From Fatwa to Jihad by Kenan Malik

“By exploring these myths, Kenan Malik provides an important primer to revaluate the key drivers in current responses to Fatwa to Jihad coverISIS, Boko Haram, and violent extremists in North America and Europe.”

When the Ayatollah Khomeini saw the Indian protests over Salman Rushdie’s Satanic Verses, he penned these now famous words, adding gasoline to an already burning controversy:

“I would like to inform all the intrepid Muslims in the world that the author of the book entitled ‘Satanic Verses’ . . . as well as those publishers who were aware of its contents, are hereby sentenced to death. I call on all zealous Moslems to execute them quickly, wherever they find them, so that no one will dare to insult Islamic sanctity. Whoever is killed doing this will be regarded as a martyr and will go directly to heaven.”

In Fatwa to Jihad: The Rushdie Affair and Its Aftermath, Kenan Malik explains that, “with his four paragraph pronouncement the Ayatollah had transcended the traditional frontiers of Islam and brought the whole world under his jurisdiction.”

“The Rushdie affair,” Malik continues, “is shrouded by myths that the hostility to the The Satanic Verses was driven by theology, that all Muslims were offended by the novel, that Islam is incompatible with Western democracy, that in a plural society speech must necessarily be less free.” He adds that these myths “have helped create many of the post-Rushdie monsters.”

Whatever readers think they know about the Ayatollah’s fatwa and its effect on international Islam, Malik asks them to think again. Fatwa to Jihad begins with a review of the cultural tensions in England that preceded the 1989 publication of The Satanic Verses and then places the outcry over both book and fatwa into global and local context. With thorough research and extensive interviews he examines group dynamics and the work of key individuals who dogged the issue until it became a big deal.

In England where Rushdie made his home, fundamentalist leaders later used the book and subsequent fatwas to draw disenfranchised and disenchanted youth into a community of mutual support, while simultaneously sowing more seeds of fear and distrust of England.

As Malik describes it, Islamic fundamentalist groups reached out to first generation immigrants, as part of a long-term strategy to revive their own firebrand version of Islam. In so doing, he misses the opportunity to compare this tactic with similar movements of other groups allowing at least one myth to go unexplored which is that Islam is alone in a pattern of radicalization. Other faiths and political groups have used almost identical tactics and discontent to foment radical movements across the globe and throughout the years.

Malik breaks down the fractures created by the Rushdie affair, tracking its effect on identity, free speech, integration policies, and extremism. Fatwa to Jihad skirts apologetics by taking aim at everyone, including liberals who, in their efforts to support minority groups, unsuspectingly gave undue power to conservative religious leaders. This happens mostly because of liberals’ own misunderstanding of the complexity of religious and immigrant politics.  While some conservatives would like to preserve freedom of religion as long as it isn’t Islam.

Despite the religio-cultural wars stirred by Rushdie’s book and the Ayatollah’s fatwa, Malik recognizes that even conflict arising from an international death warrant can give birth to positive social movements. In the last section of the book, Malik explores lesser-known movements born from the Rushdie affair, including secular and moderate Islamic movements and the organization, Women Against Fundamentalism.

“Less than a month after the fatwa,” he writes, Women Against Fundamentalism, made up of religious and non-religious activists declared their “solidarity with Salman Rushdie,” noting that “women’s voices have been largely silent in the debate where battle lines have been drawn between liberalism and fundamentalism.”

By drawing attention to these groups, the author reminds readers that not all Muslims were radicalized toward violent fundamentalist thought. Some were appalled by the Rushdie protests and organized for moderation and greater freedom within the Muslim community. He also circles back to key people who led the Rushdie Affair and finds they too had changed their opinion towards moderation.

By exploring these myths, Kenan Malik provides an important primer to revaluate the key drivers in current responses to ISIS, Boko Haram, and violent extremists in North America and Europe. He gives readers enough background information, without overwhelming them, on many of the political and cultural conversations that are currently being played out in both foreign and domestic policy.

