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ESSAY

How to become a real Muslim


Censorship, Muhammad caricatures, the Rushdie affair...
By Kenan Malik

I n Ireland, seven people are arrested


over an alleged plot to kill Swedish
cartoonist Lars Vilks, who had depicted
prophet Muhammad with the body of
a dog in Nerikes Allehanda. In Aarhus, a
a new adaptation of Aristophanes’
Lysistrata, set in Muslim heaven, for
fear of causing offence. Another London
theatre, the Barbican, carved chunks
out of its production of Tamburlaine the
Huntingdon. Today, it has become
almost common sense. “All over again,”
as novelist Martin Amis has put it, “the
West confronts an irrationalist, agonistic,
theocratic/ideocratic system which is
Somalian axeman tries to hack down Kurt Great for the same reason, while Berlin’s essentially and unappeasably opposed to
Westergaard, the most controversial of Deutsche Oper cancelled a production of its existence.”
the Jyllands-Posten cartoonists. In London, Mozart’s Idomeneo in 2006, because of its Yet, even as he goes along with the
Faisal Yamani, a Saudi lawyer, threatens depiction of Muhammad. clash of civilisations thesis, Caldwell
to use Britain’s notorious libel laws to sue Three years ago, the Gemeentemuseum reveals its inadequacies. “What secular
ten Danish newspapers that published in The Hague removed an exhibition of Europeans call ‘Islam’”, he points out, “is
the cartoons in the name of all 95,000 photos by the Iranian artist Sooreh Hera a set of values that Dante and Erasmus
descendants of Muhammad. that depicted gay men wearing masks would recognise as theirs.” On the other
Five years after Jyllands-Posten of Muhammad. “Certain people in our hand, the modern, secular rights that now
published its now-notorious caricatures, society might perceive it as offensive,” constitute “core European values” would
the reverberations are still being felt. And said museum director Wim van Krimpen. “leave Dante and Erasmus bewildered.”
not just by the cartoonists. The threats De Volkskrant, a left-wing Dutch In other words, what we now regard
and violence that continue to surround newspaper, praised the museum for as western values – individual rights,
their publication have had a chilling its great professionalism in excising the secularism, freedom of speech – are
impact upon writers, publishers, gallery images. Hera herself received death modern values, distinct from those that
owners and theatre directors. threats. Tim Marlow of London’s White animated European societies in the past.
Two years ago, US publishing giant Cube art gallery suggested that such self- And it is not just medieval Europeans who
Random House dropped The jewel of censorship by artists and museums was would reject contemporary European
Medina, a breezy, romantic tale about now common, though “very few people values. Many contemporary Europeans
Aisha, prophet Muhammad’s youngest have explicitly admitted [it].” do too.
wife, after fears that it might prove For many, all this suggests a British writer Melanie Phillips is
offensive. When, last year, Yale University fundamental conflict between the militantly hostile to what she sees as
Press published The cartoons that shook values of Islam and those of the West. the “Islamic takeover of the West” and
the world, Jytte Klausen’s scholarly study Christopher Caldwell in his controversial what she calls “the drift towards social
of the cartoon controversy, it refused, book, Reflections on the revolution in Europe, suicide” that comes with accepting
much to her disgust, to include any of the published last year, argues that Muslim Muslim immigration. Yet, she is deeply
cartoons. When the free speech magazine migration to Europe has been akin to a sympathetic to the Islamist rejection of
Index on Censorship, published an interview form of colonisation. secular humanism, which she thinks has
with Klausen about Yale’s decision, it too “Since its arrival half a century created “a debauched and disorderly
refused to show any of the cartoons. ago,” Caldwell observes, “Islam has culture of instant gratification, with
“You would think twice, if you were broken – or required adjustments to, or disintegrating families, feral children and
honest,” said Ramin Gray, associate rearguard defences of – a good many of violence, squalor and vulgarity on the
director at London’s Royal Court Theatre the European customs, received ideas streets.” Muslims “have concluded that
when asked if he would put on a play and state structures with which it has the society that expects them to identify
critical of Islam. “You would have to take come in contact.” Islam “is not enhancing with it is a moral cesspit,” Phillips argues.
the play on its individual merits, but given or validating European culture; it is “Is it any wonder, therefore, that they
the time we are in, it is very hard, because supplanting it.” reject it?”
you would worry that if you cause offence This idea of a clash of civilisations was Caldwell, too, thinks that while the
then the whole enterprise would become first mooted twenty years ago in the wake West’s current encounter with Islam may
buried in a sea of controversy. It does of the Salman Rushdie affair by historian be “painful and violent,” it has also been,
make you tread carefully.” Bernard Lewis and popularised a few “an infusion of oxygen into the drab,
In June 2007, the theatre cancelled years later by political scientist Samuel nitpicking, materialist intellectual life of

