan Malik


Book Review


By Saif Shahin

Atlantic Books, London

Pp 266, Rs 399/

VALENTINE’S Day is usually an occasion to write mellifluous letters of love. But 20 years ago, a letter penned that day was so vile in its content and so bilious in temperament that, almost like some talisman out of magic realist literature, it tore apart relations between communities and changed the course of history in its wake.

That letter was the fatwa issued by Iran’s Ayatollah Khomeini calling for the head of Salman Rushdie, a little less than five months after the publication of ‘The Satanic Verses’. And yes, it was that succinct four-paragraph letter – and not the literary tome itself – that stirred up the maelstrom which continues to (mis)shape life and death for many across the world.

This is one of the central thrusts of scientist, writer and broadcaster Kenan Malik’s scalpel-sharp ‘From Fatwa To Jihad: The Rushdie Affair And Its Legacy’. The book documents how the fatwa became a clarion call for a motley mass of radical Muslims – until then divided not just by geography but also by their understanding of Islam and radicalism – to meld into what is now seen as a jihadist force threatening the global order. Malik also rises above the ambit of political history to assess the subtler effects of the fatwa, on Muslims and on the Enlightened Western civilisation itself.

He begins by arguing that the entire campaign against ‘The Satanic Verses’ was political rather than theological. The book was first banned in India, which was then months away from an election in which the ruling party desperately needed the support of the domestic Muslim community and an issue to rally them behind. In the UK, a number of Saudi government-sponsored groups organised protests and burned the book publicly to raise the temperature against it.

But despite Riyadh’s diplomatic bulldozing, no Muslim country other than Pakistan bothered to ban ‘The Satanic Verses’ until the fatwa was issued. Malik claims this was a calculated move by Khomeini – then facing the ignominy of withdrawal from the war in Iraq – to subvert reformist voices within Iran and gain political ground across the Muslim world.

“The fatwa sowed confusion and division among supporters of the Saudi regime,” writes Malik. “A number of militants who had taken part in the Afghan jihad against the Soviet Union and who had been within Riyadh’s orbit now pledged allegiance to Tehran… The reformers were forced to denounce Rushdie.”

The fatwa also turned Islam into a domestic issue for the West. Malik, who was born in India but grew up marching along anti-racism rallies in 1980s Britain, explains how it was these progressive rallies that made the ground fertile for the seed of the fatwa to grow into the cactus of Islamism.

Multicultural policies adopted by Britain to tackle racism led to divisions between blacks and Asians, and of Asians into Hindus, Muslims and Sikhs. Self-appointed “representatives” of these cultures were not far behind, and the government chose to deal with the communities through them. The focus shifted from politically tackling racism to preserving religious and cultural differences.

“What convulsed Bradford now,” writes Malik, “were demands for separate Muslim schools and for separate education for girls, a campaign for halal meat to be served at school, and, most explosively, the confrontation over ‘The Satanic Verses’.”

It was Bradford where the first copies of the ‘Verses’ were publicly burnt. The author elaborates how Muslims went on from burning books to burning buses and ploughing aeroplanes into supposed symbols of Western society.

But Malik says the fatwa has had a still deeper impact – self-censorship. Free speech, once the foundation of free society, is now seen as a dangerous commodity and it has become perfectly acceptable to suppress art on the grounds that it may offend someone’s cultural or religious sensibilities. This is the very negation of plural society.

With impeccably-researched arguments, Malik’s nib tears through the world views of those who believe Islam is incompatible with Western society as well as those who think the West “had it coming”. The book is punctuated with extracts from ‘The Satanic Verses’, in which the angel and the devil keep reversing their roles. Malik says Rushdie wants us to see that the distinction between devil and angel lies less in their inner selves than in the roles that humans ascribe to them.

“Both religious faiths and secular societies,” writes Malik, “deploy their angels and demons to justify their otherwise unjustifiable actions to create boundaries that cannot be transgressed.”

That is precisely how the post-fatwa world has unfolded.


