Kenan Malik talks to Hanif Kureishi about the Rushdie fatwa and why no one would write such a book todayby Kenan Malik / April 26, 2009 / Leave a comment
Read a web-exclusive article from Anshuman A Mondal, who, 20 years after The Satanic Verses , has talked to young British Muslims throughout the country about faith and politics
Twenty years ago the Rushdie affair became a watershed in the relationship between British society and its Muslim minority. The campaign against The Satanic Verses, the book-burnings that accompanied the protests and Ayatollah Khomeini’s fatwa that forced Salman Rushdie into hiding for nearly a decade helped to transform the political and cultural landscape of Britain.
The Rushdie affair was different from the previous conflicts between British society and its minorities. Muslim fury was driven not by questions of discrimination or poverty, but by a sense of hurt that Rushdie’s words had offended their deepest beliefs. Where did such hurt come from, and why was it being expressed now? Could Muslim anguish be assuaged and should it be? How did the anger relate to political questions about citizens’ rights, duties and entitlements? Britain had never asked itself such questions before. Twenty years on, it is still groping for answers.
It was through the Rushdie affair that many of the issues that now dominate debate—multiculturalism, free speech, radical Islam—first came to the surface. It was also through the Rushdie affair that our thinking about these issues began to change. In the post-Rushdie world there has developed a much stronger sense that it is unacceptable in a plural society to give offence to other cultures or faiths. In 1989 few people had doubted Rushdie’s right to publish his novel. In 2005 there was widespread acceptance that the Danish newspaper Jyllands-Posten was wrong to publish cartoons that offended Muslim sensibilities. Politicians praised the British media for not publishing the cartoons and condemned as “disrespectful” the decision of some European papers to reprint them.
Shabbir Akhtar is a Muslim philosopher who became a spokesman for the Bradford Council of Mosques after the book-burning. “Self-censorship,” he wrote at the height of the Rushdie affair, “is a meaningful demand in a world of varied and passionately held convictions. What Rushdie publishes about Islam is not just his business.” Many liberals have come to agree. “If people are to occupy the same political space without conflict,” as the sociologist Tariq Modood has put it, “they have to limit the extent to which they subject each others’ deep beliefs to criticism.”