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Home > fundamentalism / shrinking secular space > How Salman Rushdie changed my life

How Salman Rushdie changed my life

Monday 11 November 2013, by siawi3


introduction to: From Fatwa To Jihad: The Rushdie Affair And Its Legacy (atlantic 2009)


It was February 1989. I was in Bradford, a grey town in northern England. Nestled in the hills of West Yorkshire, it was a place dominated by its woollen mills, huge Victorian structures that seemed to reach up into the clouds, though by the late eighties few were still producing any wool. Surrounding the now derelict mills were row upon row of dreary back-to-back houses that had become as decayed as the textile industry itself. The mood of the town was not improved by a climate grey like its brickwork.

It was a town of which few people outside of Britain would have
heard. Until, that is, a thousand Muslim protestors had, the previous month, paraded with a copy of Salman Rushdie’s The Satanic Verses, before ceremoniously burning the book. The novel was tied to a stake before being set alight in front of the police station. It was an act calculated to shock and offend. It did more than that. The burning book became an icon of the rage of Islam. Sent around the world by a multitude of photographers and TV cameras, the image proclaimed, ‘I am a portent of a new kind of conflict and of a new kind of world.’

Ten months after that January demonstration an even more arresting image captured the world’s imagination: protestors on top of the Berlin Wall hacking away at their imprisonment. These two images – the burning book in Bradford, the crumbling wall in Berlin – came in the following years to be inextricably linked in many people’s minds. As the Cold War ended, so the clash of ideologies that had defined the world since the Second World War seemed to give way to what the American political scientist Samuel Huntington would later make famous as ‘the clash of civilizations’ (a phrase he had borrowed from the historian Bernard Lewis).

The conflicts that had convulsed Europe over the past centuries, Huntington wrote, from the wars of religion between Protestants and Catholics to the Cold War, were all ‘conflicts within Western civilization’. The ‘battle lines of the future’ would be between civilizations. Huntington identified a number of civilizations, including Confucian, Japanese, Hindu, Orthodox, Latin American and African. The primary struggle, however, would be, he believed, between the Christian West and the Islamic East. Such a struggle would be ‘far more fundamental’ than any war unleashed by ‘differences among political ideologies and political regimes’. The ‘people of different civilizations have different views on the relations between God and man, the individual and the group, the citizen and the state, parents and children, husband and wife, as well as differing views of the relative importance of rights and responsibilities, liberty and authority, equality and hierarchy’.

Huntington did not write those words until 1993. But already, four years earlier, many had seen in the battle over The Satanic Verses just such a civilizational struggle. On one side of the fault line stood the West, with its liberal democratic traditions, a scientific worldview and a secular, rationalist culture drawn from the Enlightenment; on the other was Islam, rooted in a pre-medieval theology, with its seeming disrespect for democracy, disdain for scientific rationalism and deeply illiberal attitudes on everything from crime to women’s rights. ‘All over again,’ the novelist Martin Amis would later write, ‘the West confronts an irrationalist, agonistic, theocratic/ideocratic system which is essentially and unappeasably opposed to its existence.’ Amis wrote that while still in shock over 9/11. The germ of the sentiment was planted much earlier, in the Rushdie affair.

Shocked by the sight of British Muslims threatening a British author and publicly burning his book, many people started asking a question that in 1989 was startlingly new: are Islamic values compatible with those of a modern, Western, liberal democracy? The Bible, the novelist, feminist and secularist Fay Weldon wrote in her pamphlet Sacred Cows, provides ‘food for thought’ out of which ‘You can build a decent society’. The Qur’an offers ‘food for no thought. It is not a poem on which a society can be safely or sensibly based. It forbids change, interpretation, self-knowledge, even art, for fear of treading on Allah’s creative toes.’ Or as the daytime TV chat-show host and one-time Labour MP Robert Kilroy-Silk put it, ‘If Britain’s resident ayatollahs cannot accept British values and laws then there is no reason at all why the British should feel any need, still less compulsion, to accommodate theirs.’

Even those who had originally welcomed Muslims into this country were having second thoughts. As one of Britain’s most liberal Home Secretaries, Roy Jenkins had, in 1966, announced an end to Britain’s policy of assimilation and launched instead a new era of ‘cultural diversity, coupled with equal opportunity in an atmosphere of mutual tolerance’ – one of the first expressions of what came to be known as ‘multiculturalism’. Nearly a quarter of a century later, the now ennobled Lord Jenkins mused in the wake of the burning book that ‘in retrospect we might have been more cautious about allowing the creation in the 1950s of substantial Muslim communities here’.

