From Fatwa to Jihad

Is multiculturalism to blame for further alienating Muslims who live in Western countries?

From Fatwa to Jihad: The Rushdie Affair and its Aftermath By Kenan Malik Melville House 266 pp., $25

In his engaging book, From Fatwa to Jihad, Kenan Malik posits that the late Ayatollah Khomeini’s 1989 fatwa against Indian-British novelist Salman Rushdie (for blaspheming Islam in “The Satanic Verses”) was a beginning. According to Malik, that was the event that marked the starting whistle in a contest between Enlightenment notions of free expression and the most extreme interpretations of Islam.

Malik, himself an Indian-British journalist, aruges that multiculturalism has failed to harmonize relations between British Muslims and their countrymen, succeeding instead in fostering a culture of grievance and alienation that ultimately led to the July 2005 train bombings in London by homegrown jihadists.

In the British context, multiculturalism was an implicit bargain between the state and self-appointed minority community leaders whereby the former would grant the latter prestige and funds in exchange for votes and tranquility, says Malik. But the deal has backfired, and the loudest and most extreme Muslim leaders have been granted legitimacy as the authentic representatives of diverse communities. Worse, Western apologies in the face of threats have only emboldened Islamist extremists.

Malik’s is a liberal self-critique of the sort that has become familiar since 9/11, with Paul Berman’s “Terror and Liberalism” leading the way in a mini-genre that includes Nick Cohen’s “What’s Left?,” Bernard-Henri Levy’s “Left in Dark Times,” and the writings of Christopher Hitchens. Unlike those works, however, “From Fatwa to Jihad” is persuasive more often than not.

The primary idea of “From Fatwa to Jihad” is that the right to free expression should always outweigh any right to not be offended. Distasteful though some people might find certain words and pictures, Malik makes the case that the moral and pragmatic arguments on behalf of state censorship do not hold up to scrutiny.

“Freedom of speech,” he quotes Supreme Court Justice Hugo Black writing in 1961, “must be accorded to ideas we hate or sooner or later it will be denied to ideas we cherish.” This is as convincing now as it was 50 years ago. The repeated examples of publishing houses and museums bowing before Islamist threats are troubling. “Nobody would have the [courage] today to write ‘The Satanic Verses,’ let alone publish it,” Malik quotes playwright Hanif Kureishi as saying – a chilling observation.

But Malik is mistaken in describing this censorious violence as uniquely Muslim. In March and April of this year, for instance, two Texas performances of the play “Corpus Christi” (which features a gay Jesus character) were cancelled because the theatres received threats. More prominently, artists from Sinead O’Conner to the Dixie Chicks have been the subject of violent taunts for their controversial words. Muslim extremists hardly have a monopoly on the urge to use force to censor, as they appear to in this book.

Malik does score some jabs at multiculturalism, describing how it becomes its own worst enemy by permanently isolating communities from one another. Treating diverse, heterogeneous communities as if they are hierarchical monoliths is both inaccurate and unsound. The North American assimilationist model, though not without problems of its own, seems to be better at integrating minorities into the dominant social fabric than the separate-but-equal models of the West and Northern European nations. Muslims are having trouble integrating into Europe, and the problem only seems to be getting worse.

But “From Fatwa to Jihad” treats both anti-Islamic prejudice and Western attacks on Muslim majority countries as irrelevant or non-existent, obscuring much of the explanations for the anger Muslims have towards the West. “[F]or most Islamists their understanding of these conflicts rarely goes beyond TV footage or video clips,” Malik writes, as if one must have a PhD in Arab History to oppose carpet bombing.

The fact is that poll after poll has shown that the world’s Muslims overwhelmingly admire Western science, technology, institutions, and ideas, but despise Western military interventions in Muslim countries. Muslims are not seeing things when they imagine US support for Israeli actions, the continued occupations of Iraq and Afghanistan, and material support for autocratic governments in Egypt, Jordan, Pakistan, and Saudi Arabia.

Ceasing these actions, along with Malik’s prescriptions of maintaining essential free speech liberties and abandoning multiculturalism, will go a long way towards more smoothly integrating Muslims in Western countries.

Jordan Michael Smith has written for The Atlantic, the Boston Globe, Newsweek, and The New Republic.

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