‘A poet’s work,’ he answers. ‘To name the unnamable, to point at frauds, to take sides, start arguments, shape the world and stop it from going to sleep.’ And if rivers of blood flow from the cuts his verses inflict, then they will nourish him.
— Salman Rushdie, The Satanic Verses, p97.
Kenan Malik has written extensively about multiculturalism and the difficulties of pluralism.
What sets Mr Malik apart from his contemporary commentators is threefold. He has a background in neurobiology and he states forcibly why both sides of multiculturalism debate are wrong. He’s also intensely readable. Malik arrived at Borders Leeds with a minimum of fuss to a strong turn-out. With his only request being for a ‘strong sweet coffee’ we soon started proceedings with Mr Malik outlining the argument of his latest book ‘From Fatwa To Jihad’. A book that charts the social and political history of British Islam flowing from the Rushdie affair right the way up to home grown bombers and current race debates.
Speaking clearly and freely, Malik explained his love for the work of Salman Rushdie. That The Satanic Verves is a post-modern fantasy epic, a picaresque about the birth of Islam. That Rushdie was a hero to many of his generation and a staunch critic of imperialism as well as a charismatic antiracist. He expressed his dismay at not only the severity of the response from hard-line and then moderate Muslim groups, but the weakness of the British government in defending freedom of speech and how the fatwa came out of Iran and Saudi Arabia’s posturing and positioning to lay claim to being the true world leaders of Islam –– not genuine Muslim outrage. What makes the fatwa particularly pernicious was that not only did the Ayatollah issue it against a fierce critic of orientalism, but that Western liberals took it to represent mainstream Islam and criticised Rushdie, his book and those who champion freedom of speech. Not realising it is precisely those who are outside the political mainstream who most benefit from freedom of speech; that it is a fundamental component of open societies and liberal democracy, and that it is certainly not a repressive tool used by the white Western establishment.
Subsequently, ‘liberals’ or ‘progressives’ will now criticise those who exercise their right to freedom of speech as somehow uncaringly belligerent or unduly offensive, harmful, even arrogant. Presumably forgetting that when publishers are firebombed for publishing books, that when filmmakers are stabbed to death or rent-a-mob gatherings spontaneously explode burning effigies and calling for executions, that there is perhaps some imbalance, somewhere, wouldn’t you say?
As soon as questions were opened to the audience, the first to stick her slim hand up was a white middle-class liberal with a stud in her nose who chastised Malik for not respecting Muslim sensibilities. The ridiculousness of this proposition speaks for itself. Before the political elevation of religious leaders by the multicultural model, a radical Muslim was a far left Muslim and often part of the many Socialist, Marxist and Democratic organisations championing equal rights and demanding equality.
By only seeing Islam and British Muslims through the prism of multiculturalism in which religious leaders speak for the mythical ‘community’ we are denying secular, liberal Muslims like Hanif Kureishi and Kenan Malik their freedom as first-class British citizens. It is a form of essentialism, a them and us, the stucco idea that there is a homogenous Muslim community with a fixed identity. It perfectly parallels the view of those on the hard right that see the West and the East as uncompromisingly opposed: the old clash of Civilisation thesis. It is time we allow plurality and freedom of speech back into discussions of Islam and Muslim identity. Give the work of Malik and Kureishi the cultural capital to go on redefining Islamic roles and to not lazily allow the most conservative, regressive and apologist aspects of Islam speak for Muslims as a whole. Otherwise, we will see a continuation of a toxic trait which began to manifest itself at the event: a young Muslim couple sat on the front row only to eyeball, laugh and mock Malik throughout his performance. They could be heard tutting and chastised Malik for using ‘liberals’ as a collective term whilst not allowing it for Muslims. As far as they were concerned, Malik was a traitor the universal and single-minded truth of Islam. He was inviting disrespect upon their religion. Which leads me to the point: ‘liberals’ can be a collective term as it is a description of a set of political beliefs and it is also elective. If we allow no division between religious and political spheres for Islam, and people only want to take purist, literal readings of the Qur’an, then that is discordant with freedom of speech. One critic of his leapt up and shouted ‘but you wouldn’t allow child pornography, would you!’. When we can’t see the difference between abusing children and offending religious sensibility, I can hear the door of liberal democracy being slowly closed.