Article de John Barrett paru dans Here and Now, no. 9, 1989, p. 3-5
After a brave foray into leafleting a Leeds March, John Barrett examines he Muslim mobilisation against the « Satanic Verses » and the liberal Rationality enshrined in Western notions of ‘freedom’.
Probably against reason, two members of the West Yorkshire Discussion Group decided to leaflet the demonstration against The Satanic Verses which was held in Leeds last March. The leaflet was printed up at short notice by another member, and the Legalise Blasphemy Campaign founded for the purposes of the intervention. It was important to imply that we were standing against all religions which seek to circumscribe the freedom of others. Brevity was considered more important than detailed polemic.
The demonstration, overwhelmingly made up of Britons from the Indian sub-continent, marched from Chapeltown to Leeds Civic Hall. Slogans included: ‘Freedom of Speech – Yes! Freedom of Insult – No!’, ‘Iran – you are not alone!’, ‘Come out Rushdie – You Mouse’ and ‘Down with Western Atheism’. Pictures of Khomeini were held and chants in what I assume was Punjabi, and shouts of ‘Death to Rushdie’ and ‘Rushdie is the Devil’. The Yorkshire Evening Post estimated 2.000 people. Before we actually began leafletting it transpired that two people were beaten up by about 30 of the crowd for shouting ‘Freedom of Speech’ at the demo (if we’d known this, I don’t think we would have begun).
Demonstrators quickly engaged us in conversations when leafletting began, with one of us doing the majority of the talking. Quite soon a sizeable crowd formed around us as the case against restricting ‘The Satanic Verses’ to unbelievers like ourselves was put. There were a number of reactions. On the one hand there were some measured arguments delivered by some 30-40 year olds to the effect that the insult to Muslims contained in the book was so grave that banning it should take place ‘just as Spycatcher was banned’. These people seemed quite happy to argue with us. although I think they doubted our motives. There were some older Muslims who simply said ‘He has insulted our religion. You hate insulted our religion’, who were not open to argument. As the crowd grew some younger guys took up the argument in more strident and aggressive tones. A few of them were dressed in traditional robes. They asked us whether we thought Mein Kampf should be available for people to read. When we pointed out that it was available for people to read, they accused us of condoning the holocaust and screwed up some of our leaflets. There was both aggression and a willingness to argue, and stewards from the demonstration shepherded people away if the argument looked like becoming too heated. We didn’t hang around, and alter handing out a few leaflets to passers-by (some of whom affected to be frightened of receiving them) we left.
On reflection it was probably a good job there were only two of us, although this made us vulnerable. Numbers would not have made our argument any stronger, and our intention was to present an example of reasoned opposition, not intimidation. We didn’t persuade anyone, and I don’t think we expected to, we were hoping to sow a seed of doubt in someone.
The ‘Rushdie Affair’ throws out challenges to the radical movement which have been barely acknowledged. Billed as a struggle between radical scepticism and superstitious obscurantism, very real awkwardnesses have been stifled by such a simplification.
The first awkward reality is how the trend for a ‘non-judgemental approach’ towards other cultures (fostered by the very radical scepticism now challenged by the Islamic Establishment) has laid the basis for the conflict. The retreat from ideas, principles and ethics, and their replacement by a ‘plurality of cultures’ has been caused by a profound self-consciousness on behalf of radicals about the ‘Euro-centric’ and ‘culturally specific’ basis of their ideals of freedom, equality and solidarity. Indeed this self-consciousness has been reflected in the British State as a whole where the strategy towards cultures from abroad settling in Britain has been marked by a confusion as to whether assimilation and integration or cultural preservation should be the guiding principle. Broadly the Right and national government have favoured the first, the Left and local government, the second. It should not therefore be so surprising that the Muslim community should take the Left at its word and seek to enforce the dictates of Islamic law wherever there are Muslims.
