By Saif Shahin, NewAgeIslam.com
27 January, 2012
From Bradford to Bombay, as hooligans burnt the first copies of The Satanic Verses a quarter century ago, scarcely could they have imagined that they stood on the cusp of history. The world was about to change, and they were unintentionally emblazoning the dividing line between what was and what was going to be.
The “Rushdie controversy”, as it was then called, heralded the era of global Islamist activism/extremism/terrorism, even though much of the phenomenon had little to do with the author or the book. Erupting once again 24 years later, can it, possibly, now presage its end?
The Satanic Verses was published in 1988. India’s Congress government, then a year away from an election it was likely to lose (and did indeed lose), was quick to ban the book, saying it would outrage Muslims—whose votes it needed to win. On Valentine’s Day 1989, Iran’s Ayatollah Khomeini, smarting from his defeat to “infidel” Saddam Hussein’s Iraq after an eight-year war and desperately seeking a way to reimpose his moral authority (over Iranians and Muslims elsewhere), issued a four-paragraph fatwa pronouncing the book blasphemous and calling for Rushdie’s head. The global protests, bus burnings, bombings and riots this sparked was the first sign that “Islam” was a danger to peace.
Two years later, the Islamic Salvation Front performed exceptionally well in the first round of Algerian elections and looked set to come to power with a two-thirds majority. This would have been the first time anywhere in the world that an Islamist party would have formed a government democratically. But the Algerian army cancelled the elections—supposedly to prevent Algeria from turning Islamist but actually to maintain its own hold over power—triggering a civil war that may have claimed 200,000 lives.
Around the same time, Osama bin Laden left Saudi Arabia for Afghanistan, after failing to convince King Fahd not to allow “infidel” American troops on the holy land to push Saddam Hussein’s forces out of Kuwait. He had reportedly offered to form an army of mujahideen to carry out the task, just as he had helped defeat the “godless” Soviet army in Afghanistan in the 1980s. But Fahd did not agree, US forces did land on the holy land and formed bases there, and bin Laden did go back to Afghanistan. It wasn’t long after this that the Taliban emerged as the game-changing factor in the Afghan civil war, eventually capturing power in 1996.
The bombing of the World Trade Centre in New York took place in 1993, the beginning of a spate of terrorist attacks on Western targets by Islamists.
An Islamist insurgency also began to rage in Indian Kashmir from 1989. It was initially dominated by Pakistan-trained mujahideen who had been rendered jobless by the end of Soviet occupation of Afghanistan. Later, of course, many locals too began to view the territorial dispute as a religious struggle and fuelled the ranks of insurgents. This “Muslim versus non-Muslim” narrative spilled over to the rest of India too, partly in reaction to the demolition of the Babri Masjid in 1992 and the ascendance of the “Hindu nationalist” Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP).
Anti-Israeli movements in the Middle East took an Islamist turn as well, embodied in the Palestinian Hamas and the Lebanese Hezbollah. Both these groups had been formed in the 1980s, but gained popular support in the 1990s as their predecessors failed to make any headway in the Arab-Israeli conflict.
It was as if an Islamist wave was sweeping the world. Different people got caught up with it for different reasons. Some were swayed by the cultural churn of globalisation and sought refuge in Islam. Some were frustrated in their political struggles and turned to Islam for an answer. Many were actively pushed towards Islamism by studying in Saudi-funded Wahabi madrasas, visiting mosques run by Wahabi maulanas or becoming members of Wahabi organisations.
The wave was also fanned by United States’ belligerent post-Cold War posture, which seemed to many to be decidedly “anti-Islamic”. Indeed, an American scholar, Samuel Huntington, postulated the clash of civilisations theory around this time, pitting the Islamic civilisation as the new “big enemy” of the West. And people on both sides simply bought this world view, thinking little about how it defied both logic and history—or how it was perhaps tailored to make them think exactly that way.
Politics, local or global, played a part at all levels. But what began as the burning of some copies of a book had, at the turn of the 20th century, transmogrified into a conflagration set to consume the whole world.
Then came 9/11, and it seemed that this was already happening, that the world was being devoured. Except… it wasn’t!
The 9/11 attack produced an extreme reaction from the United States—the invasion of “Muslims lands” and the killing of tens of thousands of “momineen” by “infidels”. Sponsors of Islamism projected it as Crusades Redux, and expected that it would convince most Muslims to join the Global Jihad. But Muslims didn’t—certainly not in the numbers they were supposed to.