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Far from Islam having always forbidden representations of Muhammad, it was common to portray him until comparatively recently. Here, the prophet can be seen on his
steed, Buraq. Dated 1514, this artwork (ink and gold on paper) from Bukhara, Uzbekistan is now in the collection of the Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York.

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into Quranic scripture many of their old to the depiction of Muhammad, why
Even today, few Muslims have a religious and social practises. were Muslims universally appalled by the
What Pakistani Mirpuris see as caricatures? They were not. And those
problem in seeing the prophet’s
traditional Islam is very different from that were, were driven by political zeal
face. Shortly after Jyllands- that of North African Bedouins. And rather than theological fervour.
what British Mirpuris see as traditional is The publications of the cartoons in
Posten published the cartoons,
different from the traditions of Mirpuris September 2005 caused no immediate
the Egyptian newspaper Al still in Mirpur. reaction, even in Denmark. Only when
“The key question,” French sociologist journalists, disappointed by the lack of
Fagr reprinted them. They
Olivier Roy points out, “is not what the controversy, contacted a number of imams
were accompanied by a critical Quran actually says, but what Muslims for their response, did Islamists begin to
say the Quran says.” Muslims continually recognise the opportunity provided not
commentary, but Al Fagr did not
disagree on what the Quran says, he adds just by the caricatures themselves but
think it necessary to blank out dryly, “while all stressing that the Quran also by the sensitivity of Danish society to
is unambiguous and clear-cut.” their publication.
Muhammad’s face, and faced
Even a tradition as seemingly Among the first contacted was the
no opprobrium for not doing so. deeply set and unyielding as the one at controversial cleric Ahmad Abu Laban,
the heart of the controversy over the infamous for his support for Osama bin
Egypt’s religious and political
Danish cartoons – the prohibition on Laden and the 9/11 attacks. He seized
authorities, even as they were the pictorial representation of prophet upon the cartoons to transform himself
Muhammad – is in truth neither deeply into a spokesman for Denmark’s Muslims.
demanding an apology from
set nor unyielding. Far from Islam having Yet, however hard he pushed, he initially
the Danish prime minister, always forbidden representations of the found it difficult to provoke major outrage
prophet, it was common to portray him in Denmark or abroad.
raised no objections to
until comparatively recently. It took more than four months of often
Al Fagr’s full frontal photos. The prohibition against such depictions hysterical campaigning, and considerable
only emerged in the seventeenth century. arm-twisting by Saudi diplomats, to
the West,” for which we need to express Even over the past four-hundred years, create a major controversy. At the end
our “gratitude.” a number of Islamic, especially Shia, of January 2006, Saudi Arabia recalled
