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The Ghost of Joseph Anton: Salman Rushdie and the Futures Lost

Sunit Singh

February 14, 2023

As good almost kill a man as kill a good book: who kills a man kills a reasonable creature, God's image; but he who destroys a good book, kills reason itself, kills the image of God, as it were, in the eye.

John Milton, Areopagitica

The macabre edict that was to condemn the novelist Salman Rushdie to a fearful existence was first broadcast over the crackle of the radio in Tehran on Valentine’s Day 1989. A newscaster came on in the afternoon to announce that the Ayatollah Khomeini had instructed the faithful to hunt the author (whose name was unmentionable) ofThe Satanic Verses as well as anyone else who had a hand in publishing the heretical book, promising to revere as a martyr anyone who lost their own life in the endeavor. [1] At a stroke, the Ayatollah was able to outflank his Saudi rivals for the title of defender of the faith, deflect domestic criticism of his conduct of the ruinous Iraq-Iran War, skirt fallout from the revelations about his arms deals with the Great Satan, minimize attention on the mass executions he had ordered of the members of the leftist Tudeh party, and portray himself as a staunch anti-imperialist who was protecting traditionalists from the secular “world-devourers.” [2] The Satanic Verses, the ambitious third installment in a trilogy of novels by Rushdie exploring the interlocked themes of migration, displacement, and selfhood, had lampooned the Ayatollah as a gloomy, black-robed imam (cleric), plotting a theocratic revolution in his once and future homeland, Desh. Behind the thick velvet curtains of a rented mansion flat in London, the fictional imam thunders against westernized Muslims and consoles himself with the thought that his exile in the ungodly West is temporary, “Exile is a vision of revolution, Elba, not St Helena.” [3] After the revolution, the imam, like the actual Ayatollah, would cannibalize his own supporters. The death sentence handed to Rushdie was more than a vendetta for a fictional caricature. The Ayatollah was the mortal medium of a merciful and compassionate God. Of the religious crimes that Rushdie was found guilty of without trial, the one that rankled was apostasy, a sin for which the sentence was death. The verdict came in the form of a fatwa, which, in the words of Martin Amis, “obliged [Rushdie] to become world-historical." [4] The fatwa confined Rushdie to virtual imprisonment in Britain for almost a decade, made his case a cause célèbre, and transformed the author into a staunch advocate of freedom of expression.

Almost three and a half decades after the fatwa made worldwide news, the origins of the anti-Rushdie campaign and the substance of the controversies over The Satanic Verses are buried in the sediment of an antediluvian era, so much so that even Rushdie apparently had tired of the subject. Thus, in 2012, he sought to close the book on the fatwa by penning a memoir about his stretch on the run; and on the thirtieth anniversary of the fatwa, in 2019, a commentator for Al Jazeera remarked, “Who still remembers, or cares to remember, or care at all about ‘the Salman Rushdie affair’?” [5] Instead of novels about the complexities of life in Britain after the collapse of empire and the failings of the rulers of India and Pakistan to deliver on the pledges made at independence, authors from the subcontinent now indulged their readers with novels such as The Last White Man, reifying the very categories of race and privilege that Rushdie had sought to explode. The fatwa, although never revoked, had shown itself to be toothless, and the concerns of the author were seemingly outdated. Indeed, when a would-be assassin fell on the author unexpectedly in the summer of 2022, even the FBI apparently had trouble identifying the motive. [6]

Just after eleven o’clock, on August 12, 2022, in an amphitheater on the estate of the Chautauqua Institution in western New York, Hadi Matar, age 24, leapt onto the stage and lunged at Rushdie with a knife. A TikTok video of the chaotic scenes on stage filled a couple of news cycles, but no one reporting on the attack was particularly interested in inquiring why a young millennial, someone who was raised in California and New Jersey as well as with no direct connection to any Islamist group, had vented his murderous rage at the author, presumably over a book that was written before his own lifetime. It was insinuated that the crime was politically motivated, although precisely what made it so, other than that Matar apparently had a fascination with the Iranian Revolutionary Guards, was left to surmise. Of all news outlets, the Daily Mail, the tabloid that had tormented Rushdie throughout the decade that he lived underground, and the conservative New York Post, took the investigative lead. A couple of days after the attack, Silvana Fardos informed the Daily Mail that she had noticed a change in her son Hadi, a reclusive discount-store clerk, after his brief sojourn in 2018 to see his father, a shepherd in Yaroun, Lebanon, where Hezbollah is active. [7] Meanwhile, when interviewed from Chautauqua County Jail by the New York Post, Matar spoke about how he had learned about the Rushdie Affair from YouTube videos. [8]

Little news has trickled out about Rushdie since the attack. Although his agent Andrew Wylie reports that Rushdie has left the hospital, where he was on a ventilator and underwent emergency surgery, his whereabouts presently remain unknown. [9] It is now clear that, in a cruel twist of fate for an author, Rushdie has lost vision in one eye and will require a lot of physiotherapy to regain the use of his right hand. It had been a miracle of sorts that Rushdie continued to write novels with the madness that surrounded him after the fatwa in 1989. Word that Rushdie is set to release a new book, Victory City, offers everyone who has ever lost themselves in one of his novels the hope that he will continue to ply his craft. [10] That said, Rushdie, an ardent campaigner for freedom of expression, would doubtless regard the release of his new book as a minor consolation in an era in which self-censorship, ruinous cancellations, and de-platforming are commonplace.

Back in 1989, the late Christopher Hitchens, a steadfast comrade to Rushdie throughout the “affair,” wrote that, while the fatwa drew comparisons to the assassination of Trotsky and the excommunication of Elizabeth I by the Catholic Church, the fact was that “the Salman Rushdie case has no analogue.” [11] And, indeed, the Rushdie case was a first of sorts, but this now hard to recognize, since the politically insidious rhetoric of “hurt” sentiments and the menacingly ominous talk of “respect” by the anti-Rushdie campaigners is now entrenched everywhere from corporate retreats to universities. The fatwa has been internalized; [12] the absence of a Je suis Salman campaign in the wake of the August attack is conspicuous; [13] as is the fact that no publishing outfit today would back a book such as The Satanic Verses. [14] Yet what accounts for this deplorable state of affairs?