I had watched the burning of The Satanic Verses with more than a passing interest. Like Salman Rushdie, I was born in India, in Secunderabad, not far from Rushdie’s own birthplace of Mumbai (or Bombay, as it was then), but brought up in Britain. Like Rushdie, I was of a generation that did not think of itself as ‘Muslim’ or ‘Hindu’ or ‘Sikh’, or even as ‘Asian’, but rather as ‘black’. ‘Black’ was for us not an ethnic label but a political badge (although we never defined who exactly could wear that badge). Unlike our parents’ generation, who had largely put up with discrimination, we were fierce in our opposition to racism. But we were equally hostile to the traditions that often marked immigrant communities, especially religious ones. Today, when people use the word ‘radical’ in an Islamic context, they usually have in mind a religious fundamentalist. Twenty years ago ‘radical’ meant the very opposite: someone who was militantly secular, self-consciously Western and avowedly left-wing. Someone like me.

I had grown up in communities in which Islam, while deeply embedded, was never all-consuming – indeed, communities that had never thought of themselves as ‘Muslim’, and for which religion expressed a relationship with God, not a sacrosanct public identity. ‘Officially, as it were,’ observes Jamal Khan, the narrator of Hanif Kureishi’s novel Something to Tell You, ‘we were called immigrants, I think. Later for political reasons we were “blacks”... In Britain we were still called Asians, though we’re no more Asian than the English are European. It was a long time before we became known as Muslims, a new imprimatur, and then for political reasons.’ So what, I wanted to know, as I watched the pictures of that demonstration, had changed? Why, I wondered, were people now proclaiming themselves to be Muslims and taking to the streets to burn books – especially the books of a writer celebrated for giving voice to the migrant experience? And was the dividing line really between a medieval theology and a modern Western society?

My day job then was as a research psychologist. But I also wrote the occasional article for the Voice, Britain’s leading black newspaper. When the editor asked me to write something about the Rushdie affair, I jumped at the chance. I already knew Bradford, and many of the players in the Rushdie drama, having organized anti-racist protests in the town, including a march against racist attacks in 1986. And so I arrived that February to talk to Sher Azam, president of the Bradford Council of Mosques, the man who had helped torch the book. I came also to try to answer my own questions. It was a journey that would transform my own views about myself, my politics and my faith – and continues to do so. Little did I know that those questions would return to haunt me again and again over the next twenty years, or that the issues raised by the Rushdie affair – the nature of Islam, its relationship to the West, the meaning of multiculturalism, the limits of tolerance in a liberal society – would become some of the defining problems of the age, linking the burning book in Bradford to the burning towers in Manhattan on 9/11 and the burning bus in London on 7/7.


When The Satanic Verses was published in September 1988, it had been expected to set the world alight, though not quite in the way that it did. Salman Rushdie was then perhaps the most celebrated British novelist of his generation. Not that he saw himself as British. He was, he said, someone inhabiting a world ‘in between’ three cultures: those of India, Pakistan and England. Midnight’s Children, his sprawling, panoramic, humorous mock-epic of post-independence India, was a literary sensation when it came out in 1981. It interlaced reality, myth, dream and fantasy, turned history into fable, and yet directly addressed highly charged contemporary political issues. The swagger of its historical sweep, the panache of its confident, modernist prose, the knowingness of its infectious humour, the confidence with which it drew upon European classics, Hindu myths, Persian fables, Islamic history, as well as popular cultures from Bollywood to Bob Dylan, and its insistence that the creative imagination was also a political imagination – all announced the arrival of not just a new literary voice but also a new kind of novel, the aim of which was to unlock the untold tales of those who, like Rushdie, inhabited the worlds ‘in between’. Politicians, Rushdie once remarked, ‘have got very good at inventing fictions which they tell us as the truth. It then becomes the job of the makers of fiction to start telling the real truth.’ Midnight’s Children won the Booker Prize in 1981, and went on to win in 1993 the Booker of Bookers, as the greatest of all Booker Prize winners. Fifteen years later, when Man Booker reran the competition to celebrate the fortieth anniversary of the prize, it again returned triumphant, having by now established itself as perhaps the most important British novel of the post-war years.

Two years after Midnight’s Children came Shame, which retold the history of Pakistan as a satirical fairy tale. Many saw it as a certainty to win the Booker Prize again, but it lost out to J.M. Coetzee’s Life and Times of Michael K. Nevertheless, Shame consolidated Rushdie’s reputation both as a novelist and as a controversialist. Midnight’s Children had been banned in India for its acid portrayal of the Nehru dynasty. Indira Gandhi sued for libel in a London court and won, which was not surprising, given that Britain’s libel laws were – and remain – as archaic as the regime that Rushdie was satirizing. Shame caused similar outrage among Pakistan’s political elite (the late Benazir Bhutto reputedly took particular exception to Rushdie’s mocking of her as the Virgin Ironpants) and was again banned.