In fact, written Muslim justifications for the banning of ‘The Satanic Verses’ reflect the rhetoric of the assault upon ‘Western Enlightenment’. Mohammed Arkoun, Professor of Islamic Thought at The Sorbonne writes in ‘Index of Censorship’:
‘… the reaction that begins by invoking the names of Voltaire and Rousseau then goes on to human rights, the freedom of the artist cool the writer etc. refers to known themes and to conquests of the spirit which are indeed precious to all of us. Nonetheless you can’t expect all other cultures to follow the trajectory traced for the last two centuries by France and Europe. To hold fast to this discourse alone would be to demand of other cultures that they enclose themselves in a specifically Western tradition or historical, intellectual and artistic development. This in turn would he a repetition of the colonial discourse, which ‘legitimated’ the domination of other people and cultures by exporting an indigenous civilisation elaborated in Europe’.
Here the same literary techniques as were exposed by Frank Dexter in the last issue of HERE AND NOW are used to make a complex relation a simple equation – Enlightenment = colonialism. What began as an attempt to undermine the arrogant presumption of certain Western thinkers who extrapolated the particular of Europe onto the universal of the World, now finds itself being roped in to defend the persecutions of authoritarian priests. The fact that ‘Enlightenment’ and ‘the West’ are neither philosophical nor political unities is conveniently forgotten by the slippery. Professor.
The crisis of confidence in the ideals of social hope does not only allow sophisticated logic-choppers like the professor to get his foot in the door, but far more seriously has generated a kind of cynical conservatism which has encouraged authoritarians from the streets of Leeds and Bradford to the mosques of Iran. The extent to which this conservatism has advanced can be seen in the approach of the British media to countries such as Iran (and which also, until recently, characterised much of the coverage of China).
In an article in the same Index on Censorship (5/89) Farzaneh Asari, an Iranian exile, outlined the conventional wisdom of the British media that Iran can only sustain either a Shah-type dictatorship or a Khomeini type theocracy. Such ‘wisdom’ condemns to nothing the aspirations of ordinary people in Iran for political freedom and social improvement which briefly came to the fore in the days of the Iranian Revolution before Khomeini took it over. The attitude is exposed by Asari in an article by Simon Jenkins in The Sunday Times (19/2):
‘[The alternative to the Shah] was never a benign democracy. It was either a fierce military dictatorship or a primitive theocracy. Like most of the developing world, Iran was searching not for the best form of government but for the least had. It got the worst… No longer can we dismiss all ‘strong leadership’ governments as fascists and evil merely because they sometimes use authoritarian methods to maintain order and prosperity. Such a moral cosiness is simply out of date, a relic of Europe’s 19th century liberal imperialists’.
Once again the necessary conflation (liberal imperialism) is used to support a despairing argument. Anyone using such a phrase clearly doesn’t know anything about liberalism or imperialism, neither of which have much to do with the internally generated (and internally suppressed) aspirations of people in the ‘developing world’ for the ‘best form of government’. Asari comments:
‘What is significant in Jenkins’ attitude is the permanent condemnation of the vast majority of humanity to a set of sub-human standards, according to which they may swing or hang between the Ayatollah and the Shah. Gone is the universal declaration of human rights, not as practical proposition, which it has never been, but as an ideal – wallow which full-blooded apartheid on a world-scale is the only logical proposition: a proposition with which Khomeini could not agree more‘.
The real sufferers from Islamic fundamentalism have been neither Salman Rushdie, nor Europe. nor America, nor the Soviet Union; it has been the Iranian people in particular and the masses of Muslim countries in general. Since the end of July 1988 over a thousand people have been executed in Iran, labour camps are now being set up to ‘rehabilitate’ over a million drug addicts (Independent 20/6), whereas the wider Muslim world holds the 1988 record for political executions. If we include the carnage of the Iran/Iraq war which left 1.8 million dead, it is fair to conclude that suspension of judgement for the sake of cultural diversity contradicts the radical spirit in whose name this suspension is performed.
Unlike Christianity, Islam from its inception has been attached to a state (The Prophet Mohammed as the ruler of the city state of Medina) and this might explain the difficulty Islam is experiencing when it becomes separate from the State. Which is not to say that there are not Muslims who are attempting to speed the process towards toleration, such as the Nigerian, Wole Soyinka, who has called on the U.N. to declare the 1990’s a ‘Decade for Secular Options’ and has condemned fundamentalism in the following terms:
‘What response…. Can we offer when…. horrifying events are sanctioned and promoted by a corporate existence which we call a state, when mass executions are routine, for no other cause than the courage of the victims which nerve them to resist state demands that they renounce their faith? A state where women are publicly lashed and even stoned to death for their refusal to submit to the jealously guarded dictatorship of male priesthood in matters of dressing or appearance? Where criminals, dissidents, adherents of dissenting faiths and economic saboteurs are lumped together under convenient titles as ‘agents of Satan on earth’, ‘enemies of the Living Faith’ and other versions of religious rhetoric which then become their own authority for their consequent imprisonment. torture and dehumanisation’.(Index on Censorship 5/89).