It may be, as Rushdie suggested in his allegorical novella, Haroun and the Sea of Stories (written to explain his awful situation after the fatwa to his young son), that history unfolds by P2C2E—Processes Too Complicated to Explain. Indeed, why is it that liberal norms have buckled, if not faltered completely, in the present day? The Left is at odds to offer an adequate answer. Even before the attack last August, sections of the Left, especially, but not only, those who trumpeted the rise of the mullahs in 1979 as a win for anti-imperialism, had vacillated on whether to side with Rushdie or the anti-Rushdie campaigners. Instead of rallying to the side of Rushdie in 1989 there were calls by the Left to censor The Satanic Verses in the name of anti-racism and anti-imperialism. In pitting tolerance and sensitivity of religious sentiments over the exercise of liberal rights, the Left belied the consequences of its still undigested Stalinism, which makes a revolutionary virtue of a contempt for liberal values; this section of the Left celebrates the retreat from liberal freedom as a sign of democratic progress. Yet even those on the Left who mustered a defense of Rushdie in 1989 are at odds to adequately explain the abject condition we find ourselves in presently. The Rushdie Affair seems in hindsight bound up with a slew of deeply ambivalent historical developments—the end-stage of the Cold War, the fall of the Berlin Wall, and the emergence of a new religious extremism. If “the failure of the left” is itself responsible for the growing divide between “anemic liberals and impassioned fundamentalists,” as Slavoj Žižek suggests, the issue is why the Left failed? [15] It is difficult to attribute the failure of the Left to the rise of Thatcherism or the collapse of the Soviet Union. The regression we see today, which can express itself as a growing rift between liberal norms and fundamentalism, is, at least from a Marxist vantage-point, the result of the deepening antinomy between liberalism and democracy in an age of capitalist disintegration. Illiberal views on freedom of speech can express themselves as progressive and can be articulated in the idiom of democratic rights. Moreover, the liberal-left as much as conservatives appeal to the imperialist, or Bonapartist state to intervene on their behalf in disputes that ought to be settled politically in society. The illiberalism at the heart of the anti-Rushdie campaign was neither the result of neo-conservativism nor atavistic religious beliefs. Loath though anyone on the Left is to admit the fact, in the final analysis, the illiberalism at the heart of the anti-Rushdie campaign was itself a species of a transmogrified leftism.


It is impossible to address the substance of the Rushdie Affair without a review of its origins. The clamor over The Satanic Verses in fact started well before the fatwa was issued over Radio Tehran and at a distance from the streets of Bradford where the novel was set alight. How and where the anti-Rushdie campaign took shape set the trajectory of the controversies that later followed. The campaign against The Satanic Verses was launched neither in Britain, where Salman Rushdie lived and wrote, nor in the Middle East, but in India—the “imaginary homeland” that the author sought to reclaim in his novels. Indeed, the reaction of the Indian authorities to the release of The Satanic Verses was improbably swift: On October 5, 1988, a mere week after its launch in Britain, the novel, or, more precisely, its importation into India was banned by the Ministry of Finance on orders from above. [16] A group of conservative Muslim MPs had heard about the book and were insistent that the state intervene. Faced with the task of garnering the Muslim vote (even as his party toyed with anti-Muslim rhetoric to win over the assertive Hindu majoritarians who were then gaining strength politically) the prime minister bowed to the calls to block the sale of The Satanic Verses. It no doubt made it easier for Rajiv Gandhi, a scion of the Nehru-Gandhi dynasty that had led India since independence, that Rushdie had run afoul of the Gandhis before. His mother Indira Gandhi had won an apology from Rushdie through the British courts for his caustic sketch of her in Midnight’s Children (1981) as the Widow who imprisons and sterilizes the impoverished citizens in whose name she ruled. [17] Had Rajiv Gandhi read The Satanic Verses, he would have found a censure of his own administration, particularly his weak stance against the US-based conglomerate Union Carbide, whose subsidiary in Bhopal had billowed a lethal mix of methyl isocyanate and other chemicals into the night air on the third of December, 1984, poisoning thousands. [18] “Your Government has much to be ashamed about,” Rushdie publicly chastised the prime minster in an open letter written after his book was banned. [19] Although, in truth, the orders proscribing The Satanic Verses came as a surprise since, as Rushdie admits in his memoirs, he tended to overestimate the robustness of the commitment to liberal values in India. [20] While Rushdie fumed that the Prime Minister was proscribing a work of fiction and giving fundamentalists control of the agenda in New Delhi, the latter turned a deaf ear to the criticism that liberal society is founded on the right to freedom of expression. The Left in India was predictably split, with the Old Left worrying about the authorities “slipping into the abyss of communalism,” pointing to Rajiv Gandhi and the Muslim MP Syed Shahbuddin as “typical colonials in their attitudes.” [21] Had the book been written by anyone other than an Indo-British author, ran the implication, the state would have been reluctant to take action.

At the center of the storm in India was Syed Shahbuddin, an MP and a member of the opposition Janata Party, but more importantly a proxy for the Islamist organization, Jama’at-e-Islami. Shahbuddin had mobilized the resources of the Jama’at, a Muslim revivalist group founded in 1941 in India by Sayyid Abul ‘Ala Maududi that was now financed by the Saudis, to amplify to his call for the book to be banned. Though he lacked direct access to a copy of The Satanic Verses, he still felt himself licensed to take offense, and to offer the prime minister advice on the matter. He was also kind enough to summarize its sins for others: “For me, the synopsis, the review, the excerpts, the opinions of those who had read [the book],” Shahbuddin proudly remarked, “were enough [to form a judgement].” “You depict the Prophet as an imposter,” he ranted in the pages of the Times of India, and “had the nerve to situate the wives of the Prophet in a brothel.” Even the title of the book, he interjected, “is suggestively derogatory.” [22] Shahbuddin invoked a colonial-era statute (Article 295 A) that makes it an imprisonable offense to insult the religious beliefs of anyone else by words, either spoken or written. The preposterously capacious article of the Indian legal code, which dates to the 1920s, was enacted after an anonymous novel, Rangila Rasool (The Colorful Prophet [1924]), a satirical look at the sex life of the Prophet, roiled conservative Muslims in the state of Punjab and was condemned by none other than Gandhi in Young India. Throughout his campaign, Shahbuddin impishly referred to the work as Satanic Verses, dropping the use of the definite article as is often the habit of speakers of Indian English, but also implying that the book was written by none other than Satan himself. It made no difference to Shahbuddin that The Satanic Verses was, as he acknowledged, a work of fiction.

It was partly through the extensive connections of the Jama’at-e-Islami that the localized row over The Satanic Verses became the international L’affair Rushdie. Alerted to the row in India, Syed Faiyazuddin Ahmed of the Islamic Foundation in Leicester and a Jama’at sympathizer, bought a copy of the book, xeroxed selections, and then mailed and faxed them to embassies and other organizations worldwide. [23] The Jama’at-e-Islami in Pakistan had already targeted Rushdie when he wrote Shame (1983), which unflinchingly criticized the Pakistani army for its conduct in the Bangladesh War and included an unsympathetic depiction of the Islamization drive led by the unctuous dictator General Zia-ul-Haq; so the Jama’at was only too eager to call the The Satanic Verses to be banned. Late in October, on the night that The Satanic Verses fell short of garnering the Booker Prize, Rushdie received an ominous telephone message from a cleric in South Africa that sought to dissuade him from appearing at an upcoming conference in Johannesburg. South African Muslims of Indian origin in the anti-apartheid coalition had heard about the events in India and were angry that Rushdie had been invited to speak to the Congress of South African Writers (COSAW) on the topic of apartheid and censorship. Meanwhile, the Natal Indian Congress and the Transvaal Indian Congress were also pressing the organizers, the editors of the anti-apartheid newspaper the Weekly Mail and Nadine Gordimer of COSAW, to revoke their invitation to the author. Unsurprisingly, the apartheid state gladly obliged the calls to censor the book. Its official statement proscribing the book claimed to rest on a report by experts, when in fact it had borrowed phrasing from a statement by the UK Action Committee on Islamic Affairs, a Saudi-funded and Jama’at-influenced group set up to find ways to suppress the book in Britain—a testament to the increasingly tentacular reach of the anti-Rushdie campaign.