The utter despicability of 9/11 reviled Muslims as much as it shocked the rest of the world, and for all their reservations about the United States and its foreign policy, Muslims did not turn to terrorism en masse. If anything, the attack helped push them away from Islamism. An extensive Gallup poll conducted among Muslims globally, published as ‘Who Speaks for Islam?: What a Billion Muslims Really Think’, showed not disapproval but horror for the 9/11 attack.
To be sure, several small terrorist cells sprang up after 9/11 and pulled off a series of attacks in London, Madrid, Bali, Casablanca and elsewhere. But true to their name, they were individual, disparate cells rather than full-fledged bodies or even the organs of any large entity.
Indeed, established Islamist organisations started doing things until then seen as positively unIslamic—such as participating in democratic politics. Hamas, Hezbollah, the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt and its various offshoots across the Middle East turned to elections as a source of political legitimacy and started reforming their policy statements and agendas to blunt their Islamist edge. More recently, the Arab Spring has spurred this process further.
Some terrorist groups, including Al Qaeda, Taliban, Tehreek-e-Taliban Pakistan, Lashkar-e-Taiba and so on, continue to operate in Pakistan and Afghanistan. But all of them have now shed their Islamic cloak and revealed themselves for what they are: gun-toting militias rather than ideological movements, motley crowds of self-serving thugs who engage in all sorts of crime and depravities rather than upholders of any religious cause. Meanwhile, Kashmir has been at relative peace in recent years, and enjoyed its highest tourist footfall last year in nearly a quarter century.
What about the rest of India? A slew of “Islamist” attacks have taken place in several cities in the last few years, but the Pakistan army’s hand has been evident in most if not all of them. Some Muslim youngsters continue to be enamoured by the call of Islamism, but again their numbers are too small to be a reflection of the community at large. Indeed, the community seems to be moving in the opposite direction. For instance, a much publicised court judgment in the Babri Masjid case that went against the Muslim position—as emotive an issue as can be—hardly elicited any response from the community.
The global Islamist wave is clearly receding. Muslims around the world, after rejecting the call of militancy and terrorism, are now stepping back from political activism in the name of Islam as well. Changes in the global geopolitical climate are also aiding this drift. The United States is now training its guns towards a new “big enemy”—China. Whatever its ramifications for international politics, it does imply that Islam’s value as the antithesis of the West will reduce, and Islamophobia—a crucial cause of Islamism, will decline as well.
It is in this backdrop that the “Rushdie controversy” has resurfaced. For many, the call to bar the author from attending the Jaipur Literary Festival indicates that little has changed in the past two decades. But clearly, what is happening today is not quite the same as 1988. No books are being burned and no mass protests are taking place around the country. The ones that are are not spontaneous—they have been organised by the official sponsors of Islamism in India, the Jamaat-e-Islami. Indeed, Rushdie has been regularly visiting the country of his birth for a few years now, and even attended the Jaipur Literary Festival some years ago—without any fuss whatsoever.
Some other things, however, remain the same. As in 1988, the country today is close to an election season, and a down-in-the-dumps Congress party is hoping that the mullahs would lower their beards and let it crawl out. No doubt, they are keen to oblige.
But the controversy, resurfacing at a time of imminent global change, can now serve as an opportunity. From Bradford to Bombay, Muslims who can see through the lame politics of the episode should stand up and, matching the hooligans of 1988, step on to the streets—this time to read the book loudly rather than to burn it. They should print out copies from the Internet, distribute them freely (surely Rushdie won’t mind), and organise public reading sessions. And when the heavens don’t fall, it will be clear that the mullahs were wrong, that no book—howsoever blasphemous—can shake the foundations of a 14 centuries old and a billion-strong faith.
This will be hooliganism in its own way, as the book is still banned in India and many other countries. But it will also send out a message, the reverse of the message of 1988, that common Muslims are not intolerant people, that Islam is a religion of peace and trust, not misgivings and war. And it will weaken the vice-like grip of the mullahs—the Lat, Manat and Uzzas of our time—who have anointed themselves as arbiters of faith and blasphemy, even of life and death, without godly consent, indeed in clear defiance of Quran’s protocols.
If that happens, the “Rushdie opportunity” could well portend the imminent tossing of Islamism into the ash heap of history, making way for a more solicitous interpretation of Islam.
Saif Shahin is a research scholar at the University of Texas at Austin.