A divided society: Where did it all go wrong?

A divided society: Where did it all go wrong?

From fatwa to
jihad: the rushdie affair and its
Kenan Malik
Atlantic, 2009, pp 253
Rs 399

Kenan Malik, a Britain-based academic and documentary-maker has dealt with the  complex subject of Islamic radicalism and its violent manifestations across the globe from an inter-disciplinary perspective. At first, the book seems like a journalistic narrative but gradually Malik brings in historical, political and sociological approaches to diagnose the menace of Islamic terrorism and shows its development in the British society as well as its trans-continental implications. He starts with the Fatwa against Sulman Rushdie for writing Satanic Verses and leads us to the shocking attacks of 9/11 in USA and 7/7 bombing in Britain. He says, “This book is the story of (that) metamorphosis... a guidebook to the road from fatwa to jihad.”

Racism and racial attacks are no new phenomena in British society. It had started in the 1970s and the British government evolved a policy of ‘multiculturalism’ that envisaged different groups have to be treated differently in order to treat them equally. This was the crux of the problem as multiculturalism shifted the focus of ethnic identity of immigrant community from nationality to religion. Earlier, the Muslims were divided on nationality and on the basis of language (eg. Bangladeshi) or further, on the basis of their faith-traditions like Barelwis, Deobandis, Jamaatis etc. But the new policy homogenised them on the basis of religious identity.

From the broader category of ‘Asians’ emerged Hindus, Muslims and Sikhs; all vying for their share in the pie that minority grants and funding under multicultural policy had to offer. The community-based housing policy encouraged flourishing of ghettos based on religion. Such a division on the basis of religion subverted the progressive ideologies that was earlier cutting across religious-ethnic-nationality barriers and consequently each of these groups became a vote bank and religion started shaping politics. Malik rightly says, “Multiculturalism helped create new divisions and more intractable conflicts which made for a less openly racist but a more insidiously tribal Britain.”

In other words, the intervention of bringing minority communities into the democratic process ended up with communal politics. Mosques mushroomed in all towns and cities and the Council of Mosque was recognised as the mouthpiece of the Muslim community.

Mosques became the power centre and their authority became the power-broker with the government on one hand and the custodian of Islamic faith on another. At the same time, Islamist parties started growing in Turkey, Palestine, Algeria, Afghanistan, Lebanon and the disintegration of the Soviet Union opened new avenues for radical Islam to make inroads.

There was another psycho-sociological phenomena taking place: a sense of rootlessness, a moral and cultural void among the younger generation Muslims who were born and brought up in Britain. On one hand, they rejected the traditional orthodoxy and on another felt detached in a hostile host country. This sense of ennui (Lewis Mumford) at the psychological level led to social ‘anomie’ (Emile Durkheim) with pathological manifestations. On one side, the traditional Islamists wanted their younger generation to follow the dictates of Quran, whereas on another, the disenchanted youth wanted an anchor to have a sense of belonging. This void was fulfiled by embracing radical Islamic fundamentalism.

For Malik, it was ‘an affirmative reconstruction of identity’. He debunks the popular notion that terrorists are uneducated, poor, unintelligent and a psychopathic lot. The landmark study of Marc Sageman shows that most of them are highly educated professionals.

Thus, madarssa is not their recruiting ground as generally perceived, rather Western universities are the breeding ground of these terrorists. At a theoretical level, Malik’s conclusions deviate from the much adored ‘Clash of Civilisation’ approach of Samuel Huttington that anticipated the antagonism between two opposing worldviews derived from two different sources.

According to Malik, it is not this clash between Western and Islamic Civilisation rather the absence of a cultural space within Western Civilisation to assimilate Islamic aspirations that led to this ‘Islamic War Against West’. The ‘fatwa’ issued against Rushdie was a symbolic beginning that gradually compelled the liberal idea of free speech in the West to be re-interpreted from a defensive stand. Subsequently, there were protests and violence from publication of other books like Monika Ali’s Brick Lane, Danish Cartoons of Prophet Mohammad, Hanif Kuresihi’s My Beautiful Laundrette and Sherry Jones’ The Jewel of Medina. The West has been always apprehensive of Islam, and its own ideological and political insecurities have fuelled the fire of violence. It shows the identity crisis of the West itself.

Conclusively, Western liberalism has built, “... a culture of grievance in which being offended has become a badge of identity, cleared a space for radical islamists to flourish.” Malik’s analysis is quite different from other works on the subject. However, he has been unable to maintain the objectivity of an ‘outsider observer’ as on many occasions, his own experiences of an ‘insider’, of a second generation immigrant from India in Britain colour the landscape of racial politics portrayed by him.

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