Meanwhile, the Grand Sheikh Gad el-Haq Ali Gad el-Haq of the venerable Al-Azhar in Egypt took the opportunity to condemn The Satanic Verses, as well as to renew an allegation against Naguib Mahfouz, whose 1959 novel Children of Gabelawi he judged to be heretical. Another cleric in Egypt, Omar Abdel-Rahman, “the blind sheikh” later indicted for his involvement in the 1994 attack on the World Trade Center, remarked that had Mahfouz, who won the Nobel Prize in 1988, been made an example of properly, Salman Rushdie would never have had the temerity to write his book. [24] (And in an echo of that earlier statement, Sayyid Hassan Nasrallah, the leader of Hezbollah, remarked, in a 2006 appearance on Al Jazeera, had someone made an example of Rushdie by carrying out the wishes of the Ayatollah, the Danish newspaper editor of Jyllands-Posten would not have dared to run cartoons of the Prophet Muhammad. [25]) A zealot eventually knifed an aged Mahfouz in the neck—a sign of things to come.

Despite the growing list of countries that hastened to halt the sales of The Satanic Verses, the anti-Rushdie campaign was relatively muted until the month of December 1988, when major street demonstrations were held in the gritty mill towns of northern England. It was there that, in a display of free speech, the book was first publicly set alight. The scenes from the demonstrations split Britain into rivalrous camps; each criticized the other as intolerant and so only hardened the views of the other. The first demonstration in Bolton, the site of historic labor confrontations, brought out close to seven thousand marchers. It was led by the Deoband, that is, rivals to the Jama’at-e-Islami. A stronger turnout was evident a couple of days later in Bradford—“Islamabad”—in Yorkshire; soon thereafter the offices of Penguin Viking in London were inundated with minacious calls. The start of 1989 brought about more, albeit smaller, rallies. But then, on January 14, at another demonstration in Bradford, this one led by the Labour councilor and erstwhile Lord Mayor of the city, Mohammed Ajeeb, a copy of The Satanic Verses was nailed to a stake and burned on camera. At once, the bookstore chain WH Smith took the book off the shelves at all its 430 stores, supposedly on account of its disappointing sales. [26] After the events in Bradford, the jury for the Whitbread Book Awards flip-flopped on whether to confer the title of Book of the Year on The Satanic Verses, although the book did win the Best Novel category. A fortnight later, almost eight thousand anti-Rushdie demonstrators marched on Hyde Park in London, where there were clashes with the counter-protesting Rushdie supporters.

Apart from signaling the rise of a new Islamist ideology, the Rushdie Affair revealed a major realignment politically within Britain, in which Labour fell in behind the anti-Rushdie campaigners. A number of Labour MPs, such as Max Madden of Bradford West, sided with the demonstrators, while Jack Straw, who was to become an important figure in the Blairite ministries of the 1990s, suggested that the anachronistic anti-blasphemy laws in Britain should be widened beyond the Church of England to include all religions. Keith Vaz, the British-Indian MP for Leicester East, first telephoned Rushdie to deplore the appalling fatwa, only to lead thousands of Muslims days later on a march at which he called for The Satanic Verses to be banned. Although Neil Kinnock, the head of the party, privately confided his support to Rushdie, he was reluctant to say much publicly. [27] Only Tony Benn and a small band of left-Labour MPs stood on the other side of the issue. [28] Margaret Thatcher and her ministers were also seen on television sympathizing with the insulted. Yet, when it mattered, Margaret Torture, as she was referred to in The Satanic Verses, tapped the resources of the British state to shield the author. It was all enough to lead Rushdie, a Labour supporter all his life, to conclude “the true conservatives of Britain are now in the Labour Party, while the radicals are all in blue [with the Tories].” [29]

The Bradford auto-da-fé marked an escalation in the anti-Rushdie campaign that reached its apex with the death sentence from Tehran. On the February 12, 1989, the Jamaat-e-Islami in Pakistan, chastened but still venomous after a recent electoral defeat, mobilized an enormous anti-Rushdie demonstration in the capital, Islamabad (despite the fact that the book had already been banned). The Jama’at bused in demonstrators to Islamabad and, seemingly inexplicably targeted the American Cultural Center, where the Stars and Stripes was stripped from the flagpole and torched together with a Rushdie effigy—all to chants of “Allahu Akbar.” Guards on the scene fired at the rioters—the first fatal casualties of the Rushdie Affair. Meanwhile, in neighboring Iran, the demonstration caught attention of the Ayatollah Khomeini, who swiftly issued his fatwa against the book and its author, putting the resources of the state behind his edict. The unromantic valentine to Rushdie from the Ayatollah, was broadcast over the radio from Tehran on February 14, 1989. About a week later, the Ayattolah labeled Rushdie an unconscious tool of an imperialist and Zionist conspiracy to halt the advance of the Islamic revolution. Ayatollah Hassan Sanei, the head of the 15 Khordad Foundation, raised the ante by proffering two million dollars to a successful assassin. And the fatwa reverberated globally. Sunni-led states across the Middle East, East Asia, and North Africa suddenly found themselves supporting the Shia clerics. Colonel Muammar Gaddafi of Libya threw in his support for the actions of the ayatollahs with the concise declaration “Islam does not forgive apostasy.”

For an instant, Rushdie hoped, though it ran counter to his own instincts, that an apology might appease the ayatollahs. President Ali Khamenei had hinted that an apology might win him a reprieve. Yet Rushdie was still in shock when he was interviewed on television for CBS news in New York on the fateful afternoon that he learned of the fatwa. When asked about the news, he combatively blustered on air, “Frankly, I wish I had written a more critical book. . .It seems to me that Islamic fundamentalists could do with a bit of criticism right now.” Rushdie continued, “It simply doesn’t add up” that the clerics would issue such a verdict only to go on and say “this is a religion which must be above any kind of whisper of criticism.” Once the initial shock wore off, he wrote a statement expressing his regret for the distress that his book had triggered, but he soon loathed himself for it. Besides the statement was ineffective, as “it was rejected, then half-accepted, then rejected again.” [30]

