Britology Watch: Deconstructing \’British Values\’

11 July 2007

Salman Rushdie Affair: Al-Qaeda’s Vain Threats, Britain’s Lame Excuse

Neither Al-Qaeda nor the British government come out of the Salman Rushdie controversy with their reputation enhanced. The threats issued towards Britain yesterday by Osama Bin Laden’s deputy Ayman al-Zawahiri are not only morally unacceptable but betray weakness: you make threats like this when you’re not necessarily in a position to carry them out. Of course, we have to take these threats in deadly earnest. But they’re a rather delayed response to the award of the knighthood to Rushdie, probably largely for logistical reasons. And this does at least indicate that Al-Qaeda is struggling to maintain leadership of the hardline anti-Western Islamic cause. I hesitate to call it the ‘jihadist’ cause (and certainly not the conceptually unhelpful ‘islamist’) because al-Zawahiri refers to a “very precise response”. This suggests a one-off, symbolically targeted attack or series of attacks, not all-out jihad. Al-Qaeda might wish to carry out full-scale jihad but would appear not to be in the position to do so, after all.

Al-Zawahiri’s response was also a highly predictable one: an inevitable consequence of the knighthood award, as I’ve argued in previous blog entries on the Salman Rushdie topic. Rushdie’s much-reviled novel The Satanic Verses is indeed insulting to many Muslims, not just the hardliners; and the British government would have known that awarding an honour to its author would provoke manifestations of more or less orchestrated outrage on the part of Iran, Pakistan, Al-Qaeda and elsewhere. So the decision to go ahead with it was a deliberate choice to fly in the face of such protests and to make Rushdie a symbol of the ‘British way of life’ and its associated ‘values’ that are supposedly under threat from terrorism. As I stated in my article ‘Arise Sir Salman: The New Ambassador For British Values?‘, this was a calculated move designed to stir up Islamophobic sentiment in Britain, and to strengthen support for tougher anti-terror measures and the continuing presence of British armed forces in Afghanistan and Iran.

In this context, the government’s statement rebuffing al-Zawahiri’s threats is remarkably feeble. The Foreign Office maintained that the knighthood had been awarded in ‘reflection of his contribution to literature’. When the award was initially announced, very few people in literary circles thought it was merited on those grounds; although, of course, now many luminaries are running around in Mr Rushdie’s defence, including the novelist-cum-presenter Melvyn Bragg, I noticed last night (was he standing outside 10 Downing Street? . . .).

Downing Street itself stated last night that “The government has already made clear that Rushdie’s honour was not intended as an insult to Islam or the Prophet Muhammad”. Yeah, right! This sort of excuse puts me in mind of a husband and wife row in which the husband knew that something he’s just done would provoke emotional upset on the part of his wife but did it anyway, because he didn’t think that such a response was reasonable! And so the apology goes, ‘Sorry for hurting you, dear’, rather than apologising for the action itself.

But the government must have known the honour would offend many, many Muslims, including many so-called ‘moderates’. And if they genuinely didn’t realise this, what hope have we got that they will ever be able to address the root causes of Islamically inspired terrorism?


25 June 2007

Islamophobia: Driver Of the War On Terror

It used to be said that anti-Catholicism is the anti-semitism of the liberal. It is fairly obvious which religion has taken over that mantle today. Views that would be widely regarded as prejudiced and offensive if directed towards other religious or ethnic groups are often seen as acceptable when expressed about Islam. These opinions and sentiments slip beneath liberals’ politically-correct censorship monitor in the guise of a supposed defence of the very liberal values that dictate political correctness in the first place; above all, in the guise of a defence of tolerance. The consequence is that advocates of the liberal position are frequently completely blind to the Islamophobia they are articulating and helping to inflame.

