Fiction beyond belief: Do writers in Britain still feel the chill of the Rushdie fatwa?

By Boyd Tonkin
Friday 06 February 2009 01:00

Even readers who consume plenty of modern British fiction may well never have come across Tony White. Although he's a gifted and perceptive writer, that should count as good news of a kind. In 2003, during the summer that Bangladeshi-origin youngsters in the East End that he knows so well came out in vocal protest against the Iraq war, White published a novel about two sassy local girls: Foxy-T. With her mate Ruji-Babes, the titular heroine runs a phone and net shop in Shadwell; their intimate friendship (or more?) is interrupted by seductive bad lad Zafar Iqbal, fresh out of borstal.

Touchingly, hilariously composed in the streetwise "Benglish" patois of White's patch, this affectionate tale may tell you more about love, longing and ambition in the inner city than a dozen official reports. Indeed, some readers would argue that it captures the flavour of Asian lives in London E1 with more inside-track relish than another novel of 2003: Monica Ali's Brick Lane. Toby Litt commented that Foxy-T "encapsulates an astonishing amount of now - and it does it funnily, honestly, sexily and tenderly". Quite right.

So what? Well, so far as I know, no "community leaders" organised marches to indict an author who had impugned the honour of young Bangladeshi-origin women. Germaine Greer, that friend of offence-takers everywhere, filed no fulminating column against ethnic misrepresentation (actually, it would be hard to find two less stereotypical characters than Foxy and Ruji). No publisher was picketed.

On 14 February 1989 – an anniversary that will be volubly marked next week – Ayatollah Khomeini issued a fatwa against Salman Rushdie and his publishers over The Satanic Verses. Within days, this most damning of critical verdicts had morphed into a geopolitical event whose aftermath we still endure on many fronts. But it all began with a book, and with a deadly judgement over the limits of an author's right to speak. Twenty years on, it has become commonplace to assume that the fatwa and the climate of offence that took hold in its wake has narrowed minds and tied tongues. Risk-averse writers, some of their peers think, have run scared in their treatment of religion and community, fearful of a backlash – especially with Muslims and Islam. Yet, as Tony White shows, many authors have carried on with uninhibited business as usual. They still look hard at a fast-changing society without a hint of malice, but with no undue diffidence either.

How far has the fall-out from the fatwa chilled the literary muse in Britain? From time to time, extreme reactions from self-appointed guardians of faith do hint at a tinder-box mood of outrage without and caution within. Last September, the publisher Martin Rynja suffered a crude incendiary attack on his London home after his Gibson Square Press had agreed to publish in the UK Sherry Jones's contentious novel about the Prophet's young bride Aisha, The Jewel of Medina. Not surprisingly (after three arrests under anti-terrorism laws), Gibson Square pulled back from publication.

Rynja's plight lies at one pole of the post-fatwa landscape. The novel under threat sought, like Rushdie's, to re-imagine elements of the Koran and its traditions. And its publisher felt the wrath of zealots – about whom we still know very little. Bryan Cheyette, the professor of English at Reading University who has studied the long reverberations from the Rushdie affair, concludes that "We are now in a culture where the taking of offence is the norm, rather than the exception, and this certainly applies to all religious groups in Britain".

But he points out that "it is crucial to distinguish between the effect of the fatwa on writers and on the publishing industry. The fatwa... was aimed both at Rushdie and his publishers, and therefore resulted in the death or injury of Rushdie's translators in Japan, Italy, Turkey and Norway". For Cheyette, "It is the sentencing to death of Rushdie's publishers and distributors, rather than Rushdie himself, that has had a narrowing effect".

He adds that "Individual writers... are much less prone to the 'health and safety' side of the fatwa". Even novels that openly confront the hot-button issues of community values, and the danger of dissent from them, may transcend mere topicality if they succeed. Many readers will have begun Nadeem Aslam's Maps for Lost Lovers aware that it involves forbidden love and generational strife among Asians in a Northern town, but closed it shaken by a lyrical tragedy that deals in humanity, not headlines.

One writer who has never shunned the risks of religion is Hanif Kureishi, who in the months after the fatwa posted landmark reports about the newly-audible Muslim youth of Bradford and elsewhere that would feed into his fiction. Kureishi underlines the crucial distinction between literary works that scrutinise – or satirise – Muslims and those that challenge the foundations of faith. "To portray a Muslim character as being a thief or a criminal – that's certainly not a blasphemy".

Muslims of every shade of outlook and walk of life enliven Kureishi's scenes from the British urban comedy. But he has delved into belief as well as behaviour. From the early 1990s, works such as The Black Album and "My Son the Fanatic" marked him out as a canary in the cultural mine, spotting the drift towards the radicalisation of Muslim youth long before policy-makers. In general, he thinks that the fatwa has made it "more difficult for Muslims to be seen as kind, compassionate, intelligent, free people. As propaganda, it's brought nothing but opprobrium to Islam – which is a great shame."

Yet Kureishi also insists that the whole business has widened the horizons of secular-minded authors, and even sensitised them to the background of the fury it uncorked. "Many people have thought about religion, race and immigration issues in ways that they wouldn't have done if the fatwa had not occurred." The questions of respect, of offence, of what he summarises as "Who can say what to whom?", have roared unpredictably back to the heart of cultural dispute. "It's fascinating that questions of language are right at the centre of our discourse again."