There is, in other words, no single set traditions have accepted the pictorial its ambassador from Denmark and
of European values that transcends history representation of Muhammad. launched a consumer boycott of Danish
in opposition to Islamic values. Nor indeed The Edinburgh University Library in goods. In response, a swathe of European
is there a single set of western values today. Scotland, the Bibliotheque National in newspapers republished the cartoons in
The very values against which radical Paris, New York’s Metropolitan Museum solidarity with Jyllands-Posten.
Islamists rail – the values of secular of Art and the Topkapi Palace Museum It was only now that the issue became
humanism – are the very values that so in Istanbul, all contain dozens of Persian, more than a minor diplomatic kerfuffle.
disgust some of Islam’s greatest critics. Ottoman and Afghan manuscripts There were demonstrations and riots
If there is no such thing as a set of depicting the prophet. His face can be in India, Pakistan, Indonesia, Egypt,
European values that transcends time, the seen in many mosques too – even in Libya, Syria, Iran, Nigeria, Palestine,
same is true of Islamic values. Islam, like all Iran. A seventeenth-century mural on Afghanistan, and elsewhere. Danish
religions, comprises both a set of beliefs the Iman Zahdah Chah Zaid Mosque in embassies in Damascus, Beirut and
and a complex of social institutions, the Iranian town of Isfahan, for instance, Tehran were torched. But, as Jytte Klausen
traditions and cultures that bind people shows a Muhammad whose facial features has observed, these protests “were not
in a special relationship to a particular are clearly visible. caused by the cartoons, but were part of
conception of the sacred. Even today, few Muslims have a conflicts in pre-existing hot spots” such
Over the centuries, those institutions problem in seeing the prophet’s face. as northern Nigeria, where there exists
and cultures have transformed the Shortly after Jyllands-Posten published an effective civil war between Muslim
reading of the Quran and the practise of the cartoons, the Egyptian newspaper salafists and Christians.
Islam. Religions, like all social forms, can Al Fagr reprinted them. They were The violence surrounding the cartoon
not stand still. Islam today can no more accompanied by a critical commentary, conflict, Klausen suggests, has been
be like the Islam of the seventh century but Al Fagr did not think it necessary to misreported as expressions of spontaneous
than Mecca today can look like the city of blank out Muhammad’s face, and faced violence from Muslims “confronted
Muhammad’s time. no opprobrium for not doing so. Egypt’s with bad pictures.” That, she insists, “is
Islam has been transformed not just religious and political authorities, even absolutely not the case.” Rather “these
through time but across space too. The as they were demanding an apology from images have been exploited by political
spread of the faith from the Atlantic the Danish prime minister, raised no groups in the pre-existing conflict over
coast to the Indonesian archipelago and objections to Al Fagr’s full frontal photos. Islam.”
beyond incorporated peoples who fitted So, if there is no universal prohibition Why did journalists contact Abu

