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:

Friday, 13 March 2009

Former US ambassador to Saudi Arabia withdraws candidacy for chair of National Intelligence Council (NIC)

Less than two months after taking office, President Barack Obama is getting increasingly bogged down into reactive politics instead of pursuing the proactive policy-making agenda that drove his campaign(see also the post of 5 November 2008).

Now the new U.S. presidency has run into another obstacle on its path to approach the problems in the Middle East and larger Muslim world afresh. Yet another designated candidate for one of the top jobs in the administration has withdrawn. This time the 'victim' is former U.S. Ambassador to Saudi Arabia Chas Freeman, who has dropped out as a contender for one of the top jobs in foreign policy making: Chair of the National Intelligence Council (NIC).

Aside from the detrimal impact this has on the revision of actual politics, this particular incident is also illustrative of how difficult it is to dispel preconceived notions and change deeply ingrained positions and attitudes towards the Muslim world, which is the reason for covering it on this blog.

Freeman, a foreign service veteran who accompanied Richard Nixon on his groundbreaking visit to China and interpreted his conversations with Mao, served was ambassador in Riyadh during the Gulf War of 1990-1991. The English-language Saudi Arabian newspaper Arab News reported that US news sources have alleged a former Israel lobbyist awaiting trial on espionage charges was behind the effort to discredit him. They identified Steve Rosen, who used to be associated with the American Israel Public Affairs Committee (AIPAC) and is now awaiting trial in the US on espionage charges, of being the coordinator of the campaign to discredit Freeman. Rosen, who is accused of furnishing secret US intelligence documents on Iran to reporters and foreign officials, has been working for the Middle East Forum, a think tank run by neocon Daniel Pipes, since November of last year. Its website als hosts the blog in which Rosen discusses the nomination of Freeman.

Freeman himself reacted with an edgy commentary directed at the powerful pro-Israel lobby:

“I have concluded that the barrage of libelous distortions of my record would not cease upon my entry into office,” Freeman wrote in a letter to friends and supporters regarding his withdrawal. “The effort to smear me and to destroy my credibility would instead continue. I do not believe the NIC could function effectively while its chair was under constant attack by unscrupulous people with a passionate attachment to the views of a political faction in a foreign country.”

Arab News goes on: Freeman blasted the Israel lobby for what he considered a concerted effort to smear his name. “The libels on me and their easily traceable e-mail trails show conclusively that there is a powerful lobby determined to prevent any view other than its own from being aired, still less to factor in American understanding of trends and events in the Middle East,” Freeman wrote. “The tactics of the Israel lobby plumb the depths of dishonor and indecency and include character assassination, selective misquotation, the willful distortion of the record, the fabrication of falsehoods, and an utter disregard for the truth. The aim of this lobby is control of the policy process through the exercise of a veto over the appointment of people who dispute the wisdom of its views, the substitution of political correctness for analysis, and the exclusion of any and all options for decision by Americans and our government other than those that it favors.”

Commentators in Saudi Arabia reacted with disappointment, among them renowned photographer Reem Al Faisal (see the post on 29 November 2008) : “I am not surprised, [..] With or without Freeman, American policies will remain the same. They have not changed for the last 60 years. Palestinians continue to suffer because of America’s lopsided foreign policy. We have just seen what happened in Gaza. To say that Israel controls American foreign policy doesn’t sound right. The United States believes in these policies. How can one accept that the world’s lone superpower is being dictated by someone else if it itself did not believe in that policy?”

Guardian commentator Richard Silverstein* suggests it is only the beginning of Obama's long uphill battle to change attitudes towards the Middle East question, and in fact all political issues involving the Muslim world.

* Silverstein also writes a blog, Tikun Olam, about the Arab-Israeli conflict.

Saturday, 7 March 2009

New Center for International and Global Studies in the USA

Lindenwood University in St. Charles, Missouri, has recently founded a Center for International and Global Studies (CIGS). Director of the Center is Professor Ray Scupin, an anthropologist interested international studies and the anthropology of religion, in particular Islam. Ray is an authority on Islam in Thailand, another country peripheral to the Dar al-Islam that has my interest too.

As part of its activities, CIGS is launching a new scholarly journal, that may be of interest to those working on global or cosmopolitan Islam:

The Journal for International and Global Studies is seeking articles that address today’s global world. In particular, it seeks high-quality, original work that is based on both theory and practice. We encourage submissions from all fields, but pay particular attention to anthropology, education, geography, history, international relations, international management, political science, religion, and sociology. Specifically, the journal seeks:

* Studies that critically examine (i.e., not just describe) global content, ideas, organizations, policies, or practices
* Studies that situate phenomena within their local, national, regional, or global context
* Studies that consider international and global phenomena historically and in the present
* Studies that are explicitly based in conceptual frameworks, representing one or more established, emerging, or grounded paradigms
* Studies that are based upon qualitative data, quantitative data, policy documents or other texts from existing scholarship
* Studies that explore major international and global issues

Materials submitted to the JI&GS are judged on the following criteria: (1) use of a theoretical or conceptual framework, (2) acknowledgment of relevant literature, (3) originality in analysis, (4) appropriateness of methodological approach, (5) contribution to the advancement of knowledge, (6) use of a global perspective, and (7) clarity of expression.

For details on Submission of Manuscripts see the author's guidelines

We will also publish book reviews in the journal. If you are interested in reviewing a book on a topic dealing with globalization issues, please contact us.

The deadline for the submission of essays and book reviews for the first issue of the journal is July 1, 2009.

We are also seeking high-quality book manuscripts dealing with globalization topics for publication through the Center. If you are interested in publishing your manuscript through the Center, please send an abstract of your monograph or proposed monograph to

We look forward to receiving essays, book reviews, and proposals for book monographs from all over the world on globalization issues.

For further inquiries, contact the director:

Ray Scupin PhD
Director, Center for International and Global Studies
Chair, Department of Anthropology and Sociology
Lindenwood University
209 S. Kingshighway
St. Charles, MO 63301 USA
PHONE: 636-949-4730