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The Ayatollah will not have the last word

Tuesday 23 August 2022, by siawi3


The Ayatollah will not have the last word

Tue, 16 Aug 2022

by Pragna Patel

The Ayatollah will not have the last word

Salman Rushdie’s battle is the battle of all of us who stand on the right side of history, says Pragna Patel.

The television images of the ferocious knife attack on Salman Rushdie on Friday 12 August 2022 have left me - like many others - in a state of shock and horror. It seems incomprehensible that decades after the fatwa pronounced by Ayatollah Khomeini in 1989, Rushdie has been attacked by a 24-year-old man who wasn’t even born when The Satanic Verses was published. Fortunately, it appears that Rushdie will survive and, with him, our hope for humanity’s freedom and progress.

For me, this attack on Rushdie is a particularly sobering moment. Like the fatwa in the first instance, it marks another milestone in my political journey as a black feminist, a journey divided into two distinct periods: Pre-Rushdie and post-Rushdie.

The pre-Rushdie period of the 70s and 80s represented a time when many minorities in the UK mobilised around the secular term ’black’ on the basis of our common histories of colonialism and racism. Inspired by the American civil rights movement and other progressive global movements for independence and social justice, we sought to challenge prejudice, bigotry and discrimination, and to forge a form of anti-racist politics that was capable of bridging the gap between anti-racism, feminism and socialism. We sought to build solidarity based on challenging all kinds of oppression anywhere, everywhere and all at once.

The post-Rushdie period followed the Ayatollah’s fatwa against Rushdie amidst the rise and consolidation of regressive and even violent forms of identity politics, especially but not solely in minority communities. It is a communal politics marked by a rejection of the secular and universal principles of human rights and democratic freedoms, including the right to autonomy and freedom of conscience and expression. Disturbingly, it is embraced not only by the Right, but also by many on the Left: those who have often allied with the most reactionary forces in the belief that fighting racism and imperialism is the only game in town.

Women Against Fundamentalism (WAF) was formed in the wake of the fatwa against Rushdie. By publicly defending Rushdie we sought to disrupt a developing public consensus that this was merely a battle between freedom of speech and freedom of religion. We organised a counter protest – attended by black and white feminist women in Parliament Square – against thousands of enraged and mostly young male Muslim demonstrators calling for Rushdie’s death.

In fear of our own lives, we held up placards and chanted slogans and songs that conveyed our political perspective, because this was a battle between theocrats and democrats in which we as feminists had a key stake. Feminism, we said, is in the business of dissenting from the patriarchal order which, in the name of religion and culture, justifies violence against women and restricts our right to our own bodies and minds. We argued that fundamentalist forces in every religion, if uncontested, will go on the offensive, and women will be amongst the first casualties of their bid for absolute power.

Ironically, that moment also encapsulated our simultaneous struggle against racism when we found ourselves challenging a white racist and fascist mob who, having arrived at the scene, saw as us the easier targets upon which to focus their own politics of hatred and exclusion.

Three decades later, we are living with the legacy of failure: the failure of democratic states and the Left alike to challenge religious fundamentalism and to safeguard the principles of democracy and citizenship. The lurch towards political and religious authoritarianism has brought with it the normalisation, and even celebration, of a culture of intolerance and censorship - one aimed at silencing any dissent, from women as well as religious and sexual minorities, writers, journalists, artists and all who refuse to submit.

In the wake of the assault on Rushdie, we understand now, as we understood in 1989, that Rushdie’s battle is every woman’s battle. It is the battle of all of us who stand on the right side of history. The Ayatollah will not have the last word.

Read the Feminist Dissent statementhere, echoing the 1989 WAF statement.

Pragna Patel will talk more on the issue of feminism and secularism, including Southall Black Sisters’ support of Salman Rushdie, at the 2022 Bradlaugh Lecture at Manchester Art Gallery on October 1st. Find out more and book your place.

Pragna Patel is a founding member of Southall Black Sisters (SBS). The views expressed in our blogs are those of the author and may not necessarily represent the views of the NSS.