On Fridays, on the ‘PM’ programme on Radio Four, they round off the week with a review of letters and emails sent by listeners during the course of the preceding days. This last Friday, there were several letters relating to the award of a knighthood to Salman Rushdie. The famous BBC balance was conspicuous by its absence: not a single correspondent cited was critical of the award; there were only ‘indignant-from-Tunbridge Wells’-type comments to the effect of: who did Muslims in Iran and Pakistan think they were, trying to dictate to us who we honour or not, and impinging on our freedom of speech; that, unlike them, we were a tolerant society that accepts the right of people like Rushdie to express their point of view; and were we supposed to live under Shariah law now? It made me feel as though I was in a minority of one.

Implicit or explicit in the PM listeners’ comments was an assumption that Mr Rushdie’s knighthood had been conferred upon him in genuine recognition of the literary merit of his works and, in a more general sense, of their cultural importance in the current context of a perceived threat to Western civilisation from certain quarters of the Islamic world. But it appears totally obvious to me that the whole thing was politically driven. Indeed, comments from the Home Secretary on Wednesday of last week included an admission that senior members of the government had been involved in the decision (see my blog of 21 June). Furthermore, I haven’t heard one voice from the literary establishment who regards the award as merited and timely from a purely literary point of view.

In my blog entry of 19 June, I argued that the political intention behind the award was to express defiance towards Iran, to promote public perception of an increased threat from terrorism (in order to help get the new Terror Bill through parliament), and to tighten the pressure on Muslim communities in this country, which might enable more so-called extremists and terror suspects to be flushed out. A further more general objective, which supports all of these aims, is that of increasing the climate of Islamophobia in Britain. It was evident from the content of the PM mailbag that this was succeeding. Virtually all the correspondence on the subject expressed resentment towards the angry reaction to the knighthood from some Muslims, as reported in the media. And in one or two instances, this resentment was articulated in terms of indifference and even hostility towards the religious basis for Muslims’ sense of hurt. Paraphrasing one comment from memory: ‘I don’t even care about the religious reason for the offence caused; religious people have been getting their way for too long in these matters – why should they continue to dictate to the rest of us any more?’

Before I go any further, it would be useful to clarify what I mean by Islamophobia. This word covers a whole gamut of negative beliefs and attitudes towards Islam and Muslims that are based on prejudice, misconception, blame, resentment and fear. As stated above, it is the same sort of phenomenon as racism or any other form of aggressive prejudice. But what is particularly insidious about Islamophobia in the present context is, as I have said, the way it is articulated in liberal terms. In essence, what unites the liberal critics of Islam and those who express their Islamophobia in cruder, more violent ways is ultimately a wish to displace Islam as the core value system and political philosophy of Muslim-majority countries; even a wish that it had never arisen in the first place. The liberals won’t, can’t, acknowledge this; but their desire for a liberal reform of Islam is predicated on a denial of the validity of Islam’s claims to truth (based on the supposed revelation received by Mohammed) and of the whole system of law and political authority that derives from it. A liberalisation of Islam would in reality be a take-over of the Islamic world by Western liberalism. In those circumstances, law in Muslim countries would be secularised: it would be determined on the basis of rationalist, libertarian and egalitarian principles, not of an unreformed medieval set of rules that have ‘falsely’ passed themselves off as divine writ for 1400-odd years. The public / political and the private / faith spheres would be separated, as they are in the West, and both domains would be thrown open to competition, otherwise known as democracy and freedom of conscience respectively.

Salman Rushdie’s Satanic Verses articulates just such a liberal critique and would-be subversion of the very foundations of Islam. I’ve refreshed my memory of the novel, read for the first time in 1991, when the original fatwa issued against the author by the Iranian Ayatollah Khomeini was still very much in force. What is particularly clever about the book (from a liberal-intellectual point of view), and at the same time Islamophobic (hostile towards Islam, indeed seeking to undermine it) is not so much the substance of what Rushdie writes about Mohammed and the disputed ‘satanic verses’ allegedly accepted into the Qu’ran and then later rejected. The real offence, from the Islamic perspective, is the way the ironic, self-reflexive structures of the novel frame all writing – including that of the Qu’ran – as fundamentally fictive: not containing within itself any absolutely reliable guarantee of its authenticity and truthfulness. I heard one reviewer of this Saturday’s papers on BBC News 24 patronisingly assert that Muslims were being naïve in their indignation at the novel’s version of the ancient legend concerning the satanic verses (that they were in fact the work of the Angel Gabriel himself) because this story, in Rushdie’s novel, was merely a fiction. How silly of them not to realise the distinction! But the whole point about the novel is that it (admittedly, fictively) questions the validity of any distinction between fiction and revelation. So it is not so much the story of the satanic verses – in the novel – that Muslims are reacting to; but the novel The Satanic Verses as a whole, which is turning round to them and saying ‘all you believe in is no different from this novel: a fiction, a fabrication and a lie’. Their reaction to the book was in this sense virtually programmed and anticipated by it: Rushdie calculated the effect, loaded the gun and pulled the trigger.