After his apology was rebuffed, Rushdie still sought to reason his way out of the situation by appealing to moderate, rationalist traditions within Islam. Faced with calls to conform and submit to the will of the clerics, the author found it especially poignant that his father had chosen the last name Rushdie for himself and his son out of admiration for Ibn Rushd, who, eight centuries earlier, had argued that aspects of the legal code and the Qur’an should be interpreted allegorically. Although he had ventured to imaginatively retell the story of the origins of Islam, such sacrilege as Rushdie highlighted was based on a number of traditional sources that mention the episode in which Muhammad recited verses by the Devil that he mistook for messages from the archangel Gabriel. After his apology, in the Greek sense of a defense of his work, failed, Rushdie even wrote a column in the New York Times professing that he was a Muslim who acknowledged the oneness of God and the prophecy of Muhammed. Yet this, too, fell on deaf ears; some of his secular leftist supporters in Britain, such as Tariq Ali, even turned against him after his confession of faith. [31] After the fatwa, vandals firebombed bookshops in Berkeley, London, and Sydney, and the book was burned at demonstrations as far afield as Toronto. [32] The moderate rector of the Grand Mosque of Brussels and his deputy were killed for speaking out against the death sentence, and a suicide attacker in London, whose target may have been the offices of Viking Penguin, prematurely set off his explosives and killed himself. [33] Booksellers attempted to halt the sales of his book and Viking Penguin temporized over putting out a paperback edition. Faced with a new kind of Islamist ideology that had taken hold globally and defined the categories of the debate about his book, Rushdie, fearful for his life, abandoned the idea of trying to revive the role of Ibn Rushd for the modern age. Instead, he was forced underground, adopting an alias for the sake of his handlers from Scotland Yard. Joseph Anton was the name Rushdie chose, in tribute to his favorite authors, Conrad and Chekov.


A conspicuous trait of the British anti-Rushdie campaign was the curious attraction it held for a sub-section of the Left. Amidst the older, bearded men in their white praying caps, who flocked to the anti-Rushdie demonstrations in Hyde Park in the spring of 1989, were young, well-educated, and integrated second-generation types—clean-shaven, in sweatbands, denim, and sneakers—who understood themselves to be radical in an altogether different sense. [34] The fact that the anti-Rushdie campaign was appealing to secular and liberal-minded children of immigrants from the Commonwealth, who had settled in industrial centers across England in decades earlier, complicates claims that the fundamentalist ideology on display at the demonstrations had simply swept in from one of the ex-colonies or originated with firebrand imams preaching hate in British mosques. The new recruits to fundamentalism were neither “caught between cultures” nor interested in upholding familial traditions; their radicalism was thoroughly modern. [35] “Few [of the young men at the rallies] were religious, let alone fundamentalist,” remembers the writer Kenan Malik in his semi-autobiographical book mapping the rightward shift of his mates and comrades from East London Workers Against Racism, an anti-racist and anti-fascist front group for the Trotskyist organization the Revolutionary Communist Party (RCP). Much to his astonishment, a number of ex-comrades had volunteered to be foot soldiers in the anti-Rushdie campaign. Malik, who was on assignment in autumn of 1989 for the Voice, a “black” newspaper, poignantly recounts an exchange in Bradford with a friend from his days in the Socialist Workers Party, whom he remembered as more interested in Trotskyism, Southern Comfort, sex, Arsenal, dope, and The Clash, than in religion. Tired of dull party meetings and spending his days on the street corner trying to sell socialist newspapers that no one wanted, this friend confided to Malik that he had lost faith in the “white left,” and that he had relocated to Bradford from London to lend succor to the campaign against Rushdie in order “to defend our dignity as Muslims.” [36] “Disenchantment with the left eroded his ideas about universal values and beliefs in struggles across communities,” Malik observes of his friend, but adds that the Left itself was giving up on those same values and beliefs. [37] The friend in effect only opened a door (to the right) that he had been shown by the Left.

Although Malik himself writes nowadays as a defender of liberal values, rather than as a sectarian leftist, the metamorphosis of his friend was by no means unique. Indeed, the British arm of Hizb ut-Tahrir (HuT), which was fascinated with the idea of a reborn caliphate decades before ISIS came on to the scene, was set up by a member of the SWP who was a student at Sheffield, whereas Anjem Choudary, the notorious spokesman for al-Muhajiroun, an even more radical group than HuT, was himself once an SWP activist at Southampton University. [38] Militant Islamist groups, preaching a new kind of internationalism that split the world on the axis of the faithful versus everyone else, readily found new recruits at British universities as the Left imploded. Jihadists were successful in pushing a doctrine of self-organization as the logical response to the failure (and self-sabotage) of the leftist anti-racism campaigns of an earlier era.

The irony was that the young men protesting against the The Satanic Verses had once looked up to Rushdie. For Rushdie had been prominently involved in anti-racism campaigns, giving articulate voice, in both his fiction and nonfiction, to their concerns about life in the new multi-ethnic Britain. [39] A witness to the rise of the ultra-right National Front since the mid-1970s, Rushdie was profoundly aware that modern Britain had failed to incorporate “black” migrants, a capacious category politically that included anyone of South Asian, West-Indian, or African descent. Throughout the 1980s, as he made a name for himself as a novelist, Rushdie also filled the role of cultural critic, penning a series of trenchant op-eds for Channel 4 on the racism and xenophobia in contemporary British life. [40] Post-colonial Britain, Rushdie remarked in 1982, was still marked by the indelible stain and “the filth of imperialism.” [41] The election of Margaret Thatcher, he argued, had reawakened “the spirit of imperialism” in “white Britons of all classes,” who felt that newcomers from the ex-colonies were “swamping” Britain; rather than exporting white rule to new colonies, Rushdie held, British authorities had “chosen instead to import a new Empire.” Inspired by his friend Susan Sontag, who had referred to the white race as a cancer on civilization, Rushdie rounded off his exposition by positing that the most serious obstacle black immigrants faced in Thatcherite Britain was white racism. [42] The first waves of black migrants to Britain after the Second World War had sought to integrate themselves, but that ambition was soon flattened to mean assimilation. Moreover, Rushdie uncertainly cautioned, there was a new catchword, “multiculturalism,” that was likely to reveal itself as a sham. [43]

The demonstrators at the anti-Rushdie rallies in 1989 were precisely the children of British multiculturalism, a policy first outlined by Labour in the mid-1960s, when anxieties about immigrants from the Commonwealth and erstwhile colonies first bubbled to the surface. Labour had committed itself in its 1964 election manifesto to putting forward an anti-discrimination bill. The party tabled a bill in 1965 that sought to outlaw discrimination in theaters, restaurants, and alehouses; make it illegal to overcharge someone based on race; and strengthen statutes aimed at preserving order by classifying “incitement to racial hatred” as an imprisonable offense. Although, as critics noted, the bill omitted obvious categories such as employment, public housing, and credit, it set up the Race Relations Board, which was empowered to launch satellites in the form of local conciliation committees. Still, the scope of the 1965 Act was limited, so the Board together with the National Committee for Commonwealth Immigrants commissioned a report on racial discrimination in Britain that would incorporate studies of anti-discrimination statutes in the U.S. This resulted in the Race Relations Act of 1968, which made it illegal to discriminate based on color, race, ethnic, or national origins. But the new law was still silent on discrimination based on religion. More importantly, Labour collected the votes for the bill by imposing stricter immigration controls to halt the influx of newcomers. [44] Instead of trying to assimilate and integrate the migrants who had settled in Britain, Home Secretary Roy Jenkins, one of the architects of the idea of the national survey and report on racial discrimination, introduced a new policy in his 1966 speech to the National Committee for Commonwealth Immigrants specifying that state agencies ought to strive for “cultural diversity, coupled with equal opportunity, in an atmosphere of mutual tolerance.” It was an early articulation of what came to be termed “multiculturalism.” [45] Both Labour statesmen and New Left activists now “talked of culture and sought to strengthen cultural identity.” [46] While some Conservatives had always held that immigrants were unassimilable, the party was not committed to this view. Indeed, in substantial measure Conservatives accepted the Labour policy of promoting immigrant communities within Britain in exchange for placing curbs on fresh immigration from the Commonwealth and ex-colonies.