And then came The Satanic Verses. Almost five years in the making, supported by a then almost unheard-of $850,000 advance from his new publishers, Penguin, and published in the wake of a much talked-about split between Rushdie and his long-time friend and publisher, Liz Calder of Bloomsbury, the novel had become myth even before the public had read a word of it. Rushdie could undoubtedly have written an acidly baroque tale about its gestation.

In an interview in the Australian literary magazine Scripsi in 1985, Rushdie mentioned that he was working on two novels. One was ‘about God… that was not just a secular sneer’; the other was ‘a much larger project… a novel set in the West that deals with the idea of migration’. Over the next three years, the two became stitched together into a not altogether coherent whole: one a fantastic tale about the migrant experience in Britain, the other a fable about the origins of Islam.

Rushdie himself seemed somewhat uncertain about the character of the novel, both describing it as ‘a serious attempt to write about religion and revelation from the point of view of a secular person’, and insisting that ‘the book isn’t actually about Islam, but about migration, metamorphosis, divided selves, love, death’.

The Satanic Verses opens with a hijacked jumbo jet exploding above the Sussex coast. There are only two survivors. Gibreel Farishta is a Bollywood superstar who depicts gods and is revered as one by his fans. Saladin Chamcha is an Anglophile – ‘more-loyal-than-the-Queen’ – so fanatically British that he wears a bowler hat even when tumbling from 29,002 feet (the height of Mount Everest and the very height at which the aircraft was blown up). As they fall, Saladin and Gibreel metamorphose. Saladin becomes hairy and goat-like, his feet turn to hoofs and he sprouts horns. Gibreel acquires a halo that he has to hide under a hat. The two men become the unwitting, and unwilling, protagonists in an eternal battle between good and evil, the divine and the satanic.

The progress of Saladin and Gibreel through the dark, surreal landscape of Vilayet (the Hindi word for ‘foreign place’, which Rushdie uses as a label for Britain) acts as the holding frame for the novel. Into this frame Rushdie inserts a number of novellas, each arising out of Gibreel’s dreams, and each of which confronts the nature of religion.

The first tells the story of God’s revelation to the Prophet Mahound and how the new religion of Submission swept through Jahilia, a city built entirely of sand. This is a fictionalized, satirical account of the creation of Islam. Mahound is an ancient Christian derogatory name for Muhammad, Submission is the literal translation of ‘Islam’, and jahiliyyah is an Arabic word for ‘ignorance’, used by Muslims to describe the condition in which Arabs found themselves before the revelation of the Qur’an to Muhammad. The second novella concerns an imam in London (who, as Rushdie would put it, both is and is not Ayatollah Khomeini exiled in Paris) and his uncompromising struggle against the ruler of contemporary Jahilia. A third tells of Ayesha, a visionary peasant girl shrouded in butterflies, who leads her entire Indian village on a pilgrimage to Mecca during which they all walk into the sea and drown, a story based on a real event. Rushdie weaves into this tapestry the threads of other stories, of love and passion, betrayal and faith, reconciliation and death.

The Satanic Verses is held together not by a conventional narrative structure but by a cat’s cradle of cross-referenced names, images and allusions. Mount Cone is the mountain on which Mahound receives his revelation; Allie Cone is the mountaineer whom Gibreel loves. Allie Cone’s dream is a solo ascent of Everest; in Bombay, Gibreel lives at the very top of the Everest Apartments. Hind was the wife of the Grandee of Jahilia and Mahound’s mortal enemy; she is also the wife of Muhammed Sufyanin, in whose café Saladin finds refuge. Ayesha is the visionary who leads the suicidal pilgrimage to Mecca; she is also the empress of present-day Jahilia, against whom the exiled imam wages war. The imam’s henchmen are avatars of those in the service of Mahound. And so it goes on. The result is a complex, chaotic novel, the sheer bravura of which sweeps the reader along.

A work as boisterous, allusive and transgressive as The Satanic Verses would never give itself up to a single reading. Yet it was also, as Rushdie’s previous novels had been, a politically engaged work which, through its imaginative reworkings of modern Vilayet and ancient Jahilia, confronted many of the most charged questions of our time, religious and secular. Inevitably, many readers overlooked the unruliness of the novel and took instead a one-eyed view of Rushdie’s words. Western critics rarely saw beyond a migrant’s tale. Many Muslims were blind to anything aside from what they perceived as a gratuitously blasphemous assault on their faith.