I originally published this review at NY Journal of Books.

Rebel Music by Hisham D. Aidi

Rebel Music CoverHisham D. Aidi presents over a century of evolution in Muslim culture around the world, tracking both the local variations in the organic environments and the transnational movement of ideas.

Rebel Music is a dialogue between disciplines and fields generally kept separate in public conversations. This dialogue creates the necessary space to examine the interplay between music and religion, especially for Muslim youth, both having been used to explain and blame community unrest.

“Music has long been used by youth to protest, proclaim identity, build community, and interpret the world.” Through extensive interviews and retracing of musical trade routes, Aidi reminds readers how artists, theologians, and politicians at their best are distillers of public discourse, giving definition to conversations and constructing new community visions. Once that vision is constructed and distributed either through new policy, a sermon, or a hot new beat, it defines and again shifts the public discourse.

With strong links to Moorish Spain, Brazil frequently revives the cultural icon of the mythical mooress. In the first section of Rebel Music, the threads he weaves between continents and time periods is striking and sometimes surprising.  In just three pages, Aidi connects Lebanese-Colombian pop star Shakira, Salvador Allende, Hugo Chavez, and Donald Rumsfeld’s as each contributing to the post 9/11 discourse. Vignettes also verge on the surreal when Aidi tells how “in Kyrgyzstan, where Islam was suppressed for seventy years of Soviet rule, viewers saw O Clone [a Brazilian telenovela] as an introductory course on Islam.”

Rebel Music then moves north, tracing the many connections made through the leaders and music of the American civil-rights movement, the mass conversion of African Americans to Islam, and the development of the Nation of Islam. Aidi includes how the movement was influenced by foreign born African Muslims, adding a rich layer to an otherwise well known narrative. He deftly tracks the many routes the movement created during the forties, fifties, and sixties through today.

When the conversation remains within globally recognized movements, the reader is fixated on exactly where Aidi is about to draw the next narrative. However, when the conversation turns to lesser-known movements, as in the section evaluating Gnawa music, readers can be lost in the specifics and long narratives. For this reason, the last third of the book takes some work to move through. By blending and creating a conversation between otherwise unconnected fields of global music, religion, and politics readers without knowledge in one or more fields may also be lost in the complexity of the cross overs.

Aidi omits in-text citation, obscuring whether his conclusions are based on well-supported evidence or his personal conclusions. This dramatically decreases the effect of Rebel Music to be used as a primary source for people working in the field. Further, by using whole page citations he obscures the source of claims made as facts. If he is presenting the book as academically sourced, listing key terms in the index, why did he chose not to do the same for his citations. If authors continue to use endnotes without in-text markers, notes will lose their usefulness and it will be harder to hold author’s accountable for their claims.

Rebel Music does offer the field of religious studies, politics, and anthropology, clear examples of how a community is shaped by the local atmosphere to either become militant or not. In doing so he avoids creating values based comparison and instead attempts to illustrate the various local and global factors of each community. For example, he draws an important distinction between European and North American Muslim communities. “It’s debatable whether the situation of European Muslims, a largely rural and working class-migration, is even comparable to that of an affluent American Muslim migration; a more apt comparison would be Latino immigration to the U.S.”

Aidi parallels the diversity of thought and development of global Islam, with the globalizing effect and diversity of music as a vehicle for youth discourse. By comparing Brazilian engagement with European, North American and North African engagements, Rebel Music exemplifies how the community is as much impacted by religion, music, and politics as the community impacts them.

Rebel Music’s density begs for multiple readings yet can be a great read for people who are simply curious about the interplay of music, Islam, and local and global politics. The clear narrative thread never leaves readers stranded, bringing us through a global overview of race, empire and the new Muslim youth culture.

I originally published this review on the NY Journal of Books

Release Date: March 27, 2014
Publisher/Imprint: Pantheon
Pages: 432