British politicians and commentators have defended the original decision to approve the publication of The Satanic Verses and the recognition its author has now received, on the basis that this demonstrates the tolerance of British society. But what they are effectively saying is that Islamic societies should exhibit the same sort of tolerance in their turn, i.e. that they should accept the same sort of diversity of opinion and belief as Western societies. Muslim societies should move to the more ‘advanced’ situation of modern Western culture: embracing a plurality of truths, rather than the singularity of revelation, and leaving it to the liberal economic and cultural market place to sort out which version of reality is more widely accepted and narratively convincing. Or, putting it another way, the Islamic world should cease to be different and antagonistic to our own; it should become Western and liberal.

In this way, fundamental, indeed aggressive, hostility towards Islam and ‘reasonable’ liberal critique of Islamic belief and society are inseparable bedfellows. As one intensifies, so does the other. 9/11 sparks off an understandable wave of blame and vengeful feelings towards Muslims; but these are acted out in the invasion of Afghanistan: not an act of violence against a Muslim country, so it is said, but an attempt to bring it the benefits of Western secular democracy and liberalism – in other words, to destroy its particular brand of fundamentalist Islam, in which everything was based on an extremely narrow, literalistic interpretation of the Qu’ran. However, fast forward six years, and our boys are still slugging it out with the never-say-die Taliban. Is something wrong with our conceptual model here, and do Afghanis not actually see us as their saviours? The truth is probably somewhere in between: common ground to be discovered.

Similarly, the UK government decides to award a knighthood to the personification of the ideal of ‘tolerant Islam’ (actually, someone – strangely – who is no longer a believer), ostensibly because of the literary merit of his works and his impeccable liberal credentials – but also out of hostility and fundamental enmity towards Islam. The resultant violent reaction from the most ‘fundamentalist’ countries provokes both increased resentment and anger towards Muslims among the British population, and further exasperated criticism of the backwardness and intellectual blindness of such Muslims, who simply don’t have the wit or education to appreciate that it’s all just a sophisticated sort of mind game. Except you don’t play fanciful, deceptive mind games with what is most sacred in life. And who is really being most blind here: the Muslims who can see a direct assault on the foundations of their faith and societies on the part of a hostile West; or the West which can’t see that that’s what it’s doing?

But, to return to my original point of departure, the stimulation of this sort of Islamophobia (liberal – and therefore unself-knowingly aggressive – hostility and contempt towards Islam) is politically useful to the British government. The reason for this is that it increases support for the measures the government has taken and intends to take in support of the so-called War on Terror. In my blog of 19 June, I emphasised the domestic political benefits (passing of the new Terror Bill, ability to detain ‘suspects’ for up to 90 days without charge, etc.). But I could just as easily have stressed the international agenda. Let’s put this in political diary form:

  • Saturday 16 June: announcement of Salman Rushdie’s knighthood

  • Sunday 17 and Monday 18 June: predicted protests follow in Iran and Pakistan; effigies of the queen and flags of St. George are burnt; Pakistani minister makes speech appearing to justify suicide bombings in response to the award; this follows on from similar anti-British protests in Tehran the week before. Stokes up British resentment towards and fear of global Islamic assault on Western civilisation and values, and willingness to support all necessary measures to combat it

  • Thursday 21 June: US general involved in the Iraqi ‘surge’ expresses belief that the foreign hostages taken two or three weeks earlier (including Britons) are being held by an Iranian-backed group.

