Sunday, June 14, 2009

Explaining A P2C2E

This appeared in today's Hindustan Times.


“Nobody would have the balls today to write The Satanic Verses, let alone publish it. Writing is now timid because writers are now terrified.” That, according to Hanif Kureishi, is one of the outcomes of the two-decade old fatwa on Salman Rushdie.

Such consequences and more are what Kenan Malik attempts to get to the root of in his From Fatwa to Jihad, a compelling look at the ways in which the world -- specifically, the United Kingdom -- has changed in the years since the book was burned in Bradford and Rushdie, in Martin Amis’ memorable words, “disappeared into the front page”. (For those who need reminding, India was the first country to ban The Satanic Verses.)

It’s a vast subject and Malik attempts to do it justice by compressed explorations of the nature of contemporary Islam, its relationship to the West, the origin and causes of multiculturalism and the nature of tolerance in liberal societies. These are interspersed with occasional interviews with some of the dramatis personae – not including Rushdie himself – as well as relevant biographical anecdotes.

One of the themes that emerge again and again in these pages is how politics for short-term gain inevitably leads to less-than-desirable results. Malik quotes Ghayasuddin Siddiqui, one of the founders of the Muslim Institute, as saying that “the conflict over Rushdie was never about religion. It was about politics, specifically between Saudi Arabia and Iran over winning hearts and minds of Muslims”. In a wider context, he marshals the arguments of sociologists and others who point out that contemporary Islamic radicalism isn’t an atavistic return to tradition, but rather, a response to the stresses of the present and the diminishment of identity.

It was politics again, this time at a local level, which was responsible for the policy of multiculturalism in Britain and elsewhere in Europe. Malik traces this further back than 1988, touching upon opposition to the National Front thugs, the creation of bodies such as the Indian Progressive Youth Association and the 1981 Brixton riots. He outlines how municipal policies of creating a political framework to reach out to minority communities influenced the Bhikhu Parekh report on the future of multi-ethnic Britain, paving the way for multiculturalism at a national level. This “helped create new divisions and more intractable conflicts which made for a less openly racist but a more insidiously tribal Britain”. It’s ironic that the old left-wing dream of concerted action to bring about universal acceptance should come to this.

Early on in the book, Malik quotes Peter Mayer, then Penguin CEO, on his realisation that the publisher’s response to the Satanic Verses affair “would affect the future of free enquiry, without which there would be no publishing as we know it, but also, by extension, no civil society as we knew it”. Such a stance seems to be forgotten nowadays, what with the Danish cartoons controversy as well as Random House’s recent decision not to publish Sherry Jones’ The Jewel of Medina. Malik refers to this state of affairs as an “auction of victimhood”, with everyone free to air grievances and be offended, all ignoring the advice of Justice Hugo Black from the US Supreme Court in 1961: “Freedom of speech must be accorded to ideas we hate or sooner or later it will be denied to ideas we cherish”.

Words to keep in mind as we enter even more polarised times, considering this month’s European parliament election results in which far-right and anti-immigrant parties across countries made significant gains. If you’re expecting another Enlightenment anytime soon, don’t hold your breath.

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