A new Islam for the West: Five years on, Yasmin Alibhai-Brown considers the impact of the Rushdie fatwa on British Muslims

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The Independent Online
FIVE years ago today the fatwa to kill Salman Rushdie was issued by the Iranian Ayatollah Khomeini. It has been a long five years, both for the author, whose life continues to be blighted by the death threat, and for Britain's one million Muslims, who found themselves not only branded as murderous and brutish, but at the forefront of a remarkable ideological battle. Most detest the book but do not support the fatwa, and the community lives in fear of the inevitable backlash should some lunatic try to carry it out.

But the liberal establishment continues to see Muslims as a barbarous, semi-literate community which burns (but does not read) books, whose women and children are imprisoned in unspeakable lives - a community which, unless restrained and retrained, imperils the very fabric of western civilisation. Cultural jingoism has been resurrected. There is some consternation, too, among the British intelligentsia that so few Muslims have taken the path of redemption through apostasy, even though the pay-off for such collusion, in terms of access to the media or career enhancement, is immense.

Muslims have had to face increasing coercion, inequity and savagery, with little redress. Britain's race relations laws exclude Muslims because, unlike Jews, they do not constitute an ethnic group. Across Europe Muslims have become one of the main targets of hatred and violence as we see the rise of white tribalism and nationalism. And then there is the horror of Bosnia. Even the most circumspect Muslim now sees through the sophistry and hypocrisy of the 'new world order' to make connections between Bradford and Bosnia. What once seemed an absurdly apocalyptic statement from the academic Shabbir Akhtar when he spoke of Muslims as potential Holocaust victims, has been turned into a real possibility within four years.

How have such developments affected British Muslim thinking? Inevitably, perhaps, the feeling of beleaguerment has deepened. Professor Bhikhu Parekh, former deputy chair of the Commission for Racial Equality, believes the greatest danger of this is that it 'causes the community to arrest the inescapable internal process of change and turn fundamentalist'. The Muslim Parliament, set up in January 1992 as part of the post-Rushdie political fallout, has gained strength, and fundamentalist ideas have spread in influence.

Abdul, a young Muslim pharmacist, describes what is happening: 'The really backward-looking imams, who can't even speak English, have tried to take control of the mosques everywhere, from Walthamstow to Bolton. I heard one the other day saying that our children shouldn't read literature. Another said girls should not be educated after the age of 10. And people are listening to these crazy things, particularly those troubled that their daughters are getting too independent. One said that eating with knives and forks is unIslamic.'

A commentator in the innovative Muslim weekly newspaper Q News describes the rise of 'holier than thou' student groups which 'detest all aspects of the West'. The one appearing to gain most popularity is the militant, anti-Jewish Hizb ut Tahrir, which among other things forbids even friendships with unbelievers, and says things such as: 'The British establishment . . . will never be satisfied until they take us away from our


The siege mentality has also encouraged the self-righteous belief that Muslims are the only real victims of oppression in this society, with many isolating themselves from other minority groups and denying the importance of their own ethnic, as opposed to religious, connections.

Most serious of all is the terrible intolerance within families and the community which is so painful for young people who have been brought up here and who see the need for reform and transformation. There is a dramatic rise in the number of Muslim women leaving home, often to go into higher education, and young men who feel frustrated and disillusioned with their lives. Abdul says: 'It is hard to find a way, with these religious conservatives on the one hand and, on the other, whites who want to rescue you from your heritage. People like me just don't bother any more.' This is a brain drain the British Muslim community cannot afford.

Yet there is much to be optimistic about, says Fuad Nahdi, the editor of Q News: 'As young Muslims we have been forced to look deep into our lives. We have to be honest and brave and make Islam live, be relevant to us.'

That desire is reflected in Seeing is Believing, a report on religious broadcasting by the Independent Television Commission published last month. It showed that 72 per cent of Muslims compared to 47 per cent of Jews and 59 per cent of Christians believe that television and radio programmes should challenge established religious beliefs within their faith.

Muslims in Britain now have a nascent intellectual movement with people such as Tariq Modood, Rana Kabbani, Ziauddin Sardar, Shabbir Akhtar, Akbar Ahmed, Zaki Badawi and Fuad Nahdi who, although diverse in their views, are joined in a passionate concern for Islam and where it is going.

The exchange of ideas among Muslims and across faiths is being fostered through organisations like the Calamus Foundation, set up by the writer Saba Risaludin. These thinkers are not defenders of the status quo. They are deeply critical of the moral and intellectual vacuum in many Muslim societies around the world. Some, such as Leila Ahmed, Muslim feminist and professor of Women's Studies at Amherst College, in the US, feel the way forward is to reassert first principles. In the first of a series of Channel 4 conversations with Islamic thinkers last Saturday, she ventured the view that the subservient position of many Muslim women owes much to men's misogynist interpretations of the Koran. This should be rejected, she says, and replaced by the egalitarian values intrinsic in early Islam, which among other things gave women the right to property and sexual pleasure.

Others feel that regeneration will need more than a return to such ideals, that there is a need for a contemporary Islam which retains the essence of the religion but which is more appropriate to the current social and political milieu. Ziauddin Sardar argues that practical changes are also necessary: 'Certain traditions of what clothes are worn or teaching children the Koran by rote and terror, must go.'

Such explorations are not confined to intellectuals. Young girls at the Muslim Girls Community School in Bradford talk intensely about the confidence they get from their Islamic identity, but also say that they have bigger aspirations than their mothers did to succeed professionally, and 'to contribute to this society'. This is what Aki Quereshi and his band Fun-Da-Mental also want to do, to make the great principles of Islam understood by white and black kids, 'to get and give respect,' he says.

Members of the Al-Nisa women's group in London and grassroots organisations in Bradford, Birmingham and other places, spend hours every week analysing the kind of Islam that would help to empower them instead of limiting their capacities. They talk openly and passionately about contraception, abortion, adoption, rape, the education of their children, how men can be better fathers and husbands, geopolitical changes and ecological problems. And Sunday morning phone-in debates on Sunrise, the Asian radio station, frequently and heatedly discuss the future of Islam in the West.

These reflections also throw into sharp relief the glibness and arrogance of Western secular liberalism. Does absolute freedom of speech without responsibility really exist? More important, should it be promoted in a civilised society, whatever the consequences? Or, as the academic Tariq Modood asks, 'Is the Enlightenment big enough to legitimise the existence of pre-Enlightenment religious enthusiasm or can it only exist by suffocating all who fail to be overawed by its intellectual brilliance and vision of man?'

Why is it obligatory to opt for rampant individualism, greed and a spiritually empty life? Should we move from a world dominated by one set of values to one which is genuinely more pluralistic?

Had it not been for that fateful 14 February 1989, these important questions might never have been debated. The world would be hurtling, unchallenged, towards the inalienable right to wear blue jeans and eat McDonald's hamburgers.

(Photograph omitted)