The last few weeks have seen the stirrings of what may become the basis for another world-wide Muslim protest movement like those about the Rushdie fitna and the Danish cartoons insulting the Prophet (saw). Beaufort House, a minor publisher in the US, has published a sleazy work of fiction called The Jewel of Medina, by Sherry Jones, which has been described as a work of “soft porn” set in the time of the Prophet and taking a bowdlerised version of the life of Hadhrat A’isha (r.a.) as its theme. (A useful assessment of the book by a Muslim writer, Shelina Zahra Janmohamed, is available on the BBC website.) Publication of the book in the UK has been suspended after an arson attack on the prospective publishers there, Gibson Square Books; three Muslims have been charged over the attack. Muslim suspicions about the book have been confirmed by non-Muslim commentators such as Denise Spellberg, a professor of History and Middle Eastern Studies at the University of Texas, who wrote in the Wall Street Journal that “There is a long history of anti-Islamic polemic that uses sex and violence to attack the Prophet and his faith. This novel follows in the oft-trodden path, one first pioneered by medieval Christian writings.”
It may not be a coincidence that this new fitna arises almost exactly 20 years after the publication of Rushdie’s novel in September 1988. The anniversaries of key moments of the Rushdie affair – particularly Imam Khomeini’s fatwa in February 1989 – will no doubt be the basis of much media discussion next year, particularly in the UK; certainly the BBC is planning major programmes to mark them. (This writer was approached to discuss the role of Dr Kalim Siddiqui on one program, before the BBC decided to proceed without him.) The fact that Rushdie and his book remain in circulation will no doubt be used as grounds for liberal triumphalism, with the whole affair characterised as a disaster for Muslims and community relations. Considering the problems subsequently caused for Muslims in Britain, this is a view which some Muslims may be tempted to agree with; but this would be a mistake. The fact is that the protest over the Rushdie fitna has had at least three major and positive results, which represent significant achievements.
The first is that no-one in the West can claim not to understand or appreciate Muslim concerns over the representation of Islam, its history and its historic figures in the West. Many ideological liberals may maintain a contemptuous disdain for Muslims and Islam, proclaiming their right to “freedom of speech” and “artistic expression”, regardless of the self-censorship they exercise when others’ sensitivities are at stake, but the vast majority of ordinary people in the West now realise that Muslims have certain red lines which they will not passively allow people to cross. The fact that Random House sought advice on Jones’ book, and then decided not to publish it, is significant; and in stark contrast to the way Muslim concerns about Rushdie’s book were initially treated, when similar sensitivity from its publishers could have avoided so much trouble. It is clear now that only those whose actual object is to cause offense and controversy, as in the case of the Danish cartoons for ideological reasons, and the Jones book for what appear to be commercial reasons, will still proceed with such projects.
The second is that the clear gap in norms, values and understanding between liberals and Muslims has become clear for all to see. It has always been there, but too many Muslims tended – as some still do – to be taken in by the liberals’ avowed commitment to freedom, tolerance and pluralism. The realization of the limits of this tolerance, and the fact that liberals are as intolerant of things they disagree with as anyone else, and as judgemental and arrogant as anyone else, may have come as a shock to some, but at least clarifies where Muslims living in western societies stand in relation to mainstream opinion and institutions.
And thirdly, in Britain, the implications of the Rushdie affair contributed greatly to the consolidation and organization of the Muslim community. The initial vehicle for that mobilization, the Muslim Parliament established by Dr Kalim Siddiqui, who emerged as champion of the Muslim position during the Rushdie affair, may have collapsed after his death, but the impact of the Rushdie protests is still evident in many other ways. Far from being cowed, British Muslims are more confident and more assertive in addressing their problems than ever before.
So when Muslims are told, as we will be ad nauseum, that the Rushdie affair was a defeat for Muslims and a disaster for community relations, they should know better and have the confidence to say so.
[Iqbal Siddiqui publishes his own blog, A Sceptical Islamist]