:: Article

At last, a novel

By Max Dunbar.


From Fatwa to Jihad: The Rushdie Affair and Its Legacy, Kenan Malik, Atlantic 2009

“The most extended thing I’ve ever written about England is The Satanic Verses, which no one thinks of as a novel about England, but is actually, in large part, a novel about London. It’s about the life of immigrants in Thatcherite London.”

– Salman Rushdie, interview with The Paris Review, 2005

The title will resonate forever, but the fiction is forgotten now. “It felt as though Rushdie had plundered everything I hold dear and despoiled the inner sanctum of my identity,” said the Muslim writer Ziauddin Sardar. “Every word was directed at me and I took everything personally. This is how, I remember thinking, it must feel to be raped.” He went on to compare the novel to a “physical genocide” threatened against Muslims. Hundreds of believers demonstrated in provincial mill towns and burnt copies of Rushdie’s book.

The Tory government of the time seemed to empathise. Norman Tebbit erupted at the sheer gall of a man “whose public life has been a record of despicable acts of betrayal of his upbringing, religion, adopted home and nationality… How many societies, having been so treated by a foreigner accepted in their midst, could go so far to protect him from the consequences of his egotistical and self-opinionated attack on the religion into which he was born?’ With honourable exceptions, support was scarce even from Rushdie’s peers. In ‘Not Dead Yet,’ an essay on the treatment of his friend, Christopher Hitchens reported that ‘John le Carre, John Berger, Roald Dahl, Hugh Trevor-Roper, and others began a sort of auction of defamation in which they accused Rushdie variously of insulting Islam, practising Western-style cultural colonialism and condescension, and damaging race relations. (They also accused him, most amazingly of all, of writing for money. What next?)”

We forget the fiction. Like its Indian-born, British-educated author, The Satanic Verses was a product of multiculturalism. Rushdie wanted his book to celebrate “hybridity, impurity, intermingling, the transformation that comes of new and unexpected combinations of human beings, cultures, ideas, politics, movies, songs.”

Actors Gibreel Farishta and Saladin Chamcha are the only survivors of a hijacked plane that has exploded above the Home Counties. Their attempts to build new lives in London are hampered by strange metamorphoses. Gibreel becomes a stereotypical physical angel, with “a halo that he has to hide under a hat” while Saladin gradually transforms into a classical demon: we feel his excruciation as the forked tail grows from the base of his spine.

I finished the novel with the sense that Saladin was the true hero, acting on love and compassion while his angelic counterpart loses himself in dreams of power. In one of these visions we meet the prophet Mahound, in the process of writing a holy book dictated by God himself. There is a possibility that Mahound is simply putting words in God’s mouth to claim earthly power, or that he is unwittingly taking scripture from the devil – as in the old heresy of the ‘satanic verses’; a theory that Muhammed wrote a part of the Quran at the behest of Satan, thinking he was listening to God. That was the offence, the declaration of war: a reworking of an ancient legend in the disintegrating mind of a fictional character.

In the book the Islamic aspect seems incidental. Angela Carter never saw it. In her Guardian review she didn’t mention Islam but described The Satanic Verses as “an epic hung about with ragbag scraps of many different cultures” peopled “mostly by displaced persons of one kind or another. Expatriates, immigrants, refugees.” Rushdie’s focus was on the immigrant experience in the UK.

He had a lot of material. In the 1980s racism didn’t slink and dissemble as it does now but was casual, unapologetic, in your face. Kenan Malik was a regular victim of white street thugs. He tells the story of Nasreen Saddique, a fourteen-year-old resident of West Ham whose family were attacked night after night by forty or so white fascists: they painted swastikas, smashed windows, gave Nazi salutes. This went on for six years. It was such a common occurrence that the local paper did not bother to report it. The area police superintendent wrote that: “The arrival of a demonstrative Asian family in a predominantly whites’ playground area had unpleasant effects.” Racism was the fault of the victim.