Like the Rushdie affair, the controversy over the Danish cartoons was driven not by theology but by politics. The Islamic art historian (and member of the Jordanian royal family) Wijdan Ali has shown that, far from Islam having always forbidden representations of the Prophet, until comparatively recently it was perfectly common for him to be portrayed. The prohibition against such depictions only emerged in the seventeenth century. Even over the past four hundred years, a number of Islamic, especially Shiite, traditions have accepted the pictorial representation of Muhammad. Edinburgh University Library, the Bibliotheque National in Paris, New York’s Metropolitan Museum of Art and the Topkapi Palace Museum in Istanbul all contain dozens of Persian, Ottoman and Afghan Manuscripts depicting the Prophet. A seventeenth-century mural on the Iman Zahdah Chah Zaid mosque in Isfahan in Iran shows a veiled figure of Muhammad; through the veil his facial features are clearly visible.

Terror is an expression not of the strength but of the impotence of Islamism; unable to win for itself a mass following, jihadists have been forced to turn to violence to gain the attention they could not win through political means. But the uncertainties and insecurities of Western societies about the worth of basic liberal values, the descent into tribal politics even by those who declare an attachment to Enlightenment universalist ideas, and the emergence of fear as a dominant sentiment, have made Islamists appear more potent than they are.


‘What’s been particularly disturbing’, says Sherry Jones, ‘is the culture of fear that’s developed in this country since 2001. The administration has perpetuated the idea that America is under siege from Muslims. It has stoked up fears of another 9/11. We’ve become so terrified about how we might die that we’ve stopped thinking about how we should live.’

   If the Rushdie affair augured a new sense of fear, 9/11 turned it into a permanent condition of the national psyche, and not just in America. In 1989, the burning book in Bradford provided an intimation of different kind of social conflict, a clash of civilizations. The burning towers on 9/11 appeared to make that clash concrete in the rubble of Lower Manhattan. The fatwa had sown doubts and fears among Western liberals; the jihad conjured up their most terrible nightmares. ‘It has become terrifyingly clear how close the “Barbarians” are, perhaps in reality always have been,’ warned the writer (and London-born New Yorker) Sasha Abramsky. He quoted Edward Gibbon’s famous lines from The Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire on how ‘At the hour of midnight the Salarian Gate was silently opened, and the inhabitants were awakened by the tremendous sound of the Gothic trumpet. Eleven hundred and sixty-three years after the foundation of Rome, the Imperial city, that had subdued and civilized so considerable a part of mankind, was delivered to the licentious fury of the tribes of Germany and Scythia.’ For Abramsky, the destruction of the World Trade Center revealed how ‘a symbol of our age can be destroyed in a moment, much as the fierce greatness of Rome was overrun by hordes lacking science, literature, art, but fuelled by a fanatical hatred of an urban, cosmopolitan, commercial culture and civilization far grander than their own.’

   The analogy is telling. Not because of what it tells us about a West besieged by Islamist hordes, but because of the glimpse it provides into the sense of fragility felt by many about Western civilization. ‘America today’, the former US national security advisor Zbigniew Brzezinski has observed, ‘is not the self-confident and determined nation that responded to Pearl Harbor; nor is it the America that heard from its leader, at another moment of crisis, the powerful words “the only thing we have to fear is fear itself”; nor is it the calm America that waged the Cold War with quiet persistence despite the knowledge that a real war could be initiated abruptly within minutes and prompt the death of 100 million Americans within just a few hours. We are now divided, uncertain and potentially very susceptible to panic in the event of another terrorist act in the United States itself.’

   In 2003, Brzezinski pointed out, the US Congress had identified 160 sites as potentially important national targets for would-be terrorists. By the end of 2004 the list had grown to 28,360 and by 2005 to 77,769. Two years later the national database of possible targets had some 300,000 items in it, including such events of world significance as the ‘Illinois Apple and Pork Festival’. ‘America has become insecure and more paranoid,’ Brzezinski concluded, as ‘the culture of fear’ has acquired ‘a life of its own’.

   Over the past century the world has faced two world wars, a Cold War, Nazism and the Holocaust. There were times when the barbarians did indeed appear not just to be at the gates but to have wrenched those gates right off. The world survived and, indeed, prospered. Despite the post-9/11 sense of millenarian doom, the world is safer today than it has been for the past half-century. War and organized violence have decreased dramatically over the past two decades. According to Ted Robert Gurr and his colleagues at the University of Maryland’s Center for International Development and Conflict Management, worldwide violence increased six fold during the course of the Cold War, peaking just before the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991. Since then ‘the extent of warfare among and within states [has] lessened by nearly half.

