Tom Unterainer’s ‘Engineered Identities’ in Solidarity 3/176 was not in my view really a review of Kenan Malik’s book From Fatwa to Jihad. Tom doesn’t really present Malik’s case. Nor was it a good analysis of the state of the “Muslim communities” in Britain.
The title of Malik’s book is a little misleading. He is not simply concerned with the period since 1989 (when Khomeini’s death sentence against Salman Rushdie for writing the Satanic Verses was issued). What Malik is aiming to do is to explain how Asian communities which produced radical, left-wing youth movements in the 1970s have come to be defined by Islam and produce a wave of British-born Islamists over the last decade or more.
Malik sees the fatwa against Rushdie as having been a key moment in this process, and one in which the Iranian state trumped the proselytising from the Saudi Arabian state in a political game for influence over Muslims worldwide.
Malik points out the very different reactions among Muslims to the Satanic Verses and emphasises; that the Muslim communities in Britain are diverse.
Moreover, Malik isn’t too bothered about the far left. What does concern him is the response of the liberals and bourgeois establishment to the attack on Rushdie. He quotes Hanif Kureishi as saying: “No-one would have the balls to publish Satanic Verses now.”
Malik sees a retreat from “Enlightenment values” which has allowed the Islamists political space and curtailed secular or left opposition within minority communities. Multiculturalism is just one root of bourgeois weakness, Malik argues.
The weakness of Malik’s account is what he leaves out: the defeats of the labour movement and left in the 1980s; the destruction of Stalinism and the bourgeois offensive that followed in the early 1990s. A militant workers’ movement and left could act as a force that could stress a different, class, identity in the face of communalism and religion.
Finally, a footnote on one aspect of this discussion. In Malik’s book readers will find a section dealing with GLC funding for community politics. At first glance this resembles an argument first developed by Sivanandan in the 80s (the funding of such projects broke up the political community of “black” people in Britain along community lines). In fact Malik omits Sivanandan’s political line and simply leaves the description. That’s good.
But we should be aware of the chronology — this process took place in the early 80s, five years before the Rushdie fatwa. And that the break up of “black as a political colour” was about Bengalis and Indians and Nigerians etc. It was not about religious groups.
Dan Katz, south London