Discontent with Labour continued to build as the recession of the 1970s wore on. The party showed itself to be ineffective at pulling Britain out of its economic decline, or even of impeding the rise of the ultra-right National Front, which terrorized immigrants on the streets, in their neighborhoods, and at their workplaces. It was in this context that the election of Margaret Thatcher in 1979 marked a new era of the culture wars. She understood herself to be a staunch defender of “Western” values and tough on issues of race and immigration. Yet her administration advanced the policy of multiculturalism inherited, mutatis mutandis, from Labour. The race riots of the late-1970s and early-1980s led British policy-makers of that era, both liberal and conservative, to accept that “Western” values were ill-suited to migrant communities, which were thought to be best left to their own ethnic and religious associations. [47] Sir George Young, who was appointed by Thatcher as the first minister for race relations, implemented a strategy seemingly at odds from what might have been expected from a Tory ministry. Not only did he beef up the policing, especially in the wake of major race riots across England in the late-1970s and early-1980s, he also channeled considerable resources to the inner-cities in the form of awards to different “community” groups. [48]

At the municipal level, Labour, whose ranks had swelled with the entry of erstwhile Trotskyists, captured numerous local councils. From “the Socialist Republic of South Yorkshire” to the Greater London Council, local authorities sought to advance “anti-racism,” granting millions from their coffers to strengthen minority groups. Throughout the 1980s and 1990s, state funds were handed over to Afro-Caribbean church associations, Bangladeshi mosque committees, Hindu mandir advisories, Sikh gurdwara councils, Irish community organizations, and similar groups. Beyond the reallocation of resources, an important consequence of this strategy was that it, in effect, redefined racism. It no longer meant denying someone else their rights “but the denial of the right to be different.” [49] The self-appointed representatives of these ethnic and religious communities helped to usher in this idea of the new, multicultural Britain, in which different communities were separate but equal. Equality itself came to mean not simply “possessing the same rights as everyone else, [but] possessing different rights appropriate to different communities.” [50] The logical conclusion of this new state initiative was reached in 2000 with the report of the Commission on the Future of Multi-Ethnic Britain. Chaired by Bhikhu Parekh, the report declared the U.K. both a “liberal and multicultural society.” [51] Equality, the report stressed, without a hint of anxiety, should be defined in a manner that was culturally sensitive. The report at once codified the project of British multiculturalism and transformed into its opposite the liberal defense of equality.


It is difficult to claim that the Left in Britain suffered defeat and disillusionment at the hands of racists or Thatcherites without first probing its own implosion, politically and at a theoretical level, over the issue of anti-racism. How the Left understood the fight against racism and the struggle for socialism reverberated, especially in light of its subsequent lifelessness, far beyond Britain and well into the future. It extended to radicals in the ex-colonies; smoothed the way for the reception of new currents in French philosophy; and led the way for reabsorption of Trotskyism into the mainstream of the Left. It found connections across the Atlantic through CLR James, who, as one of the co-founders Johnson–Forest Tendency (Raya Dunayevskaya, aka “Forest,” was the other), had helped to shape how Trotskyists of the 1940s and 1950s dealt with the challenge of racism in the United States. [52] It was significant therefore when, in 1967, James urged the Left in Britain to accept the model of the American Black Power Movement as the latest advance in the struggle for socialism. Of Stokely Carmichael, James remarked, “no clearer or stronger voice for socialism has ever been raised in the U.S.” James stressed that the Trotskyists had failed to appreciate properly that the struggle by black citizens in the U.S. for their democratic rights and legal equality should itself be left independent, that is, racially segregated. Indeed, this was why he had broken with the Trotskyism in favor of a “Leninist” viewpoint as far back as 1951. For him, Lenin had noted in 1916 that socialists had to lead “an outburst of mass struggle,” regardless of “their prejudices, their reactionary fantasies, their weaknesses and errors,” since the “objective truth of a heterogeneous and discordant, motley and outwardly incohesive, mass struggle” would still amount to an attack on capital. [53] While the American Left had learned from its mistakes, James contended, the British Left was still confused about the role of such independent struggles. Others on the Left had come to the same conclusion, namely that the struggle for socialism had to be understood as distinct from the immediate fight against racism. Meanwhile, in the 1970s and 1980s, sections of the Left in Britain came to be increasingly focused on matters of national policy rather than internationalism.

The economic downturn of the 1970s bred familiar resentments toward immigrants who had settled in Britain. Clashes between the National Front, anti-racism campaigners, and young black radicals were common throughout the decade. A major conflagration flared up in the spring of 1976, when the National Front marched through the predominantly Muslim neighborhood of Manningham in Bradford. The march sparked a violent clash with anti-racist and anti-fascist counter-demonstrators. A couple of months later, Gurdip Singh Chaggar was murdered by a gang of skinheads in the London exurb of Southall. The anti-fascist Asian Youth Movement arose from the street clashes that followed. John Rose, a writer for International Socialism, remarked on the sudden emergence of a militant anti-racist Indian organization—the Southall Youth Movement (SYM). What struck Rose about them was that these young radicals were allergic to the sectarian left; a white member of the Communist Party of Great Britain (CPGB) was manhandled by a gang patrolling the streets of Southall after the murder. For Rose, there were reasons for the SYM to be skeptical of the CPGB, whose “strategy [was] to use the upsurge in Southall as a way of gaining electoral advantage for local council elections.” [54] The International Socialists would not make the same mistake.

The SYM was also distant from the emigré left. Both the Communist Party of India (Marxist) and the Maoist “Naxalites” were active in Southall, but their attention apparently was focused on events in India, where Indira Gandhi had declared a state of emergency to ensure that she and her party stayed in office. The SYM organizers had already shown themselves capable of garnering support and getting demonstrators on to the streets, besides which some members had won a reputation for themselves as streetfighters. Here was an organization involved in areas that mattered to young Indians, schools, factories, temples, and sports clubs. Despite the fact that the SYM had an unelected central committee and a seemingly senseless slogan of “No Politics!” the IS tried to reassure older members that the SYM was nonetheless a leftist anti-racist campaign worth supporting. Behind the reassurances of the anti-fascist and anti-racist bona fides of the SYM there was a clear sense that the IS was behind the curve. If the IS failed to intervene in the anti-racism campaigns of the 1960s and 1970s, as these started to dissolve, the Stalinist CP would sweep up the remains.