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Laban in the first place? The Danish press months, until Ayatollah Khomeini issued
described him as a spiritual leader. He was his fatwa on Valentine’s Day 1989, most From the 1970s, Saudi Arabia had
in fact a mechanical engineer by trade, Muslims ignored the book. The campaign
used oil money to fund salafi
and an Islamist by inclination. His Islamic against the novel was largely confined to
Society of Denmark was closely linked to the Indian subcontinent and to Britain. organisations and mosques
the Muslim Brotherhood but had little Aside from the involvement of Saudi
worldwide to cement its position
support among Danish Muslims. Out of Arabia, there was little enthusiasm for a
a population of 180,000 Danish Muslims, campaign in the Arab world, or in Turkey, as spokesman for the ummah.
fewer than a thousand attended the or among Muslim communities in France
Then came the Iranian Revolution
society’s Friday prayers. or Germany.
Abu Laban was, however, infamous When the Saudi authorities tried at of 1979 that overthrew the
for supporting the attack on the Twin the end of 1988 to get the novel banned
Shah and established an Islamic
Towers. From a journalistic viewpoint, it in Muslim countries worldwide, few
made sense to get a quote from someone responded except those with large republic. Tehran became the
so controversial. But politically, too, it subcontinental populations, such as South
capital of Muslim radicalism and
made sense. For western liberals have Africa or Malaysia. Even in Iran, the book
come to see figures like Abu Laban as the was openly available and was reviewed in Ayatollah Khomeini its spiritual
true, authentic voice of Islam. many newspapers.
leader, posing a direct
Naser Khader, a Danish MP, tells of As in the controversy over the Danish
a conversation with Tøger Seidenfaden, cartoons, it was politics, not religion, challenge to Riyadh.
editor of Politiken, a left-wing newspaper that transformed The satanic verses into a
highly critical of the caricatures. “He worldwide event of historic proportions. conflict. But, having accepted the myths
said to me that the cartoons insulted all The novel first became an issue in India that the controversy over The satanic
Muslims,” Khader recalls. “I said I was not because the Jamaat-e-Islami, an Islamist verses was driven by theology, and that
insulted. He said, ‘But you are not a real group against which Rushdie had taken all Muslims were offended by the novel,
Muslim.’” aim in his previous novel Shame, tried many liberals came to the conclusion
In liberal eyes, in other words, to to use the novel as political leverage in in the post-Rushdie world both that the
be a real Muslim is to find the cartoons a general election campaign. From India, Islamists were the true voice of Islam,
offensive. Once Muslim authenticity is the anti-Rushdie campaign spilled into and also that in a plural society social
so defined, then only a figure such as Britain, where the Jamaat had a network harmony required greater restraints on
Abu Laban can be seen as a true Muslim of organisations, funded by the Saudi free speech.
voice. government. “Self-censorship,” the British Muslim
The Danish cartoons, as Jytte Klausen From the 1970s, Saudi Arabia had used philosopher Shabbir Akhtar suggested
observed, “have become not just a tool for oil money to fund salafi organisations at the height of the Rushdie affair, “is a
extremism but also created a soap opera and mosques worldwide to cement its meaningful demand in a world of varied
in the West about what Muslims do with position as spokesman for the ummah. and passionately held convictions. What
respect to pictures.” Or, as Naser Khader Then came the Iranian Revolution of 1979 Rushdie publishes about Islam is not just
has put it, “What I find really offensive that overthrew the Shah and established his business. It is everyone’s – not least
is that journalists and politicians see the an Islamic republic. Tehran became every Muslim’s – business.”
fundamentalists as the real Muslims.” the capital of Muslim radicalism and Increasingly, western liberals have
The myths about the Danish cartoons Ayatollah Khomeini its spiritual leader, come to agree. Whatever may be right in
– that all Muslims hated the cartoons and posing a direct challenge to Riyadh. The principle, many now argue, in practise
that it was a theological conflict – helped satanic verses became a weapon in that one must appease religious and cultural
turn Abu Laban into an authentic voice conflict between Saudi Arabia and Iran. sensibilities because such sensibilities
of Islam. At the same time, Abu Laban’s Riyadh had made the initial running. The are so deeply felt. We live in a world, so
views seemed to confirm the myths about fatwa was an attempt by Iran to wrestle the argument runs, in which there are
the Danish cartoons. back the initiative. deep-seated conflicts between cultures
The template for this kind of myth- The Rushdie affair was a watershed in embodying different values, many of
making was the Salman Rushdie affair. western political and cultural life. It was which are incommensurate but all of
More than twenty years on from the through the Rushdie affair that many of which are valid in their own context. For
fatwa, we have come to accept almost as the issues that now dominate political such diverse societies to function and to
self-evident the idea that the worldwide debate – multiculturalism, free speech, be fair, we need to show respect for other
controversy was sparked by the radical Islam, terrorism – first came to the peoples, cultures, and viewpoints. Social
blasphemies in The satanic verses, which surface. It was also through the Rushdie justice requires not just that individuals
all Muslims found deeply offensive. It is affair that our thinking about these issues are treated as political equals, but also
not true. began to change. that their cultural beliefs are given equal
The satanic verses was published The controversy over The satanic verses recognition and respect.
in September 1988. For the next five was primarily a political, not religious, This is the philosophy of

