In 1988, Salman Rushdie shocked the Muslim world when his book, The Satanic Verses, was published. Though he is of Indian descent, Rushdie was a well-renowned English novelist — which is why the novel hit Muslims in England particularly hard. In their country, the book received positive reviews and was even awarded the 1988 Whitbread Award for novel of the year. As a work of magical realism, many praised the novel for capturing the struggles of the immigrant experience as well as the author’s own identity crisis as a migrant. While Rushdie confirmed these interpretations, saying the novel was about “about migration, metamorphosis, divided selves, love, death, London and Bombay” (Wikipedia), many in the Muslim community interpreted the novel as blasphemous. Indeed, The Satanic Verses seemed to be like a transformed narration of Muhammad’s life in Mecca, and many Muslims viewed its handling of Islam, the Prophet and the Prophet’s family as insulting and “thus placed it within a long tradition of anti-Islamic writings in the West” (69).
The book sparked riots and protests throughout the Muslim world. There was outrage in Pakistan, and the Indian government even banned the sale of the book. Demonstrations that involved “ritual burnings” of the book occurred in Bradford. But the greatest reaction came from Ayatollah Rouhullah Khomeini who issued a fatwa on Salman Rushdie — thus pronouncing him an apostate and making it acceptable for Muslims to kill him.
The Rushdie affair, as it is now known, created a tense conflict between religious respect and freedom of speech. Many Muslim modernists were put in a difficult place, like Akbar Ahmad, who “strongly opposed the theme of the book,” yet “supported Rushdie’s right to have written it” (70). While The Satanic Verses spurred chaos and conflict, the controversy of the book did ultimately help bring Muslims into the foreground of politics and a huge political debate. As John Rex put it, the Rushdie affair “was a watershed in the evolution of Britain’s Muslim community in that it made Muslims realize the importance of becoming politically better organized” (70).
Muslims in the U.K.
What sets Muslims in the U.K. apart from other Muslims in Europe is this involvement in politics. Britain is unique from European countries in that U.K. residents from Ireland or Commonwealth nations can attain full citizenship through a simple registration process — and the overwhelming majority of Muslims in the U.K. are from Commonwealth nations. So the focus of Muslims political participation in the U.K. will be on Asian immigrants. According to John Rex, Asians are more likely to register to vote than whites, they are more likely to vote than whites, and they participate actively in local politics and local political parties — with Muslims among the most active of these immigrants (66).
However, Muslims in the U.K. still struggle with social assimilation. In his chapter “Islam in the United Kingdom,” John Rex poses a weighted question: “How can Muslims be expected to fit into existing British society and to what extent can they contribute to the development of an ideal multicultural society?” (71). The problem with assimilation is that it compromises the culture of an immigrant — something they don’t want, and shouldn’t have, to lose. The poorer working class communities of Muslim immigrants often form their own islands within the country — finding their “primary foci of belonging” (65) in their own mosque-based communities, like Bradford, Birmingham or Rochdale.
The influence of Western experiences on Muslims can be contradictory, where it brings both more moderates as well as more militant conservatives. For example, in Malaysia, the influence of the American experience led to the reformist shift of the Islamic Youth Movement of Malaysia (ABIM), whereas the influence of the British experience had the opposite effect on members of Malaysia’s Pan-Islamic Part (PAS) (249).
There are other inadequacies with multiculturalism — as Kenan Malik highlighted in “The Failure of Multiculturalism,” published in Foreign Affairs. Malik pointed out that the debate between multiculturalism and assimilationist was largely null. Neither are effective policies. Malik suggested that “an ideal policy would marry multiculturalism’s embrace of actual diversity, rather than its tendency to institutionalize differences, and assimilationist’s resolve to treat everyone as citizens, rather than its tendency to construct a national identity by characterizing certain groups as alien to the nation.” In fact, this response in itself mirrors the way integration should be approached for all immigrants — not one culture over the other but a melding of the best parts of both.