The Satanic Verses, the novelist Angela Carter observed in a review in the Guardian, was ‘an epic hung about with ragbag scraps of many different cultures’. It was peopled ‘mostly by displaced persons of one kind or another. Expatriates, immigrants, refugees.’ Not once in her review did she mention Islam. For the Muslim philosopher Shabbir Akhtar, on the other hand, Rushdie’s novel was an ‘inferior piece of hate literature’ which ‘falsified historical records’ in ‘a calculated attempt to vilify and slander Muhammad’. From the space between these two readings emerged the Rushdie affair.


The Rushdie affair was the moment at which a new Islam dramatically announced itself as a major political issue in Western society. It was also the moment when Britain realized it was facing a new kind of social conflict. From the very beginnings of post-war immigration, blacks and Asians had been involved in bitter conflicts with authority. In 1958 the Notting Hill race riots in west London led the local Labour MP George Rogers to declare that ‘the tremendous influx of coloured people from the Commonwealth’ had helped ‘foster vice, drugs, prostitution and the use of knives’. He added that ‘For years white people have been tolerant. Now their tempers are up.’

Two decades later, Notting Hill had become home to the largest carnival outside the Caribbean – and to explosive confrontations between police and black youth. In 1976, as reggae star Junior Murvin’s ‘Police and Thieves’ pumped out of the sound systems – ‘Police and thieves in the streets / Fighting the nation with their guns and ammunition’ – the carnival degenerated into bitter street battles. The following year came the Grunwick dispute, in which the struggle of a group of low-paid Asian women to form a union led to violent confrontation and became a national cause célèbre, with mass pickets outside the factory gates and miners and postal workers taking industrial action in support of the women. And, of course, there were the inner-city riots of the 1980s, culminating in the Broadwater Farm confrontation in 1985.

All these conflicts raised tensions and generated widespread and often fractious debates about the desirability of mass immigration. But these were also in the main political struggles, or issues of law and order. Confrontations over unionization or discrimination or police harassment were of a kind that was familiar even prior to mass immigration.

The Rushdie affair was different. It was the first major cultural conflict, a controversy quite unlike anything that Britain had previously experienced. Muslim fury seemed to be driven not by questions of harassment or discrimination or poverty, but by a sense of hurt that Salman Rushdie’s words had offended their deepest beliefs. Where did such hurt come from, and why was it being expressed now? How could a novel create such outrage? Could Muslim anguish be assuaged, and should it be? How did the anger on the streets of Bradford relate to traditional political questions about rights, duties and entitlements? Britain had never asked itself such questions before. Twenty years on, it is still groping for the answers.


The Rushdie affair was a turning point in the relationship between British society and its Muslim communities. It was a turning point for me too. I was born in India, but came to Britain in the sixties as a five-year old. My mother came from Tamil Nadu in southern India. She was Hindu. My father’s family had moved to India from Burma when the Japanese invaded in 1942. It is through him that I trace my Muslim heritage.

Mine was not, however, a particularly religious upbringing. My parents forbade me (and my sisters) from attending religious education classes at school, because they did not want us to be forcefed Christianity. But we were not force-fed Islam or Hinduism either. I still barely know the Hindu scriptures, and while I read the Qur’an in my youth, it was only after the Rushdie affair that I took a serious interest in it.

What shaped my early experiences was not religion but racism. I arrived in Britain just as ‘Paki-bashing’ was becoming a national sport. ‘Paki’ was the abusive name for any Asian, and ‘Paki-bashing’ was what racists called their pastime of hunting out and beating up Asians. My main memory of growing up in the 1970s was of being involved almost daily in fights with racists, and of how normal it seemed to come home with a bloody nose or a black eye. (A few years ago I was making a TV documentary on which the runner was a young, hip, street-wise Asian, just out of university. During a conversation I happened to mention ‘Paki-bashing’. ‘What’s Paki-bashing?’ he asked, genuinely puzzled, never having heard the phrase, still less having experienced its effects – an indication of how much Britain has changed in the past thirty years.)

Like many Asians of my generation, I was drawn towards politics by my experience of racism. I was left-wing, and, indeed, joined a number of far-left organizations in my twenties. But if it was racism that drew me to politics, it was politics that made me see beyond the narrow confines of racism. I came to learn that there was more to social justice than the injustices done to me, and that a person’s skin colour, ethnicity or culture was no guide to the validity of his or her political beliefs. Through politics, I was introduced to the ideas of the Enlightenment, and to concepts of a common humanity and universal rights. Through politics, too, I discovered the writings of Marx and Mill, Kant and Locke, Paine and Condorcet, Frantz Fanon and C.L.R. James.