But even acknowledging the presence (and past existence especially in the 9th century) of a questioning Islamist faith does not expel the fear of the triumph of a totalitarian version of the religion in this country. Other factors militate towards it.
One of those factors is the continuing decomposition of the idea of a ‘Black’ identity embracing Africans, Afro-Caribbcans and Asians from the Indian sub-continent. The polarity of black/white has not served Asians, and in particular Muslim Asians, well. An example of this can be seen in the Labour Party Black Sections movement insistence of a ratio of of 50:50 Asian and Afro-Caribbean despite the population ratio of 2.5 to 1… The ferment against ‘The Satanic Verses’ represents an assertion of Muslim identity separate from a ‘Black’ one (as well as being separate from the host ‘White’ one). The consolidation of the Imams power in Bradford has also been aided by the furore which seems to have silenced the Pakistani Left as feelings of entrenchment and isolation (sonic inspired by racial attacks, some inspired by bizarre notions of a Western conspiracy against Islam) serve to strengthen the traditional power structures. A side-effect of this affair should be the final burial of the notion that ethnic minorities are somehow a natural repository of radical and libertarian ideas. Nor has the parasitic relationship of the Labour Party with ‘its’ ethnic minorities escaped exposure as the absence of radical socialist voices from the Muslim communities (with the exception of literati like Tariq Ali, or Rushdie himself) reveals Labour’s failure to impart even the most basic of socialist principles, such as freedom of expression, to its once-captive constituency.
The self-assertion of Islam in Britain appears against a background of Muslim invisibility, either in the category of black, or as a passive constituency of Labour voting small shopkeepers. But there is also another awkwardness which has aided the resurgence of this religion in its fundamentalist forms (and which is reflected less dramatically in other religions). This awkwardness emerges from the perceived spiritual wasteland of the ‘West’.
Nobody looked very rich on the demonstration. Amidst the photos of Khomeini and the veiled-up women’s section could be detected a defiance that went beyond the demand for the extension of the blasphemy laws. It was a ceremony a living faith directed against a cadaverous secularity which threatened to take even this away from them. Writing in the Guardian (27/2) Shabbir Akhtar said:
‘Many writers often condescendingly imply that Muslims should become as tolerant as modern Christians. After all, the Christians faith has not been undermined. But the truth is, of course, too obviously the other way. The continual blasphemies against the Christian faith have totally undermined it. Any faith which compromises its internal temper of militant wrath is destined for the dustbin of history, for it can no longer preserve its faithful heritage in the face of the corrosive influences‘.Quoted in ‘Labour & Trade Union Review’ (see note 1).
The true comparison for the Rushdie affair, and which has been expediently forgotten amidst the cant about Spycatcher. is the controversy over the film ‘The Last Temptation of Christ’. There, despite the efforts of sonic priests and demonstrations outside cinemas the spirit of secularity completely defeated the Christian lobby. It is precisely this weakness which the Muslims do not want to repeat.
To Islam Christianity and secularity are indistinguishable. Picking up (again) from ‘post modern’ theorists on the exhaustion of the ‘Western project’ Islamists put their religion forward as part of the solution to the disenchanted Enlightenment:
‘In fact I believe the teaching of the history of religions has particularly suffered from dogmatic secularism. The general culture of Europe remains impregnated by the philosophy of the Enlightenment, which has admittedly permitted real progress [notably in its affirmation of human rights], but within a cultural framework that today seems to me to be outmoded… The West’s perception of human rights, grounded in positivist and historicist rationalism, only reinforces its misunderstanding with Islam, which has thought out the issue of human rights in the grander context or the Rights of God, by which I mean the space open to the Absolute of God, as defined in the metaphor of the olive tree’.Mohammed Arkoun (I. of C. 5/89).
