From Fatwa to Jihad: The Rushdie Affair and Its Legacy by Kenan Malik
From Fatwa to Jihad: The Rushdie Affair and Its Legacy
by Kenan Malik, (London: Atlantic Books, 2009, 266 Pages)
VALENTINE’s Day is usually an occasion to write mellifluous letters of love. However, a letter penned on that day in 1989 was so vile in its content and so bilious in temperament that, almost like a talisman out of magic realist literature, it tore apart relations between communities and changed the course of history in its wake.
That letter was the fatwa – a legal ruling that is issued by a Muslim scholar – issued by the founder of the Islamic Republic and Iran’s Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini (1979-89) calling for the head of Salman Rushdie, a little less than five months after the publication of The Satanic Verses. And yes, it was that succinct four-paragraph letter – and not the literary tome itself – that stirred up the maelstrom, which continues to (mis)shape life and death for many across the world.
This is one of the central thrusts of scientist, writer and broadcaster Kenan Malik’s scalpel-sharp From Fatwa to Jihad: The Rushdie Affair and Its Legacy. The book documents how the fatwa became a clarion call for a motley mass of radical Muslims – until then divided not just by geography, but also by their understanding of Islam and radicalism – to come together as, what is now seen, a jihadist force, threatening the global order. Malik also rises above the ambit of political history to assess the subtler effects of the fatwa on Muslims and on the ‘enlightened Western civilization’ itself.
He begins by arguing that the entire campaign against The Satanic Verses was political rather than theological. The book was first banned in India, which was then months away from an election, in which the ruling party desperately needed the support of the domestic Muslim community and an issue to rally them behind. In the UK, a number of Saudi government-sponsored groups organized protests and burned the book publicly to raise the temperature against it.
Despite Saudi Arabia’s diplomatic bulldozing, no Muslim country other than Pakistan bothered to ban The Satanic Verses until the fatwa was issued. Malik claims that this was a calculated move by Khomeini – then smarting under the ignominy of withdrawal from the eight-year war in Iraq – to subvert reformist voices within Iran and gain political traction across the Muslim world.
‘The fatwa sowed confusion and division among supporters of the Saudi regime,’ writes Malik. ‘A number of militants who had taken part in the Afghan jihad against the Soviet Union and who had been within Riyadh’s orbit now pledged allegiance to Tehran… The reformers were forced to denounce Rushdie.’ The fatwa also turned Islam into a domestic issue for the West. Malik, who was born in India but grew up marching along the anti-racism rallies in 1980s in the UK, explains how these progressive rallies made the ground fertile for the seed of the fatwa to grow into the cactus of Islamist activity.
Multicultural policies adopted by the UK to tackle racism led to divisions between Africans and Asians, and further divided Asians into Hindus, Muslims and Sikhs. Self-appointed ‘representatives’ of these cultures were not far behind, and the government chose to deal with the communities through them. The focus shifted from politically tackling racism to preserving religious and cultural differences. ‘What convulsed Bradford now,’ writes Malik, ‘were demands for separate Muslim schools and for separate education for girls, a campaign for halal meat to be served at school, and, most explosively, the confrontation over The Satanic Verses.’
It was in the city of Bradford (UK), where anti-Rushdie protesters burnt the first copies of the book. The author elaborates on how Muslims went on from burning books to setting fire to buses and ploughing aircrafts into supposed symbols of Western society. Malik adds that the fatwa has had a still deeper impact – self-censorship. Free speech, which was once the foundation of free society, is now seen as a dangerous commodity and it has become perfectly acceptable to suppress art on the grounds that it may offend someone’s cultural or religious sensibilities. This is the very negation of a plural society.
With impeccably researched arguments, Malik’s nib tears through the world views of those who believe Islam is incompatible with the Western society as well as those who think that the West ‘had it coming’. The book is punctuated with extracts from The Satanic Verses, in which the angel and the devil keep reversing their roles. Malik claims that Rushdie wants us to see that the distinction between the devil and the angel lies less in their inner selves than in the roles that humans ascribe to them. ‘Both religious faiths and secular societies,’ writes Malik, ‘deploy their angels and demons to justify their otherwise unjustifiable actions to create boundaries that cannot be transgressed.’ That is precisely how the post-fatwa world has unfolded.
Syed Saif Shahin is pursuing his M Phil in the School of International Studies, Jawaharlal Nehru University, New Delhi. Email:
As part of its editorial policy, the MEI@ND standardizes spelling and date formats to make the text uniformly accessible and stylistically consistent. The views expressed here are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views/positions of the MEI@ND. Editor, MEI@ND: P R Kumaraswamy