Making the British Muslim: Representations of the Rushdie Affair and Figures of the War-On-Terror Decade

  • Book Title:
 Making The British Muslim
  • Book Author:
Nicole Falkenhayner
  • Total Pages
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  • Acknowledgements vi
  • Introduction 1
  • Part I The Rushdie Affair
  • Transnational Takeovers 23
  • Translation Failures 36
  • After the Fatwa 64
  • Part II Figurations after the Event
  • The Fanatic Son 95
  • Making the British Muslim in Literature 110
  • Making the British Muslim in Film and Autobiography 138
  • Part III Eventalization Templates
  • Eventalizing the British Muslim 153
  • The Figure of the Muslim in Europe 168
  • Conclusion 180
  • Notes 188
  • Bibliography 205
  • Index 216
  • v


The year 2009 saw the commemoration of the fall of the Berlin Wall. The images of the ‘wallpeckers’ at Berlin’s former Todesstreifen had become the symbolic embodiments of the major shift in the post-WWII world order and greeted newspaper readers, TV viewers and bloggers on a nearly daily basis. But the previous eight years had entailed another shift that, in the present of 2009, demanded to be narrated even more urgently.

Since 9/11, another proclaimed end-fight between the forces of good and evil had incorporated the rhetoric visions that had been well rehearsed by politics and the public culture of the USA’s allies and prodi- gies during the Cold War era.1 Good, we had been told by George W. Bush’s hawks, were the USA and Europe, now including its new states, once lodged behind the Berlin Wall in the hold of the grand narrative of ‘really existing’ socialism. But evil had undergone a makeover.

 This new evil, the media audiences of the West were told, was embodied by the bearded head of Osama Bin Laden, who symbolized the suppos- edly globalized threat of Islam. Accordingly, an earlier event of 1989 was discussed as part of the social memory of that year: the Rushdie affair surrounding the publication of Salman Rushdie’s satirical novel The Satanic Verses (1988). In a classic ‘after this, therefore because of this’ storyline, the belief-war that had developed around Rushdie’s book had to be seen in conjunction with the fall of Communism. Just as one totalitarianism was losing steam, cultural commentators now told us, another one had encroached on unsuspecting liberals. But, again, this is only half the story behind the now combined memories of wallpeckers and book-burners.

In 2009 the political, societal and cultural impacts of 9/11 in the West were looming large and were starting to be investigated from a historical and critical view of culture aimed less at Islamism than at this West itself.

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Rubbing our eyes, we slowly developed a self-reflexive assess- ment of what had happened to the West while it was hauling missiles – real and rhetorical – at what it believed was Islam. The trouble with this ‘new evil’ was that it had made the well-rehearsed topography of the Cold War rhetorical vision collapse. Islamism was not nicely and neatly locatable behind some well-entrenched wall.

The eeriness that haunted the new Western anxiety narrative was that its enemy was not somewhere outside itself – even if waging war in Afghanistan and Iraq were desperate attempts to find an outside location, as much as the rhetoric that had made Islam the West’s Other yet again. This Other, which the West had declared its new enemy in the shock of 9/11, was an enemy within, which made the new enemy more uncomfortable than the Other of Communism.

 What the post-9/11 grand narrative of culture shock had dramatically declared its enemy was already part of the West. It thus led to the new episteme of security and surveil- lance folding unto the centre itself; and only now does the Western public seem to awaken to the effects of surveillance state licences, such as the Patriot Act. Faced with such world-changing political situations, why was the memory of a media event surrounding a book suddenly so important?

The commemoration of the Rushdie affair made it possible to establish the story of Islamism in Europe, and to develop a genealogy that led from this event up to the homegrown Islamist attacks on the London transport system in 2005. The young European and Arab mujahedin of the 1990s Balkan wars, Islamization in the European centres, the mega- event of 9/11, the Madrid bombings and the Danish cartoon controversy could now be lodged as steps in this genealogy that was drawn forth from what was positioned as an inaugurating event.

 The European coun- try most engaged in developing this narrative was Britain, Rushdie’s chosen home for many decades, and a country with a Muslim popu- lation of fewer than 2 million, or not more than 2.7 per cent of the total population.2

 The scale of public interest that has been focused on this minority in Britain in recent years, the number of books, arti- cles and TV programmes, government statements and policies engaged with what one could satirically call ‘the British Muslim question’, stands hardly in relation to the fact of Muslims being actually a small minority.

