From Fatwa to Jihad: The Rushdie Affair and Its Legacy, by Kenan Malik (Atlantic Books, $39.95)

What is the cause of Islamic fundamentalism and Islamist violence, and why do a few people become suicide bombers? These are the urgent questions that Kenan Malik, a respected and intelligent British journalist of Muslim origin but secular convictions, sets out to answer in From Fatwa to Jihad. It would be simplistic to ascribe the violence to Islam itself by citing those verses from the Koran that seem to justify or even require it. Selective quotation does not explain why extremism is the province of the young, and why, for example, the first generation of Muslim immigrants to Britain (and elsewhere) were not at all attracted to it.

The merit of Malik’s book is that it seeks the answer in modern conditions. Even in Islamic countries, fundamentalists are not medieval throwbacks, however they may see themselves. They derive their ideas, even if they do not acknowledge it, at least as much from Lenin, Gramsci, and Mao as from Mohammed. They claim to want to return to seventh-century Arabia, but this is no more realistic or sincere than the wish of Victorian admirers of the Gothic to return to the Middle Ages.

Most Muslims in Britain are of Pakistani origin. They were encouraged to come to Britain largely as a source of cheap labor, to prop up declining industries that had not adapted to the modern economy. But, as with Ophelia’s dress that held her up in the water, “long it could not be.” No labor in Britain could ever be cheap enough, without technological superiority, to compete successfully with labor in much poorer and cheaper countries.

Originally, the idea was that the imported labor would be shipped back home if ever it became surplus to requirements. The opposite happened: each immigrant established a beachhead for others. For obvious reasons, the immigrants tended to congregate in certain areas, and they often met with hostility. Their children, growing up in virtual ghettos, were neither fully of the host country nor fully of their parents’ culture. They were betwixt and between, in effect left to develop their own culture. Insofar as they encountered the hostility of the surrounding society, they developed resentments.

It is here that Malik rather underplays the role of Islam. The Muslims were not the only immigrants to Britain. There were Sikhs and Hindus as well, who fared much better, on the whole: their rates of unemployment are much lower than Muslims’ (indeed, lower than their white contemporaries’); they are underrepresented in prison, unlike Muslims, who are increasingly overrepresented; and they never developed any propensity to violence.

Of course, there are possible explanations other than religion for the different fates of these groups. They might have been of different social classes and educational levels to begin with; or, for some reason, they might have encountered different amounts of hostility from the local population. The fact is, however, that Islamism provides a utopian and violent ideology of the kind that appeals to disgruntled young men facing all of the existential difficulties of youth. Moreover, Islamic society provides young men with another incentive for Islamism: the maintenance of the domination of women. This is another factor that Malik downplays.

But Malik is insightful on the mistakes that the British government made in its dealings with Muslims. Like any unimaginative bureaucratic organization, the British government (the French, too) prefers to deal with a few people rather than with many; it therefore promoted “leaders” of the Muslims, thus giving a golden opportunity to fundamentalists to establish themselves as controllers of government funds and to establish networks of patronage. Not knowing what it was doing, the British government spread Islamic fundamentalism.

Multiculturalism, at least in Britain, has been another unwitting ally of Muslim extremism, Malik rightly argues. Multiculturalism has created an informal system, like the late Ottoman empire’s millet system, in which various groups receive their privileges but are expected to live separately and distinctly from everyone else. This serves to prevent the various groups from developing any common identity and stimulates the ascent of political entrepreneurs whose power depends on the maintenance, aggravation, and inflammation of supposed grievances. Islamists are political entrepreneurs with a plausible doctrinal reason for violence. They are now able to extract from society the kind of respect that street muggers demand, and multiculturalism has become the ideological wing of sheer cowardice.

I have some disagreements with Malik. He overestimates Salman Rushdie as a writer, and fails to see that when Rushdie says that “racism is still breeding its lice and vermin,” he is resorting to precisely the kind of language that racists use. I am against political correctness, but I do not think people should describe humans as lice and vermin, whatever they are like. This dehumanizing language had a most unfortunate history in the twentieth century.

Moreover, Malik, who was once a communist and whose sympathies are still on the left, downplays the considerable racial antagonisms of the various immigrant groups. Insofar as he mentions them, he suggests—dishonestly, in my view—that they are an artifact of modern life in Britain. On the contrary, they predate modern life in Britain; in India, the color of one’s complexion remains of enormous importance, to say nothing of caste. Nevertheless, Malik’s book is a valuable and sophisticated attempt to understand some of the most troubling phenomena of our time, without resort to oversimplification. It is not always an easy read, but it is worth the effort.


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