Yasmin Alibhai-Brown: ‘Satanic Verses’ forced me to declare myself a Muslim

Suddenly it became okay to despise all Muslims, even at my left-wing magazine

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Has it really been that long? Two decades have gone by since the Rushdie crisis and the wounds suffered by all sides still ooze as if they never can heal. Yet sometimes 1989 seems like another era, perhaps because in November that year came the fall of the Berlin wall and the West emerged triumphant. The end of historywas declared, prematurely as we now know. New enmities were emerging, had been for some time, between political Islam and the rest of the world.

On Valentine’s Day the reprehensible fatwa was issued by Ayatollah Khomeini against Salman Rushdie. For writing The Satanic Verses,which offended millions of Muslims, he should be killed, declared the Cromwell of his time. Bounties were offered for the writer’s scalp and most global citizens rightly recoiled.

There are many who thought Rushdie deserved to die – though some have since grown wiser, among them Ghayassudin Siddiqui, who runs the Muslim Parliament (ML). Once, with Kalim Siddiqui, his predecessor at the ML, he was a cheerleader for Khomeni. Now he is a fervent defender of freedom and democracy.

I too look back at some of what I wrote and have to admit that I didn’t understand then the growing and malevolent power of militant Islamicists and that I too easily saw the conflict as part of an unending anti-colonial struggle. The most unlikely, obdurate people can learn from experience.

And the most avowedly openminded can refuse to budge from entrenched views. That stubbornness is certainly evident among some brilliant writers and thinkers from west to east, including the author himself.

The anniversary date is itself tricky, dishonest perhaps. The novel had been churning up opposition around the world since 1988. In India, the venerated Sikh writer, Khushwant Singh had read the manuscript and warned the book would “cause a lot of trouble”. In October that year India banned the book, fearing communal violence. South Africa followed for exactly that reason as did other countries in the south and east. They understood the power of religion to arouse feelings, which our leaders here did not.

Small, sober demonstrations were organised in our northern towns and cities. No media interest followed them. I worked at the New Statesman then and asked repeatedly to cover the protests. There was yawning indifference to what was going on. Then on 14 January, a copy of the book was burnt by a ghastly man who proclaimed himself a “Muslim leader” and with that crude and barbaric gesture, he engulfed Britain in flames.

A month later came the fatwa that compelled the writer to go into hiding and live under constant protection. How hellish it must have been. Thousands of Muslims, including those who hated the book, were shocked and afraid too. If a crazed fanatic did get the writer, the consequences were too terrible to contemplate.

Suddenly it became okay to openly despise all Muslims even at my leftwing magazine. I resigned when it became unbearable. Week after week, beautifully-crafted attacks were published in the press by men and women whose work I loved and still do. Feeling condemned en masse, a number of us Asians issued a statement defending Rushdie’s right to publish his novel. Zaki Badawi, a calm and ethical Muslim theologian, offered to shelter Rushdie in his own home.

Until then I had never described myself as a Muslim – my faith was private and in truth didn’t amount to much in spite of my devout mother’s daily entreaties. I came out and added the Muslim label to the many others I claim. It was astonishing how that affected some dear white friends. They never knew, thought I was so comfortably one of them. I was, but as the crisis developed I felt a duty to express the views of those who were affronted by Rushdie’s novel.

At a dinner party in Camden four guests walked out when I tried to describe the emotions of the protestors. At one heated debate Ian McEwan asked, with feeling, why we Muslims wanted his friend dead. Anthony Burgess wrote: “We have put up with their halal meat, we do not have to put up with this.” Roy Jenkins, once a defender of pluralism, rued the day so many Muslims were allowed to settle in Europe. Rushdie went through phases of humility and arrogance, of submission and defiance, and at one time even professed he had returned to Islam, only to rapidly retract.

It was a rough old time, though the reawakening of liberalism was overdue. The arguments over freedom of expression though were disingenuous. There is no absolute freedom. Pope Benedict is having to understand that since elevating the Holocaust denier Bishop Richard Williamson. When Indira Gandhi threatened to sue Rushdie for maligning her in Midnight’s Children, he apologised and revised the “offensive” bits. Yet with the Satanic Verses, war was declared on anyone who questioned the sacred liberal credo.

Some of the warriors – Martin Amis, Christopher Hitchens among them - never forgave Islam and went on to become the most ardent supporters of Bush’s war on terror. Rushdie too apparently had to go along with the most ignoble foreign policies of the UK and US. Once he was an irrepressible anti-racist and anti-colonialist. The cause for Rushdie thenceforth was himself. I personally miss the man he was, the interventions he once made on behalf of the powerless.

Richard Webster, then owner of the Orwell Bookshop in Southwold, wrote in his book, A Brief History Of Blasphemy: “There is one thing I have feared more than the bombs of Islamic fundamentalists. It is the harm that can be done by the machine-gun bullets of liberal self-righteousness.” They ignored their own history. In 1967, the French cartoonist Sine published Massacre, full of blasphemous anti-Christ cartoons. Booksellers were offended. The publisher, Penguin, burnt the stock. Progressive nations move towards greater freedoms but there are none that are totally without restraint.

What of Muslims? We owe the writer. He woke us up. Until then Muslims in Europewere voiceless and ignorant. Now we have a few worthy philosophers, sociologists, politicians, journalists, theologians, poets, artists, and novelists too. Reactions in Britain to 9/11 and 7/7were not as explosive as was feared. However, we Muslims are in a deeper mess than we imagined back in 1989.

The intensification of a singular Muslim identity, wilfully disconnected from the best of European values and non-Muslims, is cause for deep concern. A pathological form of purity and specious conformity is pressed upon all Muslims. There is an unstoppable drive towards Wahhabi Islamic oppression. Sympathy for terrorism continues. In defiance of racism young women donned the hijab back in 1989. Today girls of five are forced into cloaks and scarves that kill their childhood and individuality.

Muslim believers like me – secular, modern, social democratic – can belong to no exclusive camp or side because we are people of many parts and histories, multiple allegiances and complex identities. Rushdie, though not a practising Muslim, understood that condition and wrote about it beautifully. Then came the severance.

After 20 years there is still no forgiveness on any side, only retrenchment. That is the legacy of the novel that some love and others hate to unreasonable passion.

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