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to be the true voice of Islam by denying means almost the opposite – a radical is a
“... I do not have a beard, I wear legitimacy to such critics. And they religious fundamentalist.
succeeded at least in part because secular Why the shift? Largely because of
a suit, I drink – so I am not a
liberals embraced them as the authentic disenchantment with the secular left, on
real Muslim. But, the majority of voice of the Muslim community. the one hand, and the institutionalisation
The United Kingdom Action Committee of multicultural policies, on the other.
Muslims in Denmark are more like
on Islamic Affairs (UKACIA), the principal Disenchantment with secular politics,
me than they are like Abu Laban.” anti-Rushdie campaign in Britain, was the disintegration of the left, and the
comprised largely of organisations abandonment by the left of the politics
When I was growing up in the
inspired by radical Islamism. These of universalism in favour of ethnic
1980s, the concept of a radical in groups came to form the core of the particularism, has helped push many
Muslim Council of Britain (MCB), which young, secular Asians towards Islamism
a Muslim context meant someone
was set up in 1977 and quickly became as an alternative worldview. At the same
who was a militant secularist, accepted by policymakers and journalists time, the emergence of multiculturalism,
as the voice of British Islam. and of identity politics, has helped
someone who challenged not
“The overwhelming number create more tribal societies and eroded
just racism but the power of the of organisations that the [British] aspirations to a universal set of values.
government talks to,” says sociologist Within Muslim communities, these
mosques too. Someone like me.
Chetan Bhatt, an expert on religious developments have helped undermine
Today, of course, it means almost extremism, “are influenced by, progressive trends and strengthened the
dominated by, or are front organisations hand of religious bigots. Secular Muslims
the opposite – a radical is a
of, the Jamaat-e-Islami and the Muslim have come to be regarded as betraying
religious fundamentalist. Brotherhood. Their agenda is strictly their culture, while radical Islam has
based on the politics of the Islamic radical become not just more acceptable but,
Why the shift?
right, it does not represent the politics or to many, more authentic. As the secular
aspirations of the majority of Muslims in tradition has been squeezed out, the only
multiculturalism. And in the multicultural this country.” place offering shelter to disaffected youth
world, the avoidance of cultural pain has Indeed it does not. Polls have has been militant Islam.
come to be regarded as more important consistently found that only around 5% Liberal multicultural policies have
than what is often seen as an abstract right think that the MCB represented them. not created radical Islam, but they have
to freedom of expression. As sociologist But, the official support given to such helped create a space for it in western
Tariq Modood has put it, “If people are to organisations in the post-Rushdie era societies that previously had not existed.
occupy the same political space without has distorted perceptions of Muslim They have also provided a spurious moral
conflict, they mutually have to limit the communities in Britain and to a certain legitimacy to Islamist arguments. Every
extent to which they subject each other’s degree, Muslim self-perceptions too. And time a politician denounces an offensive
fundamental beliefs to criticism.” not just in Britain. work, every time a newspaper apologises
In the post-Rushdie world, liberals There has been, Naser Khader suggests, for causing offence, every time a journalist
have effectively internalised the fatwa. a similar process in Denmark. “Just tells someone like Naser Khader that he
The consequence of all this has been months before the cartoon controversy, is not a real Muslim, they strengthen the
that liberals have come to support the the prime minister had invited Abu Laban moral claims of the Islamists.
most reactionary figures within the to a conference on terrorism. People like There will always be extremists
Muslim community. Rushdie’s critics no me kept saying, ‘They only represent a who attempt to murder cartoonists or
more spoke for the Muslim community few people.’ But nobody listened. The firebomb newspaper offices. There is little
than Rushdie himself did. Both government thought if they talked to we can do about them. What we can do is
represented different strands of opinion someone who looked like a Muslim, then refuse to create a culture that emboldens
within Muslim communities, just as Naser they were talking to real Muslims. I do such people by accepting their voices as
Khader and Abu Laban do. not look like what they think a Muslim somehow legitimate. �
Rushdie gave voice to a radical, should look like – I do not have a beard,
secular sentiment that in the 1980s was I wear a suit, I drink – so I am not a real
deeply entrenched. Rushdie’s critics Muslim. But, the majority of Muslims in
spoke for some of the most conservative Denmark are more like me than they are
strands. Their campaign against The like Abu Laban.” Kenan Malik – writer, lecturer, and
satanic verses was not to protect Muslim When I was growing up in the 1980s,
broadcaster – is the author of From fatwa
communities from unconscionable attack the concept of a radical in a Muslim context
from anti-Muslim bigots but to protect meant someone who was a militant to jihad: The Rushdie affair and its legacy
their own privileged position within secularist, someone who challenged not (Atlantic Books, 2009). Online: kenanmalik.
those communities from political attack just racism but the power of the mosques com. This article first appeared in Eurozine.
from radical critics, to assert their right too. Someone like me. Today, of course, it Reprinted by special arrangement.

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