  • Friday 22 June: it’s reported that British troops are beginning a major offensive against the Taliban in Afghanistan; and it’s well known that the Taliban are being supplied with increasingly sophisticated weaponry by the Iranians, and are being funded and harboured by sympathetic Pakistanis.


In short, the decision to knight Salman Rushdie was intended to provoke an occasion for Islamophobia: feelings of fear, anger and resentment coupled with liberal disparagement of the barbaric intolerance and ignorance of those effigy-burning Muslims. And, at the same time, the latest developments in the War on Terror are communicated to the media as being concentrated precisely around the Muslims involved in the latest episodes of extremist Islamic behaviour: the Iranians, waging war against Britain through every avenue available to them (notably, through the insurgency in Iraq and via the Taliban in Afghanistan), and the Pakistanis (the Taliban’s principal ally). The War on Terror – far from being a grotesque foreign-policy misadventure – suddenly starts to seem necessary and worth fighting. Could it be that one of GB’s [Gordon Brown’s] first major achievements will be something that Blair so singularly failed to do: winning liberal backing for military action in Iraq and Afghanistan?

Islamophobia enables the creation of an enemy in the War on Terror: we’re no longer shadow-boxing Al-Qaeda in the mountainous borderland between Pakistan and Afghanistan but fighting a real-life enemy – the Taliban – that really is radically opposed to Western civilisation and is out to get us. And we’re no longer dealing with a nebulous group of internecine, homicidal insurgents in Iraq but with fighters that are being organised and equipped by the would-be regional Islamist nuclear superpower; and a country which has also, including in the Rushdie affair, demonstrated its violent hostility and aggression towards Britain on more than one occasion – and so needs to be stopped, if necessary by Western military force in Iraq.

So the whipping up of Islamophobia, and then focusing it in on specific enemies of British and Western forces, is an attempt to overcome the real PR problem faced by the Iraq War: the failure to find a real enemy and a real threat to correspond to the Terror that the war was supposed to be directed against. Indeed, if you don’t know who your enemy is but know that he’s out there, plotting against you, this does indeed accentuate the power of the terror that is hanging over you: worse the enemy you don’t know than the enemy you do.

But is there not a sense that even the Iranians and the Taliban are not our ‘real’ enemy here? Does the threat they pose really justify Britain in fighting battles that are leaving our armed forces overstretched and possibly under-equipped, and are resulting in the steady attrition of loss of life – not just among our brave soldiers but among all the casualties of war, including many thousands of civilians? Or if the specific threat to Western civilisation or, more concretely, the Western global economic order from the likes of Iran is that significant, should there not be a much more concerted, collective effort on the part of all Western countries – including military action as a last resort – to ensure that the ‘evil’ that is threatening us is eliminated? (Maybe GB is calculating on creating a wave of support for more funding, resources and personnel in the war against our newly defined enemies – who knows?)

The Iranians and the Taliban remain slightly surreal and incomplete symbols for our real enemy in the War of Terror – the one which, as good liberals, we are incapable of seeing as our enemy: Islam itself. The terror in the War on Terror is our Islamo-phobia: our fear of Islam. But this fear can only exercise its power over us if it is unacknowledged, suppressed beneath our liberal reasonableness, and our attempts to rationalise and objectify the threat we feel in the shape of specific, tangible menaces. If we recognise that what we are really afraid of is being defeated in a global clash of civilisations with Islam, and being subordinated to Islam, then this is the beginning of a way out of our terrors. We can either fight the shadows or engage with the reality. We and Islam don’t have to be enemies; we can live together and equitably share the threatened resources of the earth (including those of Middle Eastern oil) that we all need.