By the end of the 1980s, however, many of my friends had come to see such Enlightenment notions as dangerously naive. The Rushdie affair gave notice not just of a new Islam but also of a new left. Radicals slowly lost faith in secular universalism and began talking instead about multiculturalism and group rights. They became disenchanted with Enlightenment ideas of rationalism and humanism, and many began to decry the Enlightenment as a ‘Eurocentric’ project. Where once the left had argued that everyone should be treated equally, despite their racial, ethnic, religious or cultural differences, now it pushed the idea that different people should be treated differently because of such differences. Lee Jasper, who became the Mayor of London’s race advisor in 2000, cut his teeth in anti-racist campaigning in the late 1980s, being a founder member of such organizations as the National Black Caucus and the National Assembly Against Racism. ‘You have to treat people differently to treat them equally,’ he told me when I interviewed him for a Channel 4 TV documentary in 2003.

Over the past two decades many of the ideas of the so-called ‘politics of difference’ have become mainstream through the policies of multiculturalism. We’re All Multiculturalists Now, observed Nathan Glazer, the American sociologist and former critic of pluralism, in the title of a book. And indeed we are. The celebration of difference, respect for pluralism, avowal of identity politics – these have come to be regarded as the hallmarks of a progressive, anti-racist outlook and as the foundation stones of modern liberal democracies.

Yet there is a much darker side to multiculturalism, as the Rushdie affair demonstrated. Multiculturalism has helped foster a more tribal nation and, within Muslim communities, has undermined progressive trends while strengthening the hand of conservative religious leaders. While it did not create militant Islam, it helped, as we shall see in this book, create for it a space within British Muslim communities that had not existed before.


I was in the drab Victorian semi near the university that housed the Bradford Council of Mosques, waiting to speak to the Council’s chairman, Sher Azam. Suddenly, I heard a familiar voice.

‘Hello, Kenan, what are you doing here?’

It was Hassan, a friend from London, whom I had not seen for over a year. ‘I’m doing some interviews about Rushdie,’ I told him. ‘But what are you doing in this God-forsaken place?’

Hassan laughed. ‘Trying to make it less God-forsaken,’ he said. ‘I’ve been up here a few months, helping in the campaign against Rushdie.’

And then he laughed again when he saw my face. ‘No need to look so shocked,’ he said. He had had it with the ‘white left’. He had got tired of all those dreary political meetings and the hours spent on street corners selling newspapers that no one wanted. But it had also become something more than simply disaffection with radical politics. He had, he said, lost his sense of who he was and where he’d come from. So he had returned to Bradford to try to rediscover it. And what he had found was a sense of community and a ‘need to defend our dignity as Muslims, to defend our values and beliefs’. He was not going to allow anyone – ‘racist or Rushdie’ – to trample over them.

The Hassan I had known in London had been a member of the far-left Socialist Workers Party (as I had been for a while). Apart from Trotskyism, his other indulgences were Southern Comfort, sex and Arsenal. We had watched the Specials and the Clash together, smoked dope together, argued together about football. We had marched together, chucked bricks together at the National Front, together been arrested.

There was nothing unusual about any of this. This was what it was like for many an Asian growing up in Britain in the 1980s. Hassan had been born, as I had, on the subcontinent (in Pakistan, not India) but brought up in Britain. His parents were observant Muslims, but, like many of their generation, were of the kind that only visited the mosque whenever the ‘Friday feeling’ gripped them. Hassan had attended mosque as a child, and learnt the Qur’an. But by the time he left school God had left him. ‘There’s a hole inside me where God used to be,’ Salman Rushdie once told an interviewer. I had never detected any such hole in Hassan. He seemed to have been hewed from secular rock. A football fanatic, the only God he worshipped was Liam Brady, Arsenal’s magical midfielder. But now here he was in Bradford, an errand boy to the mullahs, inspired by book-burners, willing to shed blood for a thousand year-old fable that he had never believed in.

Unlike Gibreel Farishta and Saladin Chamcha, Hassan sported neither horns nor a halo. But his metamorphosis from left-wing wide boy to Islamic militant was no less extraordinary than that of the anti-heroes of The Satanic Verses. In that metamorphosis lies the story of the wider changes that were taking place both in Britain and in other Western nations, changes that made possible not just the Rushdie affair but eventually 9/11 and 7/7 too. This book is the story of that metamorphosis. It is a guidebook to the road from fatwa to jihad.