The spark lit in Manningham and Southall in 1976 turned by the 1980s into the Asian Youth Movement (AYM). The AYM saw itself an extension of, but also marked a departure from, the older Indian Workers’ Association (IWA), the organization that, since its creation in the late 1930s, had led immigrant rights and anti-racist campaigns in England. [55] The AYM tried to carve out a space for the consideration of issues of race separate from labor and socialist organizations, spurning the older strategy of trying to fight discrimination through campaigns for better wages and equality. Despite its name, the IWA had sought to unite South Asian immigrants of different class, religious, and national backgrounds by pushing for equality in the workplace through a program of radical integration of white and non-white workers. It rejected separate black sections within unions and oriented itself to grappling with race as a concrete historical condition for the reproduction of industrial capital in Britain after the Second World War.

Against this older strain of anti-racist mobilization, the AYM understood racism as constitutive of the “whiteness” of the working class, of the “exclusive privilege” enjoyed by white workers. The IWA and the traditional Left, on this view, had failed to address the challenge of racism. Yet, in grasping the issue of racism in Britain as the oppression of national minorities, the AYM explicitly modeled its views on the separatist ethos of the Black Panther Party in the United States. It thus risked deepening rather than eclipsing the sociopolitical importance of ethnic identities. Unsurprisingly, the AYM adopted as its symbol the raised fist associated with the slogan “black power.” The IS, which transformed itself into the Socialist Workers Party in 1976, soon adopted the symbol for itself. [56] Yet in adopting the symbols of Black Power as signs of “resistance” to capitalism the Left failed to ask: What were the consequences of the AYM equating the struggle against racism with the anti-imperialist struggle for “national liberation”? What does it tell us that the most virulent racism in Britain coincided with a stretch of increased industrial action? Just as a decade later, at the height of the Rushdie Affair, it failed to ask: How is that young British Asians were ready to forsake the Left to fight alongside, rather than against, the mullahs? If there was any doubt about the effects of AYM on the IWA, one needs only to refer to the comments by Avtar Singh Jouhl, the General Secretary of the IWA in 1989. Jouhl chastised the weak stance Labour staked out in the Rushdie Affair, pointing to its unwillingness to criticize the conservatism of black communities, but was himself adamant that there was a distinct black and white left that could not be lumped together. The reason for this, Jouhl remarked, was that “within the white left there is inbuilt racism.” [57] Such a statement was a tacit renunciation of integrationism as a failed strategy.


Of course there were sections of the Left that were eager to defend Rushdie, confront the fascists in the National Front, and oppose Muslim fundamentalists. Even so, the Rushdie Affair revealed the further disintegration of the sectarian Left, which for decades had tailed behind the Black Power Movement and then the AYM. Far from pushing for liberal rights for immigrants as a means to rebuild the socialist Left, various sections of the Left refused or hesitated to stand up for Rushdie and willingly invited the state to set curbs on freedom of speech, a weapon that the Left had relied on going back to the First International in their struggle for socialism. [58] Few could manage a straight-forward defense of Rushdie. Almost always, their defense was framed by the categories of anti-racism and anti-imperialism, which were themselves left unquestioned. It was the unwillingness or inability of the Left to address those shibboleths that contributed to its inexorable decline into oblivion or, worse, slipping into unsuspecting apologists for illiberalism and Muslim fundamentalism. The end of the Cold War, which coincided with the Rushdie Affair, has only further obscured the degree to which the Left had already ceded its own standpoint.

Despite criticisms of the Communist Party of Great Britain by others on the Left for championing the “socialist facet of the Iranian clergy,” [59] at least one section of the creaky Stalinist party, was able to recall enough of its internationalist Marxist vocabulary in 1989 to argue, “it is beholden on all democrats to stand four square in defense of Rushdie.” [60] The Leninist, the newspaper of an oppositional left faction within the CPGB, held that the anti-Rushdie demonstrations had to be condemned unequivocally, while the Left had to avoid getting “waylaid for one moment by cynical accusations of racism or any such nonsense.” [61] The official theoretical organ of the party, Marxism Today, was more open to the view that the Left had failed immigrants in Britain on account of its own blind spots and racism. One editorial remarked that the Rushdie Affair had highlighted the “dilemmas of diversity” for socialists. [62] Whether it was the case, as critics charged, that the CPGB was trying to exploit the anti-immigration backlash to win over the “black” vote in local elections, the Leninist faction, the left-opposition within the party, was skeptical of the way that anti-Rushdie campaigners repositioned themselves to level other conservative demands, such as separate schools for Muslim children and the like. The party as a whole nevertheless accepted the idea that immigrants were members of oppressed nationalities within Britain.

Amongst the Trotskyists, the Socialist Workers Party, the largest leftist party in Britain after the dissolution of the CPGB in 1991, ran a couple of favorable reviews of The Satanic Verses. One reviewer, Rahul Patel, even referred to The Satanic Verses as the best book Rushdie had written to date. But the emphasis of the review was the worrying trend of the Left in Britain and in India opposing the book. Without a united Left to oppose the National Front, as there had been in the 1970s, Patel was anxious that the culture wars under Thatcher had thrown “the left in some confusion.” Yet “the Indian left [was] no better,” tinged as it was with an undigested nationalism, suspicious as it was of Rushdie and his cosmopolitan fiction. [63] Gareth Jenkins, the other reviewer for the SWP, stated emphatically in the March issue of Socialist Worker Review, “The book is not anti-Muslim.” Jenkins wrote that by putting up a robust defense of the The Satanic Verses, “socialists can show how they first and foremost oppose racism and imperialism, while pointing out that fundamentalism only continues to bind the oppressed to their oppressor.” [64] Alex Callinicos, who remains the major theorist of the SWP, reiterated the same sentiment in the April issue of the same magazine. [65] Yet, within a couple of months, the magazine was publicizing its Marxism 89 conference, which was to feature staunch anti-Rushdieites, such as the craven Labour MP Keith Vaz and the critic John Berger. And in the decades that followed, the SWP was to vacillate on whether The Satanic Verses was in fact offensive, pirouetting into the arms of the multicultural mainstream.

