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A Mirror for Our Times: “The Rushdie Affair” and the Future of Multiculturalism

“The Rushdie Affair” that began in 1989 with the publication of Salman Rushdie’s novel The Satanic Verses, the “Book Burning in Bradford” that came soon afterwards, and the now infamous fatwa declared by the late Ayatollah Khomeini still have important implications for discussions of religion, culture, identity, faith and the nature of diverse societies today as it did then.


“The Rushdie Affair” that began in 1989 with the publication of Salman Rushdie’s novel The Satanic Verses, the “Book Burning in Bradford” that came soon afterwards, and the now infamous fatwa declared by the late Ayatollah Khomeini still have important implications for discussions of religion, culture, identity, faith and the nature of diverse societies today as it did then. Such is the legacy of this episode of British multicultural history that debates focusing on how to deal with the challenges of diversity, inter-faith dialogue, tolerance and co-existence remain as important as ever. In response to such a cultural and intellectual challenge Professor Paul Weller has written this book to reflect on this “mirror for our times”. The book is an important and timely contribution to a set of issues that remain topical in relation to a whole host of spheres, not least in social science studies of Muslim minorities, but also in relation to policy-level questions on how to manage diverse societies.

There is no doubt that the 1989 publication of Rushdie’s now infamous novel has had profound implications for the ways in which questions in relation to the positions and experiences of Muslim minorities in Britain and in the West would be seen for the foreseeable future; and, it seems, given the events of the 2006 Cartoons Affair, the lingering impacts continue. Largely invisible to the “host community”, the Rushdie book catapulted the presence of Muslims in Britain; however, it did so in a fundamentally negative and reductive way. As much as there was and is huge diversity among the Muslims of the West, the dominant media and political discourse invariably characterized this group in essentialized and homogenized terms. While the 1990s raged on, with global conflicts often involving Muslim nations and peoples, and with the events of 9/11 in the USA and 7/7 in Britain that came in the new millennium, much remains the same. Polarizations between those who regard religion as a negative force while often promulgating a secular, liberal and democrat process have sometimes defined themselves as the very same “Muslimness” which in reality is the experience of minority groups vying for recognition, acceptability, equality and fairness. The “war on terror” and its lingering impacts in relation to the dichotomy presented between a Muslim East and a Christian West has only added to the reification of a globalized dynamic that impacts people directly in their homes due to the forces of liberalized broadcasting markets and through the internet. There seems to be little to challenge the rhetoric that is dominant at present, and while a whole host of organizations continue to work towards improving dialogue and coexistence, such as the Dialogue Society in London to which this book is co-dedicated to for example, and that continue to make every effort, it seems the challenges outweigh the opportunities. It remains incumbent on the good of the many to outweigh the bad of the few, but while power rests in fewer hands and social divisions widen, the work of civil society organizations is far from complete.

Weller has been working on the experiences of Muslims in Britain since the 1980s and so he is well versed in the finer discussions that have impacted debates relating to questions of religion in society, diversity, tolerance and inter-faith relations. The book starts with a close reading of the events around the publication of the book itself and how they unfolded utilizing a whole host of significant secondary news sources. The ways in which various informed opinion communicated with the book’s publisher, in relation to the potential problems of the book and to the nature of how various people were tragically killed in different parts of the world where the book was translated or being published is presented in detail in this opening section of the book, “The Contours of the Controversy”. Such is the quality of the writing and the immense details that are contained within this section that the reader feels as if they are physically there in time as the moment-by-moment events are superbly described. In particular, the fatwa issued by the late Ayatollah Khomeini is usefully explained and contextualized, and the ways in which a local event such as the February 14, 1989 “book burning in Bradford” and the proclamations emerging out of theocratic Iran turned the issues emanating from this single novel into a global crisis are well described.

The following section, “Actions and Reactions in the Controversy”, explores how different faith groups, especially Muslim, Christian and Jewish groups, responded to the issues presented by the crisis. The chapter focuses on theological and spiritual concerns raised in relation to inter-faith dialogue matters, and addresses the oft-fraught dilemma of how to improve trust, confidence and engagement, particularly at such times. Here, the implications for questions relating to “multiculturalism” are analyzed, arguing that these are profound matters in the context of widening polarities in society as a whole. Important here also is the nature of diversity within groups, and how this is sometimes forgotten when a holistic debate on the nature of society as a whole is taken to the fore by certain interest groups. Ethno-religious diversity from below is far more complex and nuanced than is often given credit by various circles of debate and discussion. Law, religion in society and the political process are given a particular focus in the following chapter entitled, “Through the Looking Glass”. Engagement with party political machineries is discussed in the light of the historically special relationship British Muslims have had with the Labour Party. In establishing various community fora from 1997 onwards, New Labour made significant steps to formalize this engagement process; however, this has not been without its controversy in relation to question of representativeness, access, transparency and effectiveness. This has ongoing implications for the modern day when a Conservative–Liberal Democrat coalition struggles to deal with the challenges of diversity, and in particular in the post-“war on terror” experience that has seemingly defined the current reality. In the concluding section, “Echoes, Reverberations and ‘Social Policy Shock’”, the current concerns in problematizing multiculturalism while ignoring the fact that it is still an idea very much in progress and the issues that have emerged in the light of the tragic events of 7/7 and the subsequent “securitisation of integration” are analyzed. In many ways, the post-9/11 responses of the dominant Western powers, along with the UK as part of the “coalition of the willing”, have reversed many significant advances in how a diverse society is able to learn to live in peace and harmony with itself at the level of the nation-state. It has potentially curtailed an open-thinking logic to these discussions and given dominance to more immediate political interests which have taken the “Muslimness” of what are often dispossessed, marginalized and violent minority groups and highlighted them as the sole problem, absolving the role of the state and the majority society from taking part in the predicament and its solutions. Terrorism, extremism and the polarized differences between Muslims are projected as the bête noire in society. In many ways there are no conclusions to the book itself to be had as many of these discussions are lively and topical in the present climate, but what Weller is able to do is to present the key challenges and solutions to some of the issues and implications emanating from the original “Rushdie Affair”. To that extent, the book remains a significant contribution to our thinking as social scientists, activity, politicos and policy-makers.

This book is a detailed account of the events in relation to the publication of Rushdie’s book and its ongoing impact, and it is wonderfully written and eloquent in its presentational. The discussion involves perspectives for a whole host of interest groups, including the publishers themselves, political actors, and the liberal intelligentsia. There is also ample discussion on perspectives in Islam and the sociological experiences of Muslims in Britain that will help the less-informed reader glean some of the context of the lived experiences of these groups. This book is arguably the definitive account of the “Rushdie Affair” and its impact on the realities faced today in discussions of identity politics, freedom of speech, “freedom to offend” and in relation to the nature of Western Muslim-non-Muslim relations in the current period. The book is an invaluable resource on a significant debate that will be of considerable interest to an assorted body of readers. Weller has produced an outstanding piece of work. His book will remain the definitive account of the “Rushdie Affair” and its implications in the second decade of the new millennium for many years to come.

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