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Kenan Malik on 20 years after the fatwa on Salman Rashdie

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When Ayatollah Khomeini issued a fatwa against Salman Rushdie in 1989, even in Australia, in what was then the outer suburban offices of Penguin Books, fear changed the way we not only acted but also thought.

We debated the pros and cons and many of us believed that if people are put at risk by a book and by writing – even by commenting on books and writing – then maybe it’s better if we choose silence.

Twenty years on, British writer Kenan Malik took us back to that time in a book he called From Fatwa to Jihad, showing with measured and powerful analysis how that was a moment that “changed the world”.

Following the murders of journalists at the French magazine Charlie Hebdo, Malik updated his book, reiterating his sharp criticism of Leftist support for dangerous identity politics.

“The Rushdie affair,” he wrote, “gave early notice of the abandonment by many sections of the left of their traditional attachment to ideas of Enlightenment rationalism and secular universalism and their growing espousal of multiculturalism, identity politics and notions of cultural authenticity.”

Malik now campaigns in words to challenge what he sees is the odd situation where both Left and Right claim national identity must be defended.

Malik doesn’t talk much about his background, although he recently wrote an article about growing up in Manchester and the killings at the music concert. That he was born in India to a Muslim father and Hindu mother and arrived aged five to live in England is not something he puts forward to justify his ethical and social thinking about identity politics.

He does talk at his Pandaemonium website about his interest in radical far-Left politics when he was younger, and about how the response to the Rushdie affair changed his mind. He now campaigns in words to challenge what he sees is the odd situation where both Left and Right claim national identity must be defended.

“The consequences of identity politics and of concepts such as cultural appropriation is to bring about not social justice but the empowerment of those who would act as gatekeepers to particular communities,” he says.

He’s been attacked, of course, for criticising multiculturalism policies that curtail freedom of speech, but he shows, in his magisterial new book, The Quest for a Moral Compass, how ethical thinking can provide a path down through history and hopefully into the future.

His books are not widely distributed yet in Australia, but his imminent tour may amend that a little: he begins his tour at Byron Bay Writers Festival from August 4 to 6, then speaks at the Seymour Centre in Sydney on August 8, State Library of NSW on August 10, and finally at Bendigo Writers Festival, August 11-13, where he is in conversation with Tony Walker for La Trobe University’s Ideas and Society talks.

Rosemary Sorensen is director of Bendigo Writers Festival

3 responses to “Kenan Malik on 20 years after the fatwa on Salman Rashdie

  1. Funnily enough, a recent cause-based “do-good” on-line cause offered two tickets to see Cat Stevens to donate to their coffers.

    Initially, my reaction was; that it was both tactless and thoughtless. And explained their gaffe on-line.

    Cat Stevens enthusiastically supported the Fatwa Khomeini placed on Salman Rushdie, for skewering that bushwah’s antics when he lived in Paris. The underage girls, the drugs, the vice that surrounded that miscreant posing as a holy man – an expose that should have been more widely read.

    Then I realised, the proprietors of the particular good cause probably weren’t aware of Steven’s tawdry role in that affair. Nor given their age group, could care less
    .
    And while Trumpalism is not my favourite ice-cream, that Stevens was recently refused entry into the USA may give him cause for pause and reflect on HIS vile behaviour in that affair. On the other hand, I am surprised the Oz Gu’mment allowed Stevens in.

    Ah, well, to each generation, retribution.

  2. “The consequences of identity politics and of concepts such as cultural appropriation is to bring about not social justice but the empowerment of those who would act as gatekeepers to particular communities,” he says. Courageous, succinct and so very much more important, but perhaps touching on same issue as the Ms.Dr.Whocares point Razor makes about representation not being reality,. While all the cool, cultural gatekeepers and representational, shapely stereotypes sit in their snug tithe houses, beyond the gates cold hard reality is softened by heartwarming myths. Look forward to hearing Malik tell the truth to power.

  3. Yes, as Rushdie says about Stevens,” he’s not Cat Stevens anymore, he’s not a good guy”
    Remember he vocally supported the death penalty fatwa on Salman Rushdie and we allowed him a stage to make money here.
    As my local aged lefty said in support “he writes nice songs” says it all eh

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