Smaller Trotskyist organizations meanwhile sought to complete the critique of the numerous equivocations of the liberal left: whether Rushdie had a right to criticize a venerable religion; whether The Satanic Verses ought to remain available; whether the anti-blasphemy statutes in Britain should be extended to include all religions; and whether the British state should continue to deal with the theocratic regime in Tehran after the fatwa. The Revolutionary Communist Party (RCP), which had floated anti-fascist front groups to fight the National Front in street clashes in the 1980s, launched a robust defense of “the right to be offensive.” [66] All democratic ideas, such as universal suffrage and freedom of conscience, were seen as offensive before they were accepted as liberal values. Yet the RCP was either glossing over or missed the fact that the anti-Rushdie campaigners were themselves trying to assert their claims as a matter of progress and democratic right. Influenced profoundly by the work of CLR James, the RCP stressed that it was incumbent upon Marxists to remonstrate against the erosion of freedom of speech, through the Orwellian 1986 Public Order Act, which had been used to attack anyone critical of the state. [67] But as opposed to the anti-Rushdie campaign as the RCP was, the party was reluctant to follow others on the Left in going so far as to refer to Muslim fundamentalists as fascists, out of concern about the Left playing into the hands of imperialists and racists. Although the RCP came to dissolve itself as a party in 1997 (its theoretical organ, Living Marxism, folded in 2000), a number of its ex-members founded Spiked, a contrarian online magazine that sees itself as neither right nor left. The British section of the Spartacist League, for its part, stressed that that the Labour policy of parceling immigrants into religious “communities” was in fact responsible for pushing young Muslims toward the mullahs, mosques, and into the ranks of the Jama’at-e-Islami. The insistence of the Tories on waging culture wars on immigrants had much the same effect. [68]

If the Trotskyists were, in the main, staunch critics of mullahs that had ruled in Tehran since 1979, there were nevertheless different emphases in their concerns. With Thatcher publicly and privately pressing for regime change in Tehran, some Trotskyists were more focused on “anti-imperialism,” than “anti-racism” and “anti-fascism.” The splinter group, Workers Power, which formed the British section of the League for the Fifth International, made the case that the imperialist West, “Thatcher, Bush, and EEC,” had no serious interest in protecting Rushdie or upholding artistic freedom of expression; instead, the West was aligning itself with moderate elements within the Islamic Republic of Iran that sought to overcome its economic crisis through “the wholesale reintegration of the Iranian capitalism into the economic orbit of imperialism.” Such a project of economic reform was intended to undermine “the demands and aspirations of the Iranian Revolution [that] were profoundly anti-imperialist.” Like others on the “anti-imperialist” Left, Workers Power flattened the issue of imperialism, which Marxists once understood as an issue of Bonapartist rule or authoritarianism at the heart of capital, into a stance that indistinguishably melded into a non-Marxist species of support for cronyist Third World regimes.

Maoists groups, such as the Revolutionary Communist Party of Britain (Marxist-Leninist), took a rather different view on the entire matter. A front-page article in the Maoist organ Workers’ Weekly referred to The Satanic Verses as “a deliberate insult against the religious beliefs of millions.” The same article, titled “Britain should cease its hostile acts against Iran,” also articulated the view that freedom of expression excluded the right to “denigrate, ridicule, or insult” the faith of millions. Once the anti-Rushdie campaign built a head of steam, the Maoists openly agitated for pulping copies of The Satanic Verses and expanding the anti-blasphemy statutes in Britain, untroubled by the fact that these same statutes had been used to target the Chartists in the 1840s. The Maoist stance—at once an anti-imperialist defense of the theocratic regime in Tehran as well as a call for curbs on the right to freedom of expression—has since become mainstream on the Left.

The intention in surveying the alphabet soup of the Left has been neither to declare which took the “right” stance when it came to the Rushdie Affair nor to affirm either anti-fascism or anti-imperialism. The intention in pointing out the self-abnegation of the Left since the late-1960s and 1970s is also not to argue that the New Left abandoned a class standpoint in favor of concerns about race and identity, as though class were itself an unproblematic category. [69] The intention rather has been to use the Rushdie Affair to illuminate the advanced state of decline in which the Left found itself by the late 1980s. Even those leftist groups that mounted a robust defense of Rushdie, such as the Leninist faction of the CPGB, the Spartacists, and the RCP amongst others, nevertheless found themselves incapable of revivifying the Left. Whereas the SWP and others, who ended up being hoisted with their own petard, were incorporated into the mainstream through the identity politics that they themselves played into.


The Rushdie Affair revealed a level of disorientation on the contemporary Left in 1989, which has only become worse since, as is best illustrated by the trajectory of the Socialist Workers Party (SWP). After the 2015 massacre at the offices of the French satirical magazine Charlie Hebdo, which had run cartoons of the Prophet Muhammad, Slavoj Žižek, like the ex-RCPer Kenan Malik, identified the Rushdie Affair as the first instance of a new leftist pathology, the unwillingness of the Left to critique fundamentalist Islam out of a crippling fear of unwittingly giving in to Islamophobia. [70] Last August, an article in the SWP party newspaper, the Socialist Worker, reacted to the news of the murderous attack on Rushdie at the Chautauqua Institute with this (alarmist or possibly wishful) prophecy, “The appalling stabbing of novelist Salman Rushdie in New York is certain to unleash a renewed tide of Islamophobia, whatever the details of his attacker.” Of course no such tide materialized. But the SWP was undeterred. Its main mission since 9/11 has been to oppose Islamophobia in all its manifestations. Indeed, if the SWP is to be believed, Islamophobia, an insidious form of hatred of Muslims evident in an inchoate form since at least the Rushdie Affair, now comprises the most virulent form of racism that there is and that the Left ought to unite to fight this scourge. [71] Although supposedly written in response to the attack, the August article was simply pasting together a collage of various tidbits in the SWP archive. For example, in a 2012 review of Joseph Anton for the Socialist Worker, Gareth Jenkins, who had written an unflinchingly supportive review of The Satanic Verses in 1989, insisted that it was no accident that The Satanic Verses was first burned in Bradford, “where discrimination against Muslims was particularly acute.” Jenkins held that the book was “the last straw for oppressed minority whose only bulwark against a hostile, racist society seemed to be religious identity, betrayed, it seemed, by one of their own” (emphasis mine). The anti-Rushdie demonstrations, Jenkins concluded, were a misunderstood “response to racism.” At a SWP conference in 2010, the veteran leftist Tariq Ali likened the contemporary demonization of Muslims in the West to the kind of anti-Semitism faced by the Jews on the Continent on the eve of WWII. Meanwhile, Alex Callinicos, the chief theorist of the SWP, claimed as far back as 2006 that Islam in Europe was the religion of an impoverished and stigmatized minority “that suffers from systematic discrimination.” Callinicos recalled that the SWP had defended Rushdie in 1989, but also “recognized the real anger and hurt the novel caused Muslims in Britain and other Western societies. The book, rightly or wrongly, came to symbolize the humiliation and discrimination Muslims suffered, and indeed continue to suffer.” The SWP nevertheless mistakes empathy with the downtrodden for apologetics. If immigrants generally and Muslims specifically are at a disadvantage in the labor market and are subject to bigotry, the issue is why.

