From Fatwa to Jihad

The Rushdie Affair and Its Aftermath:
How a Group of British Extremists
Attacked a Novel and Ignited Radical Islam

by Kenan Malik

Melville, 288 pp., $25

Daniel Pipes’s The Rushdie Affair: The Novel, the Ayatollah, and the West appeared in 1990, when tensions provoked by The Satanic Verses were still running high. Even after two decades it remains the most balanced account of the events, but it bears mentioning here for another reason: While Pipes pointed out the tendency of radicals to dominate the “Islamic arena,” and asserted that the affair marked the emergence of Muslims living in Europe as a political force, he concluded on a sanguine note: “The ayatollah’s accomplishments must not be exaggerated. The global fear of early 1989 is not likely to be soon repeated. .  .  . The Satanic Verses is likely to remain without match.”

As Kenan Malik puts the matter here, however, “the Rushdie affair was a warning that the seeds of the Iranian Revolution were being scattered successfully across the globe.”

There have been more spectacular and deadlier instances of worldwide “Muslim outrage” since 1989, but the Muhammad cartoon protests of 2005 and 2006 hewed to the pattern established by the Rushdie affair. This time it was not a single government picking a fight with a private individual in a foreign country, but the protests likewise resulted in numerous deaths and death threats, provoked a diplomatic confrontation with “the West,” and had enormous economic repercussions. The major difference lies in the response of the West: In 1989, it had stood (more or less) solidly behind Rushdie and the principle of freedom of speech, but by 2006, governments and the opinion classes had, in Malik’s words, “internalized the fatwa.” Any criticism of Islam by Westerners was considered insensitive. Thus, another manufactured debate of 2006, over the filming in London of the novel Brick Lane, led feminist Germaine Greer to take the side of the protesters, proclaiming that “the community has the moral right to keep the filmmakers out.” According to Malik, Greer doubted the “authenticity” of novelist Monica Ali to “speak for” Muslims.

We should not be surprised. Germaine Greer, after all, represents the rise in the past several decades of those who, without elected mandate, claim to “speak for” certain constituencies: think National Organization for Women or Al Sharpton. The result has been the erosion of a founding stone of liberal democracy, freedom of speech, as special interest groups have effectively outlawed criticism by rebranding it as “hate speech.” Muslims, too, according to Malik, are now treated by governments and the opinion classes as a “singular, uniform entity”—and death to those who differ.

From Fatwa to Jihad, by the Indian-born, Manchester-raised Londoner Malik, portrays how this lethal form of political correctness grew from the balkanization of society. Part coming-of-age story, it also depicts a fall from grace: the abandonment by the contemporary left of the ideals of common humanity and universal rights—“secular humanism”—for multiculturalism—“treating people differently in order to treat them equally.” If that sounds Orwellian, it should, because multiculturalism is the smiley face of totalitarianism.

Malik was 21 in 1981 when Midnight’s Children made Salman Rushdie a literary star. He also became a hero to Malik and others of Asian background in Britain, not for “his incendiary assaults on Islam,” but for “his brutal battering of racism.” In the 1970s, the disaffected among this in-between generation called themselves “blacks” in solidarity with the Black Panthers and also with the Afro-Caribbean immigrants who were likewise experiencing discrimination in housing and employment. They had few religious inclinations, and their radicalism was defined in opposition to mosque and the traditionalists, including the views of the latter concerning the role of women.

But by the end of the 1980s, there was a vast turnaround, and disaffection found a new home in fundamentalist Islam. The Rushdie affair, as Pipes noted, is replete with ironies: Rushdie, whose oeuvre abounds with his dislike of the West and especially of “the great American fist” (as in The Jaguar Smile: A Nicaraguan Journey), had denounced the shah and supported Iran’s Islamic Revolution of 1979. The fundamentalists protesting The Satanic Verses in 1988 and 1989, however, viewed Rushdie as another lackey of the Great Satan.

This turnaround has everything to do with the pernicious efforts of government, including that of Margaret Thatcher, to “reach out” to minorities. Malik offers a ground-level view of events during the period when Britain was experiencing race troubles with the entry into the country of large numbers of “dark-skinned” immigrants. Old-fashioned British trade unionism had been instrumental in helping them gain rights in housing and employment; with economic assimilation and the decline of trade unionism, however, the New Left found “surrogate proletariats” in the social movements, which began putting pressure on the increasingly affluent state. Instead of engaging with immigrant communities as citizens, the government turned to self-selected “community representatives,” who had much to gain in position and funding. The Muslim Council of Britain, founded in 1997, has by now been accepted by government and media as “the authentic voice of the Muslim community,” and “advisers” recommended by this council infiltrate bureaucracies and shape government attitudes. In 2000, the Parekh Report concluded that Britain was “both a community of citizens and a community of communities, both a liberal and a multicultural society.” Further, since citizens had “differing needs,” equal treatment required “full account to be taken of their differences.” Assimilation has been replaced by a policy of “culturally sensitive discrimination.” As Malik points out, “Once political power and financial resources became allocated by ethnicity, then people began to identify themselves in terms of their ethnicity, and only their ethnicity.” In this environment, Islamist groups have grown in strength.

Into this account of the erosion of freedom of speech and the rise of multiculturalist pieties, especially on the left, Malik weaves stories of several blighted lives, including London’s 7/7 bombers. No surprise here: British recruits to Islamic fundamentalism did not grow up in poverty, nor did they suffer from broken families or occupational failures. Indeed, most appeared to have led exceedingly middle-class lives.

Though he does not distinguish between the British recruits to fundamentalist Islam and the hardened criminals who staff the terrorist cells from Algeria to Afghanistan, Malik inadvertently draws attention to the precarious fate of young men in the modern world today, principally the educated among them, who believe they have no stake in a system that has rewarded them so well. This is not a new story: The angry young man has been a staple of literature and popular culture since at least Goethe’s Sorrows of Young Werther. So Malik echoes what Pipes and other scholars have asserted; namely, that the “rage of Islam” owes less to religion than to nihilist ideas that have wide purchase in Western societies. 

Indeed, the secular humanism Malik advocates, critical as it is of existing institutions, is an agent of such nihilism. Salman Rushdie was a powerful voice in articulating this nihilism and its contempt for the values of liberal democracy. However odd Rushdie’s own fate is—Pipes predicted that he would not henceforth lead a normal life—the lesson of the Rushdie Affair remains more relevant than ever: The failure to defend Western values and institutions simply nurtures contempt for them among the disaffected.


Elizabeth Powers is editing a collection of essays on the intellectual origins of freedom of speech in the 18th century.