The lesson from the Troubles in Northern Ireland was that you don’t defeat terrorism by continuing to deny the dignity and the rights of those whose cause is championed in extremis by the men of violence, and by trying to secure a military victory over them. The resolution can come only through reconciliation, dialogue and the recovery of mutual respect. But in order to achieve this in relation to Islam, we may have to compromise something of our liberal sense of superiority over that vibrant monotheistic faith. We certainly will also have to attend to healing the open wound at the heart of the whole conflict: the suffering of the Palestinians and, through and beyond that, the question of ownership of the Holy Land and Jerusalem – Judaeo-Christian or Muslim? No one should be under any illusion that the reconciliation will be easy – there are real enemies out there. But we have an obligation to seek grounds for peace, not false reasons for war.

Can our intransigent liberalism be reconciled with dogmatic Islam? Doubtless, there’ll need to be movement on both sides. And will that mean that we, too, may have to recover some of our own, Christian, ground of truth? Perhaps only then can we really meet our Muslim brothers face to face, and heart to heart, and see our common humanity to which our terror blinded us.

21 June 2007

The Scottish Home Secretary defends the Rushdie knighthood

By way of an ‘I told you so’, here’s a little news item from yesterday I’ve just stumbled across, in which John Reid defends the award of a knighthood to Salman Rushdie. One of the most interesting passages is a quote from the Home Secretary: “we take the approach that in the long-run the protection of the right to express opinions in literature, argument and politics is of over-riding value to our society”. So Salman Rushdie has been set up as a cause celebre for British liberal values seen as locked in an ideological struggle with ‘extremist’ Islam. Quote from my blog entry about the knighthood from Tuesday now: “the government has probably thought it could use Rushdie as an exemplar of a Muslim who has fully embraced ‘British values’ of liberalism, moderation and freedom of speech”.

And it’s clear from Mr Reid’s words that the government did plan this out with at least this effect in mind: “We’ve thought very carefully about it. But we have a right to express opinions and a tolerance of other people’s point of view, and we don’t apologise for that”. So the inner circle of government have discussed this knighthood and thought it through, have they? So much for the award being to do with ‘services to literature’, which – as far I can tell – people in literary circles regard as a total joke. And it’s apparently about teaching Muslims a bit of a lesson about tolerance: the award itself is an instance of British tolerance towards a point of view that might be hurtful to some, like the Life of Brian was hurtful to some Christians. Naive of those over-emotional Muslims not to appreciate this finer point of our civilisation, really! But that’s all rather a twisted way of putting it: Rushdie’s views aren’t merely being ‘tolerated’ but rather they reflect what many of the evangelists for British liberal values themselves feel about Islam.

OK, so should we see Rushdie as a champion and martyr for free speech, which we all hold dear? Different people will draw the dividing line in different places. One thing that’s clear, though, is that Rushdie’s was an exercise of free speech without what could be called due regard for the most sacred beliefs and feelings of many at whom it was directed. In this, it’s akin to racism, Islamophobia and what might be called ‘culturism’: prejudice and offensive behaviour towards another culture. Because the comparison with the Life of Brian simply doesn’t hold up. In our culture, most people just thought that film was a bit of harmless nonsense; even most Christians thought those who were offended made themselves look a bit silly. However, in Islamic culture, what Rushdie did in The Satanic Verses is basically a ‘mortal sin’, to translate it back into Christian cultural terms. In other words, it’s as grave a wrongdoing as rape or murder.

Now, while in Britain, we don’t think such things are punishable by death, in many Muslim countries, they still do. So who are we to say that, in their terms, they are wrong? And yet we still preach to them about tolerance.

19 June 2007

Arise Sir Salman: The New Ambassador For British Values?

I couldn’t believe it when I heard that Salman Rushdie had been awarded a knighthood in the Birthday Honours List. How incredibly stupid! If anything was calculated to aggravate relations with Iran and with Muslims in this country, that was it.

And sure enough, Iran’s knee-jerk reaction followed the day after as an Iranian Foreign Ministry spokesman asserted that the award revealed Islamophobia among senior British officials. The Pakistani parliament followed suit yesterday, and the Religious Affairs minister went so far as to suggest that such insults could even justify suicide bombings.

Nice work by the Downing Street team! Perhaps they should have listened a bit more to the boys and girls at the FO. Or perhaps they did: maybe calculated to aggravate relations with Iran and with British Muslims is exactly what it was.

