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Centre Blog

Michael Munnik – Salman Rushdie and the ‘sudden visibilisation’ of British Muslims

13 February 2019

14 February marks the thirtieth anniversary of the fatwa pronounced by the Iranian religious and political leader Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini advocating the murder of Indian-British novelist Salman Rushdie.

Some Valentine.

The day was already due to be a dark one for Rushdie, with the memorial service for his friend, the writer Bruce Chatwin. That death should already have contoured that day was fitting, as it would haunt his life and his story for many years to come. He had written a novel that the ayatollah, along with many other Muslims, considered blasphemous, and on 14 February 1989, he was sentenced to death.

That fatwa equals death sentence does not equal death sentence was one of many things British non-Muslims would learn. Rushdie, who knew what he was on about, knew this was not what fatwa meant, but he would himself learn that this doesn’t matter. He also knew – he says he knew – that his novel, The Satanic Verses, was neither an attack on Islam nor a deliberate attempt to insult the Prophet Muhammad. Again, it would not matter. How others interpreted his work shaped his life and security.

Salman Rushdie speaking at Fronteiras do Pensamento. Photo by Luis Munhoz, published on by Fronteiras do Pensamento. CC BY-SA 2.0.

It had wider repercussions as well – significant ones for the seam of studies that underpin this centre. We are the Centre for the Study of Islam in the UK, and the social circumstances and relations of British Muslims are our subject. Arguably, there were no ‘British Muslims’ – not as a specific object of study – before Rushdie’s novel, the outcry, the fatwa, and the ensuing events. This argument is made persuasively by many researchers who note that the ways in which these populations were classified hitherto were ethnic (Asian, Pakistani, Arab) or racialized (simply, Black).

Those upset at Rushdie’s novel, however, disrupted these silos. Their solidarities cut across ethnic lines, so that Pakistanis, Arabs, and Somalis had common cause. Meanwhile, hierarchical religion was precisely one of the institutions that the emancipatory politics of Black Britain struggled with. Blasphemy was a hard cause to support.

And so, they were made Muslim in a scholarly sense.

Pnina Werbner, the anthropologist, witnessed this ‘sudden visibilsation’ of British Muslims firsthand (2002: 107). In the midst of fieldwork among Pakistanis in Manchester, she experienced ‘a personal moment of crisis. My initial reaction to the calls for the author’s death was one of disbelief and shock. The sense of the gulf between myself and the people who for years had been not only the subject of my scholarly research, but close friends whom I trusted and esteemed, was quite devastating.’ (2002: 8)

Her long-term engagement with the community she was studying gave her a context that, initially, made the change surprising. It also allowed her to identify the different currents within this community and follow where they led. That was to a collective moment of reflection on how to be in this space and where loyalties were imagined to lie. Optimistically, for Werbner, ‘[t]he Rushdie affair underlined the full implications of being a British citizen as a felt set of obligations and entitlements. On the one hand, there came to be a general acceptance that, as overseas Muslims outside the House of Islam, British Muslims were both duty-bound and obliged to respect the law of the land. On the other hand, the affair spurred the community on to create much more specific and achievable local agendas…’ (2002: 258)

Werbner proposed the idea of the diasporic public sphere, an internal space in which Muslims could have dialogue and from which they spoke to the wider public. Tariq Modood, sociologist at Bristol University, was similarly engaged with social research at the time and able to witness, comment on, and, through his own writing, shape some of the direction for this new Muslim consciousness. His work, along with others, including his student Nasar Meer, concerns precisely the ‘specific and achievable local agendas’ Werbner identified as an outcome of the Rushdie Affair.

Growing up, I was peripherally aware of Rushdie and had read a couple of his novels. Before embarking on my MA, I made sure I read The Satanic Verses. His story has contoured the subject I studied and now teach and research, but I came back to his writing this past Christmas. My wife had given me Joseph Anton, his memoir of those years in hiding. It’s engagingly written – quite a story, obviously, though I felt it sprawled. It’s much easier writing fiction, when you can end the hero’s story when you want to, rather than when as a matter of public record the narrative in fact ends. I built up a fair amount of sympathy for him at the beginning which was squandered the deeper into his affairs it got.

But, reading it with a professional eye, I was most interested in his characterisation of the ideological battlefield in which he both had inserted himself and was forcibly inserted. Though he says his purpose was not to malign the religion, he has little patience in the memoir for those who did not defend him. His ledger is clean and straightforward: you are with him or you are against him. Those who suggest that Muslims had legitimate reasons for grievance are enemies, supporters of the fatwa. I don’t believe this to be true, but I can understand why he would feel that way. His life was directly implicated as few others’ were. For him, these positions are absolute.

Yet it seems a failure for a literary novelist – a type whose business is nuanced portraits of the human condition and a resistance to blunt, easy distinctions. Social scientists, like novelists, are trained to seek nuance, eschew binaries, and above all critically examine situations and relations. We look at things from multiple sides, and this often looks like faff to the wider public. For Rushdie, it looks like collaboration. Modood, for example, is a minor villain in Rushdie’s book, name-dropped alongside US scholar Akbar Ahmed as a hypocrite appeasing those who wanted to kill the author. It’s not how I see it.

What seems clear to me, though, is that the entire affair precipitated the field of British Muslim studies. It highlighted the importance not only of religious literacy in general, as a companion to the tools of literary criticism, but specific knowledge about Muslims: what their terms mean, what they believe and how they disagree, what their history looks like and how their present is shaped. What their future might hold.

Before Rushdie’s story concluded, another event occurred that set a new node on the contour line of social studies of Muslims. He was living in New York at the time of the attacks of 11 September 2001, though he was in Houston, Texas on the day itself. Of the post-9/11 period, Rushdie has both the arrogance and the self-awareness to say, ‘The prologue was past and now the world was grappling with the main event.’ (2012: 626) In this, his analysis is spot on. When I present key moments for Muslims and the media, I dwell on the Rushdie Affair, and people sometimes thank me for taking this longer view. For some, 9/11 is the date that everything changed and everything starts. In Britain, this ‘sudden visibilisation’ occurred earlier, so the story of our discipline is closely connected to the story of this man.

Works cited:
Rushdie, Salman. Joseph Anton: A Memoir. London: Jonathan Cape, 2012
Werbner, Pnina. Imagined Diasporas among Manchester Muslims: The  Public Performance of Pakistani Transnational Identity Politics. Oxford: James Currey, 2002.

Dr Michael Munnik is Lecturer for Social Science Theories and Methods with Cardiff University’s School of History, Archaeology and Religion and the Centre for the Study of Islam in the UK. His research concerns the production of news about Muslims in Britain and the participation of Muslims in the news media. Dr Munnik is the Communications and Publications Officer for the Sociology of Religion Study Group for the British Sociological Association.