Malik charts a fascinating history of race relations from the Brixton riots to segregated swimming pools. He argues that after nationwide disorder the authorities decided that something had to be done to keep the lid on the savages’ cauldron. The plan was typically colonial: government would accommodate the ‘community leaders’ of different faiths and provide them with funding and influence, with the agreement that the conservative elders would, in turn, keep the natives in order. This had the effect of British Muslims coming to be seen as one monolithic bloc with a single voice. Liberal, secular, creative, gay Muslims, in fact any Muslims who didn’t agree with their self-appointed representatives, were ignored, and many outsiders even doubted their existence. This has led to the situation where the reactionary Muslim Council of Britain, which can claim the support of only four per cent of British Muslims, is treated by the UK media as if it speaks for all.

This was far from the liberty the original anti-racist campaigners had wanted. Malik discusses the Asian Youth Movement, a 1980s group that would stand watch outside the homes of people like Nasreen Saddique. It was a populist and popular organisation that transcended religious differences. It fought for pay and conditions not religious separation. At the end of the 1980s, its leader Mukhtar Dar realised what was coming. “The AYM’s symbolic black secular clenched fist split open into a submissive ethnic hand with its divided religious fingers holding up the begging bowl for the race relations crumbs.”


Rushdie thought of The Satanic Verses as a State of England novel, and the Rushdie affair was curiously parochial. In From Fatwa to Jihad, his masterful study of the novel and society’s reactions, Malik reports that outrage was more or less confined to Britain plus the Indian subcontinent. Even though Khomeini placed an open bounty on Rushdie’s life, his subjects read and discussed the book without horror in street cafes and in Iran’s literary journals. There was no protest in France, not in Germany, not in America or much of the Middle East. Arab, Persian and Kurdish writers penned an anthology of essays in support of Rushdie. What is it about this country? Reading Malik’s interview with Bradford cleric Sher Azam, I was struck by how typically British his views were. He described the UK as “a country where the values have gone. People drink, take drugs, have sex like dogs. If people believed in God, most of these problems would disappear.” Anglicise the name and that’s a Daily Mail leader. Only Wahabbism could save Broken Britain.

Malik’s prognosis is that Rushdie and his defenders won the battle but lost the war. There was never any question of Penguin yanking The Satanic Verses from the Waterstone’s racks. Yet Malik can list recent works of art that never made it to the stage or the printing press because of the concern for the violent sensitivities of religious conservatives. We are in what Monica Ali calls a “marketplace of outrage”; quivering oversensitivity lashed up, higher and higher, survival of the loudest. The act of writing could be seen, almost literally, as manslaughter. Overt censorship has become self-censorship: iron in the soul. Hanif Kureishi: “Nobody would have the balls today to write The Satanic Verses, let alone publish it.” Ali adds: “Consciously you make sure you don’t censor yourself. But unconsciously?”

Yet From Fatwa to Jihad is such an uncompromised cry for freedom of expression, for the living over the dead, that it is impossible to finish the polemic without a sense of liberation. More optimism comes from Rushdie himself, whose book is now becoming to be seen as something more than a tract or thesis. He told the Paris Review:

“I get letters that don’t even mention the Islamic stuff. I get letters from people responding to the comedy in the novel, which is one of the things nobody ever talked about – how could it be funny when the thing that happened to it was so unfunny – and I think: Finally! In a way, it makes it worth having fought the battle, that this book has managed somehow to survive, and can now finally be a book instead of being a hot potato, a sloganized scandal. It is, at last, a novel.

Max Dunbar was born in London in 1981. He recently finished a full-length novel and his short fiction has appeared in various print and web journals including Open Wide, Straight from the Fridge and Lamport Court. He also writes articles on politics and religion for Butterflies and Wheels. He is Manchester’s regional editor of Succour magazine, a journal of new fiction and poetry. He blogs here.

First published in 3:AM Magazine: Wednesday, April 1st, 2009.