   It is true that the nature of violence has changed, becoming less organized and predictable. Standing armies fighting under formal orders have given way to loose networks of fanatical jihadis striking seemingly at random. Yet even here, fears are exaggerated. The bottom line about Islamic terrorism, as Fareed Zakaria, editor of Newsweek International, has put it, is that ‘in the six years since 9/11, al-Qaeda Central … has been unable to launch a major attack anywhere’. Al-Qaeda, he mocks, ‘was a terrorist organization; it has become a communications company, producing the occasional videotape rather than actual terrorism.’ Jihadists, he points out, have had to scatter, make do with smaller targets, and operate on a local level, usually through groups with almost no connection to al-Qaeda Central. In countries where jihadists used to nest – such as Indonesia, Egypt and the Philippines – they have been crushed with brutal ferocity.

   On 9/11, the hijacked planes tore into the fabric, not simply of the World Trade Center and the Pentagon, but also of the self-assurance of Western societies. Into that gaping hole flew a whole bestiary of demons. ‘If a flight full of commuters can be turned into a missile of war,’ observed the New York Times, ‘then everything is dangerous.’ It is as much this erosion of self-belief, as the reality of the threat facing the West, from which the culture of fear has emerged.

   That is what connects the burning book in Bradford to the burning towers in Manhattan: not just the wrath of Islam but also the insecurities of the West. Islam, as Olivier Roy has put it, ‘is not the cause of the crisis’ in the West; it is rather ‘a mirror in which the West projects its own identity crisis’.

   The response to the jihad has echoed the response to the fatwa. Just as many reacted to the Rushdie affair by reassessing their commitment to traditional liberal values and insisting, in the name of multiculturalism, that Islamist sentiments had to be appeased, so many responded to 9/11 with unease and self-loathing. In an infamous piece for the London Review of Books, the Cambridge classicist and historian Mary Beard wrote of ‘the feeling that, however tactfully you dress it up, the United States had it coming’. 9/11, she suggested, was the wages of sin for the West’s ‘refusal to listen to what the “terrorists” had to say’, adding that ‘World bullies, even if their hearts are in the right place, will in the end pay the price.’ An editorial in the left-wing British magazine New Statesman claimed that the people in the Twin Towers were not ‘as innocent and as undeserving of terror as Vietnamese or Iraqi peasants’, because, while ‘such large-scale carnage is beyond justification’, nevertheless ‘Americans, unlike Iraqis and many others in poor countries, at least have the privileges of democracy and freedom that allow them to vote and speak in favour of a different order.’ The novelist Eva Figes, a Jewish anti-Zionist, suggested that ‘On 11 September 2001 the Muslim world finally struck back’ to ease the humiliation heaped upon it by the creation of the state of Israel.

   Others responded to 9/11, as many had done to the book-burning, by resurrecting the ‘clash of civilizations’ argument. The American philosopher and liberal secularist Sam Harris believes that the West is at war not with terrorism, nor even with Islamic terrorism, but with ‘Islam itself’, with ‘the vision of life that is prescribed to all Muslims in the Koran’. The distinction between moderate and fundamentalist Muslims is irrelevant because ‘most Muslims appear to be “fundamentalist” in the Western sense of the word’. ‘Is Islam compatible with a civil society?’ asked Harris. ‘Is it possible to believe what you must believe to be a good Muslim, to have military and economic power, and to not pose an unconscionable threat to the civil societies of others? I believe that the answer to this questions is no.’

   The clash of civilizations argument is often presented as a defence of Enlightenment values. September 11, Martin Amis has written, was ‘a day of de-Enlightenment’. As much as Iraq or Afghanistan, the Enlightenment has become a key battleground in the war on terror. For aims and Harris, the war on terror represents a desperate defence of liberal democratic traditions, the scientific worldview and a secular, rationalist culture, in the face of a theocratic assault that seeks to destroy democracy and rights, especially women’s rights. Yet, in the hands of the clash of civilization warriors, the Enlightenment has become less a set of values than a myth by which to define the West. Like the caliphate is for Islamists, the Enlightenment has become a loss to be yearned for, a tradition to be revered.