But British Muslims, like Muslims in other European states, had become highly symbolic: they were represented, researched and targeted as the test case of Europe’s now deeply heterogeneous societies, and as the rhetorical battleground on which the ideological wars of Europe’s globalization anxiety were played out.

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The Rushdie affair of 1989 seemed to fit neatly into an emerging genealogy of British Islamism – as much as into attempts to historicize the emergence of British Muslims as public actors. For many it had become an event of inauguration either for Islamism in the West or for the emergence of an assertive European Islam.

 In Britain, two monographs were published in 2009 that commemorated the Rushdie affair, and their titles are revealing: publicist Kenan Malik’s From Fatwa to Jihad: The Rushdie Affair and its Legacy3 and A Mirror for Our Times: The ‘Rushdie Affair’ and the Future of Multiculturalism4 by religious scholar Paul Weller. The two, both broad assessments of the media material that the Rushdie affair provides in abundance, differ in their conclusions as well as in the story that they wish to tell. For Kenan Malik, the Rushdie affair is the symbol of what he sees as the failures of the British politics of multiculturalism that followed it. For him, here was the first event that culturalized British social politics to the effect that cultural difference became its most prevalent idiom.

Malik laments how, during the 1990s and early 2000s, ‘cultural sensibilities’ started to dominate political demands for equal rights and equal access to resources in society. For the political publicist, British multiculturalism was a system of boxes into which people were lodged and were lodging themselves according to belief, race or creed.

 The Muslims of Britain, he asserts, became big players in the culturalist game – but, due to radical Islamist influence, they also became its biggest losers.

Weller, on the other hand, collects the massive amount of media material that ‘made’ the Rushdie affair into a media event. When one reads these accounts – the sheer mass of newspaper articles and edi- torials, learned papers, commentary and explanations of, variously, free speech, the Koran, and postmodern literature, the demands and life circumstances of Muslims in Britain, the cultural elitism of both the Thatcherite and the post-Marxist elites in the British public – the Rushdie affair suggests at first glance Jürgen Habermas’ dream come true.

Here we find massive public communication about one topic, stretch- ing from the publication date of The Satanic Verses until far into the 1990s and continuing into the recent past, with renewed interest after Rushdie became an MBE in 2007. But, as one glances over the topics and rhetoric of these materials, Habermasian enthusiasm is in for a big disappointment: more or less all of this material bespeaks con- flict, broadens differences even where it wishes to bridge, and freezes communication into parroting the repetitive arguments of irreconcil- ability of the rifts between East and West, liberalism and Islam, belief and postmodern play. Weller, in his introduction, is careful to stress the large-scale relevance of the Rushdie affair as the ‘original controversy’ for the post-9/11 present:

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It is argued that a number of more recent incidents and develop- ments have reprised aspects of the original controversy and that these have echoed and/or further developed some of its ‘entails’. These include the 2004 killing of the Dutch film-maker, Theo van Gogh; the 2005 ‘Cartoons’ controversy around the Danish newspa- per Jyllands Posten, and the terror attacks of 9/11 (New York and the Pentagon, USA, 2001), 11/3 (Madrid, Spain, 2003), and 7/7 (London, UK, 2005). (8–9)

So here we had an original event that needed to be embedded in a quasi-causal story – Both Malik’s and Weller’s books are attempts at the historization of Islamism in Britain. The trajectory of representing the affair chosen by both of the monographs is to show the development of Islamism in the West, and in Europe in particular by positioning a historical node, a true beginning.

The Rushdie affair is established as the inaugural point of departure in the narrative of radicalization that both authors unfold, thereby adding new meaning to an event from the past. While the determination of a set of meanings that constitutes the event and the change of these meanings over time are also the interests of this study, I will choose another route of investigation.

I am less interested in validating a narrative that made the Rushdie affair a node for public memory than I am interested in answering the questions regarding why, how and for which aims it was remembered at all.

This book investigates the main tropes of the Rushdie affair through a comparative discussion of selected media material from both factual and fictional sources. The basic aim of doing this is to elicit those tropes that were the most prevalent ones and to analyse the style of rhetoric and messages that can be received from media representations. I then follow their remediations through cultural work, and the figures that spawn from these remediations of events during the Rushdie affair.

 The ‘from fatwa to jihad’ story that I wish to tell is therefore of another kind. It can be seen as an investigation into the making of this story, rather than an attempt at validating or falsifying the story. This would be beside the point because it is not the task of cultural inquiry to prove its object of inquiry right or wrong. It is interested foremost in the circulation of representations concerning constructions of the social figure British Muslim since the Rushdie affair. It is, in Part II of this study, especially interested in the

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