Kureishi regrets that so many novelists from the UK majority have chosen the path of prudence and absented themselves from this turmoil. "Very few white writers have dealt with race in Britain. That's always been rather shocking, when you think that it's the major issue of our time." Certainly, most scrutiny of young Muslim lives has, in high-profile fiction, come from beyond the old heartland. In Zadie Smith's White Teeth, the Iqbal twins – sons of a discontented Bangladeshi father – exemplify the rival routes of secular assimilation and radical belief. Pious Millat joins a militant group known as the Keepers of the Eternal and Victorious Islamic Nation – or KEVIN. Beyond the satire, Smith links his disenfranchised anger with the animal-rights activism of Josh Chalfen, from the bosom of the liberal bourgeoisie. Good fiction connects as much as it dissects.

If acts of self-censorship do take place elsewhere on the post-fatwa literary scene, they remain near-impssible to detect. How do you prove an absence? Few writers will admit to funk. Lisa Appignanesi, in the front line of Rushdie's defence for two decades and now president of English Pen, suspects that self-censorship may even escape the conscious mind. She does stress that, less ambiguously, institutions shy away from controversery even if individuals don't. "It's clear that publishers, theatrical establishments, film funders will think at least twice before moving into what may become a fray". No mainstream British publication printed those Danish cartoons.

Amanda Craig has included a Muslim family in her forthcoming fictional panorama of London, Hearts and Minds. She says that she "would never censor myself as a writer even if it meant going to prison" but – like Kureishi – draws a line between depicting individuals and addressing a creed: "Satire is best aimed at powerful people, not at a religious belief which I do not share." Novelist Kamila Shamsie, who writes about her native Pakistan, emphasises that fiction about Muslim-majority cultures will foreground society more than theology. "I might sometimes have wondered how different groups in Pakistan might respond to something I've written," she says. "But I can't honestly say I've ever wondered how Iran or Bradford might respond. Though, of course, that may be because my writing is interested in confronting state rather than faith."

"State rather than faith": in London as well as Karachi, we could probably do with more of the former as a focus for fiction. Kureishi often makes the point that his (second) generation of new Britons lived – and mobilised against prejudice – as "Asians" before militants and bureaucrats decided that they had to be "Muslims" first and foremost. A novel such as Psychoraag, by Glasgow writer Suhayl Saadi, makes in its ecstatic flow of well-spiced Clydeside talk a glorious case for a unified Scottish Asian sensibility. Soon, this swallows most of old Scotland as well.

"There's nae 'East' and nae 'West'," says Saadi's fusion-loving DJ Zaf. "That's just a great big lie cooked up by those who... could nivir hear the real music". After 20 years of fatwa-fixated din, writers might profitably learn to fret less about the niceties of collective belief and tune in to the "real music" of our fearfully interesting times.

The fatwa, 20 years on: five authors respond

Hanif Kureishi

One of the effects of Obama is that people are more aware that the white phase is over. In the future, we'll all be in nations made up of a number of minorities. Everything is going to have to be argued for: questions of language, honour and insult. Literature is the space where all of this can be taken seriously and thought about deeply... The problem is, if you become too respectful, there's no real contact... Censorship is the mother of metaphor, as Borges said. You do need to be careful, but it doesn't have to be the end of controversial subjects.

Kamila Shamsie

We tend to talk sometimes as though, prior to the fatwa, writers lived risk-free lives. And I don't doubt it felt that way for many writers who lived in Britain... But I grew up under Zia's martial law in Pakistan, during which writers were... imprisoned, forced into exile, made to fear for their lives. So the idea of writing being attached to precariousness was always present... The flip side was that writers were among the strongest voices to speak out against military rule and the growing power of the religious right in Pakistan.

Lisa Appignanesi

Whether in the guise of good manners or simply out of fear, there is what Christopher Hitchens has called a shadowy "hidden partner" in our cultural world, policing what we may permit ourselves to write or even think. I suspect this is even more strongly the case for writers, perhaps even more particularly women writers, from the many communities which have fallen under that capacious catch-all of "Muslim".

Lionel Shriver

I do think in the current climate... most Western authors would think twice before writing anything concerning Islam... I personally don't want to write about Islam, since not only do I harbour a broad contempt for all religion across the board, but I resent the reason that we are now supposed to be so all-fired fascinated with the Muslim world: we've been bombed into being interested. But if I were drawn to this material, I wouldn't act on the impulse if I knew what was good for me. After my 12 years in Northern Ireland, this is the primary lesson I learned about terrorism: it works.

Suhayl Saadi

The Rushdie Affair was a wholly negative phenomenon... It empowered both Islamism and liberal imperialism and set up the "straw man" dualism in which, globally, writers of Muslim origin are perpetually expected to display loyalty to one or other of these extremist positions... All novels are political, but this book became a political football in which the only winners were the hooligans.

Join our new commenting forum

Join thought-provoking conversations, follow other Independent readers and see their replies

View comments