To understand decisions like this that at first sight seem incomprehensible, it’s useful to focus on a) the message that it might be conveying, and b) its political effect: as the consequences of the decision unfold, think what political advantages there are to be had from some of them.

For a start, it’s clear that Rushdie’s elevation is in part intended to send Iran the message that Britain will not be intimidated, following the recent episodes of the seizure of British seamen on patrol and the protests outside the British Embassy in Tehran last week. It just so happens that two reports about the capture of the British naval personnel come out today, and this incident has been described as a ‘national humiliation’ (was it, though, really?). So Salman Rushdie’s award was indeed a timely demonstration of Britain’s resolve in relation to Iran!

Incidentally, it was curious how reports on last week’s demonstrations in Tehran mentioned that some of the protests were directed against ‘England’ rather than Britain. I’ve tried to find out why the demonstrators felt compelled to single out England in this way but haven’t as yet been successful. Is it simply that ‘England’ is used interchangeably with ‘Britain’ in Farsi, or was this, too, calculated to be especially insulting – the Iranians realising that insulting ‘England’ is more offensive to most British people than directing contempt merely towards Britain?

Quite whether conferring an honour on one of the most hated personalities in the Islamic world is the smartest way to communicate this message of defiance is another matter. I haven’t been able to shake out of my mind an image this suggests: one of a leering, Union Jack-sporting, 1970s-style punk sticking two fingers up the nose of an Arab sheikh. Or perhaps that’s just the kind of cartoonish, caricatural way it might be presented in Islamic media.

In fact, the knighting of Sir Salman puts one in mind of that other incident involving cartoons: those Danish images of the Prophet Mohammed that provoked such a furore of outrage in many parts of the Muslim world towards the end of last year. Rushdie’s Satanic Verses and those cartoons are comparably insensitive in the way they play fast and loose with sacrosanct tenets of Islam. Conferring a knighthood on Rushdie, supposedly in recognition of his services to literature, is indeed tantamount to saying that insults to Islam are perfectly acceptable in British culture: not just in the popular culture, which creates hateful images of Muslims out of prejudice and fear of terrorism, but in high culture and art. In this respect, at least, the Pakistani Minister for Religious Affairs is on the mark in his criticisms.

But why would such a clear insult to Muslims be apparently sanctioned at the highest level? Look at the effect and infer the intentions. One effect is the one described above: Pakistani ministers appearing to legitimise suicide bombings to defend the honour of the Prophet. As if to back this up, the BBC Breakfast programme this morning slipped in a short, unobtrusive item (almost subliminal and appearing to be one that was waiting in their video library) showing a Taliban leader exhorting a group of Pakistani terrorist trainees to go and carry out suicide bombings in Britain and other Western countries.

In other words, part of the government’s intention appears to have been to engineer a perception of a heightened terrorist threat to this country. Too conspiracy-theory? Well, the government must have realised this would be the reaction on the part of the religious hardliners in Iran and Pakistan; so why do it unless it was something that procured some benefit? What’s the benefit? Well, Mr Brown’s got a new Terror Bill to steer through parliament, hasn’t he? The rebel Labour MPs are going to be just a little more reluctant to stick one over on their new leader if the public is getting more worried about the terror threat again. So not stupid, at all; very clever, as far as it goes. In GB (as I’ll henceforth call Gordon Brown in honour of his Britological credentials), we are after all dealing with the secret spin-meister par excellence! Does it matter that / whether the actual threat level is raised or not? Well, politics, among other things, is the art of short-term risk taking for the sake of long-term objectives. If, six months from now, another horrendous terrorist outrage hits London, how many people will make the link with Salman Rushdie’s knighthood? But we may then be having to live with 90-days’ detention of terror suspects without charge, which will seem a small sacrifice of our liberties against such atrocities.