Such a statement represents both a caricature of the ‘West and if it had been more carefully targetted, a fair criticism of certain tendencies in the modern world (and that includes Islamic States). For the hegemony of technological forces and functional thinking has brought about, as G.K. Chesterton remarked, the kind of madness where one loses everything but one’s reason. At this level Islam represents a real challenge to the bland, smug and complacent optimism of a rationalist-utilitarian establishment which considers that the world has somehow outgrown its capacity for radical evil. The notion that all the world needs is a further extension of technological expertise and market relations, which seems to be a common ideology of ruling classes East and West (with only the partial exception of Iran) clearly is beginning to grate on significant proportions of the world’s population. And in as far as the ‘irrational’ idea of reverence For something is sneered at by all the secular ideologies, some understanding can be gained of the very public manifestations of faith which the British Muslims arc exhibiting. And it is certainly that rejection of the limits of reason which has made Khomeini a surrogate (and now from beyond the grave) leader. In a lecture ‘Veils of Darkness, Veils of Light’ Khomeini writes:
‘It has been said that ‘Knowledge is the thickest of all veils’, for pursuit of knowledge causes man to be preoccupied with rational and general concepts and hinders him from embarking on the path. The more knowledge increases, the thicker the veil becomes, and the scholar may come to imagine that the knowledge he has achieved rationally represents everything. For man is arrogant as long as his skin contains him, and ally branch of learning he has studied and mastered he regards as the sum total of perfection.
Khomeini also appeals to those who cannot accept modern capitalism’s cult of the commodity:
‘The criterion is attachment, the ties that bind man to things. These ties may make man on enemy of God when he sees them being severed at the end of his life, so that he then leaves the world in a state of enmity towards God. So, curtail your attachments: we will leave this world whether or nut we are bound in affection to something’.
As long as the ‘West’ is associated with the culture of indulgence and immediacy, of the absence of the idea of the sacred, of the reduction of human experience to its functional necessities writ large, then Islam, and all the other authoritarian religions have an opening.
HORSES OF INSTRUCTION
However, perhaps the time has come to stop talking about the ‘West’ at all. The idea that all the phenomena of Europe. America and Australia can be wrapped up in one category seems absurd. For as long as rationalist-utilitarianism has held sway it has had its indigenous opposition. It is as much a mistake to identify the ‘West’ as a consistent body of ideas as it is to identify the people of Iran with Islamic fundamentalism. For a start the proliferation of non-State religions indicate that the idea of sacred and the idea of authority can be separated.
The critique of the domesticating and pacifying nature of a rationalism that insists on reducing everything to the banality of the manipulable is as much internal. as external to the ‘West’. As Ian Sampson identified in HERE & NOW 7/8 the refusal of radical reasoners to recognise the real need for the idea of a spiritual homecoming has let all kinds of messianic tendencies out of the box. sometimes with terrible results. William Blake warned some time ago that « The tigers of wrath are wiser than the horses of instruction », and the horses are continually being surprised by the skin-deep nature of reason amongst people despite ‘education’. However, it is equally a mistake to succumb to the temptations of religion which have prepared for the faithful an understanding of the world no less limited and disenchanting than that of scientific management. Secularity and toleration are achievements which once a society strays from tend to lead to tyranny and witch-hunting. In the ‘postmodern’ world the pre-modern is a perpetual attraction, but to succumb is only to prolong the agony of the return of doubt and freedom. The attempt to re-establish a mythical human community in Kampuchea (see HERE & NOW NO.1) was a secular version same impulse. Any idea of the Universal for human beings will have to include the apparent opposites of enchantment and toleration, spiritually and materialism, awe in the sacred and scientific understanding of the real. And, perhaps already glimpses of a possible reconciliation can be seen in the developments of modern science – an investigation which perhaps this magazine could encourage. The twin dangers of dogmatism and relativism have been exposed by the Rushdie affair – we cannot swing between these two positions forever.
1) Labour & Trade Union Review is the journal of The Ernest Bevin Society, which seems to have developed from the heretical British and Irish Communist Organisation. Some of the ideas of this article have come from this journal available from 114 Lordship Road, London, N16 0QP. For an anti-Rushdie, pro-visionary stance see ‘Rush-die’s Insult’ by John Michell, 11 Powis Gardens. London, W 11.