Thursday 19 March 2009

'The Rushdie Affair' twenty years on: Lessons learned?

Last week I had the pleasure and privilege of moderating a panel discussion on occasion of the launch of Professor Paul Weller's new book A Mirror for Our Times: The Rushdie Affair and the Future of Multiculturalism hosted by the Dialogue Society in North London, which deserves to be congratulated for its courage to organize a potentially controversial event.

The timing of the book's release was very appropriate since it was almost to the week twenty years ago that the 'The Rushdie Affair' burst into the limelight, when the Ayatollah Khomeini issued his now notorious fatwa in response to Salman Rushdie's then latest book The Satanic Verses,which Muslims worldwide thought extremely offensive.

The book is largely based on the author's Postgraduate Research completed in 1996, in which he looked in great detail at 'The Rushdie Affair'. With the advantage of another ten years of 'critical distance', Weller's focuses on the lessons to be learned from issues such as The Satanic Verses affair, as well as the Danish Cartoon controversy or the assassination of Theo van Gogh. In an eloquent presentation Weller first laid out a number of 'learning points' to be derived from such events and the reactions to it.

First and foremost that dead threats are not acceptable and that the fear resulting from it is 'insidious'. On the other hand, Muslim concerns over issues affecting their convictions, including robust opposition to it, is acceptable. The ability of Muslims to be able to express their views is a sine qua non for pluralism. Although no state is entirely free from constraints put on the freedom of expression, these lines are extremely difficult to draw and never final. Many of the counter reactions to the Muslim concerns coming from the 'secular' camp evince a deepseated ignorance of Islam and act as a stimulus for Islamophobia. Weller added the caveat that as a relatively new phenomenon arising out of European wars of religion it is secularity rather than religiosity which needs explaining. These European roots make the whole notion of secularity even more problematic because of the colonial and imperialist connotations attached to it. This is also one of the reasons why it is absolutely essential to retain a global perspective of the impact of controversies such as 'The Rushdie Affair'. One of the most important tasks for Muslims and others is to reflect on this engagement with secularity, because both religiosity and secularism can be set on their heads.

Weller continued to argue that from these ten learning points, we can extract six 'points of challenge':

1. Governments must learn from history that to combat terror with methods that undermine human rights will only strengthen those forces that use terror as a means of advancing their cause.
2. To ignore or deny the reasons that those who use terror to advance their cause give for their actions is unlikely to lead to a resolution of the problems caused by terror.
3. Terror in the name of religion is particularly dangerous both to the wider body politic and to religions themselves, because it harnesses ultimate convictions and commitments in its destructive service.
4. Attempts by the ‘powers that be’, artificially and externally to create a ‘liberal’ or ‘moderate’ Islam (or indeed any other religion), are likely to prove ineffective and may also backfire.
5. Muslims (and indeed people of other religions) have to accept a greater responsibility for combating the dissemination and propagation of ‘enemy images’ among the faithful.
6. For multiculturalism to continue to have a future, governments and societies must acknowledge and tackle Islamophobia, and indeed all other forms of discrimination and hatred on the grounds of religion or belief.

Weller's exposition on the book's intentions and objectives formed the starting point for a discussion involving the two respondents on the panel: Dr. Abdelwahab El-Affendi, a Reader in Politics from the University of Westminister's Department of Politics and International Affairs and coordinator of its Programme on Democracy and Islam, and Dr. Sara Silvestri, an academic working on Islam in Europe at the School of Social Sciences at City University London.

Both discussants who had not only listened to Professor Weller's presentation but also had had an opportunity to review the book were by and large in agreement with the author. Dr. El-Affendy expressed some reservations regarding the issue of secularism, adding that religiously-motivated terror is too easy a qualification. Instead he prefers to speak of 'identity-motivated' terror which is never 100% religious. He very much agreed with Professor Weller's insistence on the importance of nuance, in particular in regards to the fact that 'words matter' -- one of the reasons why Weller insists on speaking of 'terror' not 'terrorism'. On the same grounds Weller refuses to dismiss 'colonialism' and 'imperialism' as mere slogans, and underscores the importance of distinguishing between 'secularity' and 'secularism'. He also agreed with El-Affendy that it is important to explore the religion-identity dialectic in detail.

Sara Silversti began by qualifying Weller's latest publication as an expert and proper scholarly account, but that should not deter the general reader because A Mirror for Our Times is at the same time a very readable book. In her further response also Dr. Silvestri recognized 'secularism' and 'religion' as the buzzwords hovering over 'The Rushdie Affair' as the case at hand. In addition she made it a point to explicitly reject the use of the word Islamophobia, because it has resulted in creating a space in which Muslims only reinforce the negative image. Another valid observation was that the attention paid to controversies involving Islam or Muslims has a detrimental effect on other minorities who face challenges in Westerns societies, and who are frequently getting upset about the 'special' attention which Muslim issues seem to receive. Moreover, she also thought it important to note that, like words, also specificity 'matters': those committing acts of terror tend to 'hijack' issues for political purposes which are actual 'societal' issues that need urgent attention.

Two other points arising from the further exchange of views were that in spite of the book's focus on the British situation, and by extension part of the European situation as well, it is imperative not too lose sight of the fact that almost all of the complex issues involving Muslim communities in Britain or Europe have a global aspect as well. Dr. El-Affendy was adamant that the foreign policy dimension can neither be denied nor ignored. Finally it was hearthening for your humble servant and panel chair to note that all panelists agreed that one of the main challenges in discussions centering on issues involving the contemporary Muslim world is to avoid pigeonholing: such as the tendency to search for 'moderate' or 'liberal' Islam as a counterweight for the equally illusive 'Islamic radicalism'.

Suggestions for further reading:

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