   ‘One of the main claims of Enlightenment philosophy’, the writer Ian Buruma observes in Murder in Amsterdam, his meditation on the significance of the killing of Dutch film-maker Theo van Gogh by a Moroccan Islamist, ‘is that its ideas based on reason are by definition universal. But the Enlightenment has a particular appeal to some … because its values are not just universal, but more importantly “ours”, that is European, Western values.’ In just this vein, the writer Harry Cummins has drawn on the philosopher Jean-Jacques Rousseau to suggest that ‘institutions created by and for one population break down if exposed to human groups that behave in a different way’. That is why ‘excluding Muslim suspects from Western rights (say at Guantanamo Bay) does not per se compromise Western standards of legality. Western legalism and liberalism were formulated in a different world, and experience has proved (especially in Britain) that attempts to integrate minority cultures into our rights-based system create clashes.’

   Democracy, equality, the rule of law: these are not universal values but ‘ours’. Not only are they ours in the sense that they are the historic property of the West, they are also ours in the sense that non-Westerners do not deserve, indeed would culturally resist, having these values extended to them. The enemy is not Muslims as such, Sam Harris insists, but Islam is such an alien force that different rules must apply to the way that Muslims are treated. Harris has made a liberal case for torture, arguing that ‘if we are willing to drop bombs or even risk that pistol rounds might go astray, we should be willing to torture a certain class of criminal suspect and military prisoners’. Since most terrorists are Muslims, so there is, he argues, a need for ethnic profiling and discriminatory policing. And he believes that ‘some propositions are so dangerous that it may even be ethical to kill people for believing them’. Martin Amis has wondered aloud about collective punishment for Muslims to ensure that the whole ‘community will have to suffer until it gets its house in order’. Once the Enlightenment becomes a weapon in the clash of civilizations rather than in the battle to define the values and attitudes necessary to advance political rights and social justice, once it becomes a measure as much of tribal attachment as of progressive politics, then everything from torture to collective punishment becomes permissible, and the pursuit of Enlightenment itself becomes a source of de-Enlightenment.

   ‘For are they not conjoined opposites, these two, each man the other’s shadow?’ asks Salman Rushdie in The Satanic Verses about his tow protagonists, Saladin Chamcha and Gibreel Farishta. One might ask the same question about the multiculturalist argument and the clash of civilization thesis. These two response to both fatwa and jihad appears as conjoined opposites, each as the other’s shadow, two different expressions of the same anxieties about Enlightenment values. One celebrates a lack of faith in the Enlightenment by giving up on the idea of universal values, suggesting instead that we should accept that every society is a collection of disparate communities and that every community should be encouraged to express its own identity, explore its own history, formulate its own values, pursue its own lifestyles. The other turns belief in the Enlightenment into a tribal affair: Enlightenment values are good because they are ours, and we should militantly defend our values and lifestyles, even to the extent of denying such values and lifestyles to others. Or, as Rushdie says about Saladin and Gibreel, ‘One seeking to transform into the foreignness he admires, the other seeking contemptuously to transform.’

   An assertive, self-confident society that possessed moral clarity about its beliefs would have little trouble dealing with the claims of fundamentalists, and indeed with the acts of terrorists. Terror is an expression not of the strength but of the impotence of Islamism; unable to win for itself a mass following, jihadists have been forced to turn to violence to gain the attention they could not win through political means. But the uncertainties and insecurities of Western societies about the worth of basic liberal values, the descent into tribal politics even by those who declare an attachment to Enlightenment universalist ideas, and the emergence of fear as a dominant sentiment, have made Islamists appear more potent than they are. ‘Vulnerability is never the best proof of strength’, as Shabbir Akhtar put it in Be Careful with Muhammad!, mocking the doubts of Western liberals. From fatwa to jihad, politicians and intellectuals have not only exaggerated the threat facing Western societies, but have also lacked the moral and political resources to respond to it.