I haven’t yet laid my hands on a copy of Salman Rushdie’s new book, but it is an anticipated pleasure. “Joseph Anton: A Memoir” tells his own story of being forced underground with armed surveillance after Ayatollah Khomeini’s fatwa against him over The Satanic Verses. Acton was the name Rushdie used while incognito during the time when he was most in danger. The fatwa remains current, as the only man who can lift it – Khomeini – inconveniently died a few months after the pronouncement. However Rushdie is beginning to rebuild his life in the open 24 years after the publication of that fateful book.
The best explanation for the fatwa and how it directly inspired the likes of London’s 7/7 are to be found in Kenan Malik’s “From Fatwa to Jihad”. English writer Malik tells how in February 1989 he witnessed a profound event: the first burning of The Satanic Verses in public. A thousand Muslims gathered in Bradford, Yorkshire with copies of Rushdie’s book and burned it in front of a police station. It wasn’t quite Kristallnacht but it was calculated to shock and to offend.
Like Rushdie, Malik was born of an Indian Muslim family. He grew up in Britain in an Islamic culture which was deeply embedded but not “all consuming”. He became a radical leftist in the 1980s, and did not think of himself as Muslim but black. Malik quotes secular writer Fay Weldon who said the Qu’ran offered no food for thought. “It forbids change, interpretation, self-knowledge, even art for fear of treading on Allah’s creative toes,” Weldon said.
Malik didn’t mind treading on Allah’s toes. He was self-consciously secular and militant. Black for Malik was a political badge which stood for refusing to put up with the discrimination dished out to the previous generation. The whites called them Asians but they were no more Asian than the Brits were Europeans. Malik said it was much later they became “Muslims” and that for political reasons. Rushdie came from a similar background to Malik and his early writings had done more than most to humanise the experience of immigrant Muslims.
Rushdie was used to having his books banned if not burned. His first novel Midnight’s Children was banned in India and Indira Ghandi successfully sued for libel in a British court. In the second novel Shame, Rushdie’s description of Benazir Bhutto as the Virgin Ironpants caused outrage in Pakistan and another ban. Rushdie laughed it off as he won prize after prize for his great writing. The third book took his mockery to the next level. It would be no less than a fable about the origins of Islam.
Written over 12 years before 9/11, The Satanic Verses opens with an exploding airline. The magical events that happen to the two survivors of the explosion are used to discuss how God’s revelation to the prophet Mahound brings a new religion called Submission (the English translation of “Islam”) to a city in the sand called Jahilia (“Ignorance” – where Arabs lived prior to Islam). A second tale in the book is a caricature of Ayatollah Khomeini and the third is based the true story of an Indian pied piper who leads all her Indian village on the Haj and then into the sea to drown.
In one book, Rushdie was attacking Islam’s history, one of its major political leader and one of its five pillars of behaviour. He might have expected some resistance, yet the immediate reaction wasn’t huge. Rushdie’s book was so obtuse and so difficult to follow in its non-narrative form it was almost impossible to understand in a single reading and almost threatened to go under the radar.
Then Sher Azam stepped in. Azam was the president of Bradford’s Council of Mosques. Azam wasn’t the first Muslim critic of the book. That honour belongs to philosopher Shabbir Akhtar who called it an inferior piece of literature. But Azam was one of the earliest to realise how Rushdie could be a rallying cry for Muslim identity. Azam had not read the book but read reviews of it. He knew religious scholars had declared it blasphemous and he took on the task of writing to Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher. Azam compared it to the Spycatcher affair and asked for it to be banned. He got no reply.
Azam told Malik Christians don’t mind about what people say about their God because they no longer believe in “Him”. But look what it means, he told Malik. “It means a country where the values have gone. People drink, take drugs, have sex like dogs.” Azam said those problems would disappear if people believed in God. Azam tapped into a new consciousness among young radicals. These people were moving away from the radical secularism preferred by Malik to a radical religiosity that could be firmly rooted across the Muslim world.
The Muslims who burned the book in Bradford felt an immense power in their action. Applauded as it was across the umma, they felt tuned in to a philosophy much bigger than themselves. It gave them a giddy sense of power they had never had before in their lives. A few days later on February 13, Khomeini called on “all zealous Muslims” to execute anyone involved in the publication of the book, and Iran offered $3m for Rushdie’s death ( or a knock-down $1m if the assassin was non-Muslim).
It didn’t matter that Khomeini issued the fatwa primarily as a marker in his battle with the Saudis for supremacy in the Muslim world. His intervention had made it an event of global consequence. That day Rushdie attended a memorial service for writer Bruce Chatwin who had just died. Paul Theroux came up to him and said “we’ll be back here next week for you.” Rushdie said it wasn’t the funniest joke he’d ever heard. By the following morning, Scotland Yard had given him grade one protection and spirited him away to a safe house. Joseph Acton was born.
But so was jihadism in Britain, according to Malik. He argues Britain and many other Governments formed pacts with religious movements because they thought they would be easier to control than the left. This was a miscalculation and it was made worse in the UK by Government policies that outsourced “Muslim issues” to Muslim organisations. In the wake of the London Bombings of 2005, Muslim leaders lashed Prime Minister Tony Blair for ignoring the warning signs that led to 7/7. Blair hit back criticising moderate Muslims for not doing enough. “Governments cannot go and root out the extremism in these communities,” he said. That was your job, it implied but no one asked Blair why he felt so helpless rooting them out.
Under the guise of multiculturalism, Britain divested all its decisions on Muslim issues to the Muslim Council of Mosques. Radicalism fermented in these organisations. Six of the 7/7 plotters were trainee doctors. The Satanic Verses furore was a catalyst for a more confident Islamic identity which educated young professionals could endorse. But it was not an identity recognised by most Muslims. Islamism was not an expression of ancient faith but a modernist reaction against the loss of belonging in complex societies comforted by a literal belief in the Qu’ran. Rushdie, one of the most nuanced of Muslim culture writers, had no chance against the power of this certainty.