And what about the other ‘benefit’ that could accrue from Sir Rushdie’s honour: the antagonism of Muslim communities in this country? Every time the government wishes to talk up the terror threat, it seems they also feel it opportune to do something to make the Muslim faithful appear to justify suspicions of their terrorist sympathies. After all, this government’s done this before, last autumn, when it stirred up a largely unnecessary ‘debate’ about Muslim women who wear the niqab, or full veil. The effect of this, as opposed to the avowed intention, was merely to exacerbate people’s understandable sense of unease when encountering women thus attired, and to implant in the collective consciousness the idea that Muslims who choose to demonstrate their adherence to Islam in such a striking visual way are more likely to be extremists or even potential terrorists in disguise.

In a similar way, Muslim organisations and individuals in this country who protest too vehemently about Rushdie’s honour can now be dismissed as extremists – ignoring the fact that this award is probably offensive (and understandably so) even to more liberal-minded Muslims. The government’s tactic, in this as in the whole veil episode, appears to be to drive a wedge between the so-called ‘extremists’ and ‘moderates’ in the Muslim community. On the one hand, the moderates are intimidated by the enhanced general atmosphere of Islamophobia (in the sense of ‘fear of Islam’) into doing what the government has urged them to do: to try to take control of their communities and impose their more moderate views. On the other hand, it’s a way to more easily isolate the extremists, who’ll be provoked into taking more radical public positions, which will then make them easier to police and which is likely to land a fair few of them with 90-day terms of detention without charge.

As part of this campaign to stigmatise and discredit the so-called extremists, the government has probably thought it could use Rushdie as an exemplar of a Muslim who has fully embraced ‘British values’ of liberalism, moderation and freedom of speech. They must have consulted with Rushdie himself about the whys and wherefores of accepting the honour. They would have explained the risks to the man: that there’d doubtless be a wave of revulsion across the Muslim world, even that the fatwa that Ayatollah Khomeini previously placed upon him could be revived. But if he was willing to take this on, he could accomplish something really worthwhile by setting an example of a Muslim who had fully integrated with British values and culture, even to the extent of obtaining the highest possible accolade that Britain can bestow. If things went belly up, and both Britain and Rushdie received death threats in the form of incitements to acts of terrorism and a renewed fatwa, then this integration theme could be underplayed, and Rushdie could be celebrated and pitied as a victim of Islamist extremism: perhaps even literally as a ‘martyr’ for British liberalism. (But maybe they didn’t discuss that bit of the deal in too much detail.)

Did they really think Rushdie would have any credibility at all as a symbol of the integration of Muslims with British values and society? He can’t even be seen as a liberal Muslim, as he’s renounced Islam – which it is of course his right to do; but more sensible (and dare I say ‘English’) to do so in less deliberately offensive a manner. He’s more precisely a paragon of what you might call the ‘religious liberalism’ that is a characteristic of the Britologists’ British values: liberalism blended with a certain number of inherited Christian concepts (even though it’s ultimately secular in its core assumptions), and espoused and advocated with a certain quasi-religious, even arrogantly absolutist zeal by Blairites and Brownites alike. [It’s what I like to call ‘evangeliberalism’ – but then the love of neologisms is truly one of my biggest sins!]

Yes, indeed, Salman Rushdie is truly a worthy cultural ambassador of this form of liberalism. Look at the Satanic Verses: a liberal, novelistic conceit (and therefore not to be read in a literal manner like those naïve Muslims who read their own Holy Book in such a way) that re-plays an ancient Christian calumny about Islam – that it was Satan who whispered it into the ears of Mohammed, not the Angel Gabriel speaking the words of God. Added to this, a suggestive thematic around the lack of modesty and virtue of the Prophet’s wives, adding grist to the mill that it is threatened, autocratic Muslim patriarchs who impose the veil on their wives, merely because they can’t tolerate the modern secular idea that women are entitled to full sexual and personal freedom.

Is it any wonder, then, that so many Muslims are up in arms? The Satanic Verses is a poisonous cocktail, appealing at once to Christian-derived prejudices and myths about Islam, and liberal contempt towards its literalism, and its ‘uncritical’ veneration of Mohammed and God himself. Indeed, it embodies precisely the sort of pernicious mix that informs so many of the actions and statements towards Muslims of those who have declared themselves the champions of British values.

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