At the height of the Rushdie Affair, mosques in England were targeted specifically by neo-fascist thugs, who had also started to hurl “Muslim” as an epithet at immigrants. Yet the Left had no need of the category of Islamophobia to make sense of those events. It was well-understood that the right always acts opportunistically. The issue then is what has the Left either won or lost by applying the rubric of Islamophobia to contemporary events? Tariq Ali tried to explain in an article titled “Islamophobia Exposed” that “Islamophobia is something that has been artificially engendered, especially in the Western world, against what is regarded as the new enemy.” [72] On this view, paradoxically, Islamophobia is not an irrational hatred of someone because of their religion, but an ideology that can be turned on and off like a switch by western imperialists. Such a claim makes Ali a useful idiot for the fundamentalists insofar as, from the outset, he concedes to the conservative Islamist view. Indeed, when radicalized Muslims in Britain attack non-Muslims they do so to rally Muslims behind them, splitting the entire world into the faithful and the non-believers. The use of the category “Islamophobia” readily advances this claim on behalf of the terrorists who recycle vague cliches about Islam and West. It should be obvious, but is probably still worth pointing out, that Muslims come in all (ethnic) stripes and colors (races); there is no form of racism capacious enough to cover such a broad swathe. The category of Islamophobia is slippery. Has there been an actual demonization of those of a certain religious background or those with fervent anti-secular views? Why should someone from the Middle East or South Asia be mobilized around their identity as Muslims, rather than politically, on the basis of fighting for their liberal rights against racism? And why should the Left abandon the tenents of secular society or concede that secularism is a Eurocentric or western value? Does the Left care to overcome ascriptive identities or to embrace them? The Left neither needs to defend Islam as a religion nor Islamic fundamentalism politically, beyond supporting the elementary defense of the civil rights of individuals, families, and communities, which of course includes freedom of religion.

Without going over to the side of the “new atheists,” such as Richard Dawkins and the late Christopher Hitchens, who polemically argue that religion as such is an issue, why should any leftist hesitate to critique religious extremism and theocratic states? The Marxist Left, Rosa Luxemburg clarified in 1905, “in no way fights against religious beliefs. On the contrary, it demands complete freedom of conscience for every individual and the widest conceivable toleration for every faith and every opinion.” [73] Yet, in pressing her case, she was not reinterpreting the Marxist critique of religion, but rather pressing the insight found in “On the Jewish Question” that the essence of religion is transformed when it is turned into a purely private affair, and that accomplishing this would be an achievement for both religion and politics. The historical Left thus fought to maintain the liberal achievement of separating church and state. While Luxemburg was arguing that that socialism would transfigure the importance of religion, Hassan Mahamdaille of the SWP perversely contends the opposite: that by self-identifying as Muslim, the anti-Rushdie campaigners came to be not only self-confident but filled with a sense that Muslims could join others to oppose Islamophobia “but also war and other injustice.” [74] Or, in short, self-identifying as Muslim is tantamount to joining the fight for socialism.

A voracious reader, Rushdie once remarked to a room full of other writers that a book is not justified by the worthiness of its author, but the quality of what has been written. [75] The facile critiques against him therefore have always taken the form of aesthetic verdicts: The Satanic Verses is bad fiction, a poorly written tale, a self-indulgent exercise. [76] Such criticisms (even if valid) were only ever a mask to hide behind. Though those on the Left can cozen themselves (in their view the worthiness of Rushdie was always tied to parsing whether, or to what degree, he himself was a leftist), the quality of what he wrote simply was not a factor. Gareth Jenkins of the SWP proudly remembers what it was like once to “interview a novelist whose works were imbued with anti-racism and mockery of imperialism and class prejudice.” After he read the robust defense of liberal values and the Enlightenment in Joseph Anton, Jenkins concluded that “the Rushdie who sided with the oppressed in 1989 does not appear in the Rushdie of the memoir. And that is a tragedy for all of us.” However, so as not to be appear boorish, Jenkins tried to interject some artful nuance into his review by positing that the offense of The Satanic Verses amounts to novelistic irreverence is incomparable to the “gratuitous[ly] racist ‘offense’” of the 2005 Danish and 2012 French “anti-Mohammed cartoons.” [77] The implication, since repeated without reflection, is that Rushdie was someone who, like his close and steadfast friend Christopher Hitchens, had shifted rightward, [78] when in fact it is the Left that had abandoned its erstwhile commitments to freedom in favor of mawkish appeals to relativism and a new tribalism. [79] After the fatwa, conservatives of all stripes rallied against the book by deploring its author as a heretical scribbler; nowadays, it is the Left that objects to the book by portraying its author as an apostate leftist. As it was for the mullahs, so it is today for many leftists: The sin of apostasy is not to be forgiven—and culpability is established merely by accusation.


The ire of the Left always flummoxed Salman Rushdie who saw himself as a soixante-huitard. Although painfully aware of attacks from the Left, especially from other left-liberal writers, Rushdie was at odds to explain them. From the outset of the “affair,” he was genuinely astonished that, “in spite of a lifetime of anticolonialism [he had been] transformed into an oppressor.” Indeed, it was Fatima Meer, a well-known anti-apartheid campaigner, who was among the first to attack the author, arguing that his invitation to address the Congress of South African Writers in the autumn of 1988 should be rescinded since “in the final analysis it is the Third World that Rushdie attacks.” [80] When the leftist cultural critic Paul Gilroy, author of the classic work of post-colonial theory There Ain’t no Black in the Union Jack, implied that Rushdie had invited tragedy by misjudging the reaction of millions of Muslims, the author was left almost speechless by how quickly the tide had turned. “As depressing as the Islamic campaign,” he later remarked, “were the attacks from the left.” [81] Later, in the autumn of 1993, shortly after the head of the publishing company responsible for the Norwegian edition of The Satanic Verses, was shot in Oslo, an ominous letter from a “D. Ali of the ‘Manchester Socialist Workers Party and Anti-Racist League’” cautioned the author that there were like-minded members everywhere from Liverpool to Bradford, and all across London, ready to kill the author for Allah. [82] For a certain kind of leftist, to stand against Rushdie and on the side of the Muslim extremists was ipso facto an anti-imperialist stance. From the standpoint of Old Left, as Christopher Hitchens noted in 1989, it was also more than a little ironic that, in an era in which the Afghan mujahidin was in lock step with the imperialist West, the Rushdie Affair would lead a number of liberals and leftists to identify Islam, “with the cry of the oppressed and with anti-imperialism.” [83] Added to this, in a final twist, was the fact that Rushdie in substantial measure shared the nationalist Third-Worldist views of his leftist critics who conflated socialism with anti-Westernism. The West, Rushdie once wrote, had failed to deliver progress and therefore “lost the future.” Of course this was the same Rushdie who had written a glowing account of the Sandinistas and the like. [84] The bind for Rushdie was that, although he himself was an “anti-imperialist” and “anti-racist” who believed the sorts of curbs on freedom of expression found in the British Race Relations Act were well-founded, [85] he still had a liberal allergy to cultural relativism and explicit calls for censorship. [86]

If the established Left failed to adequately address racism in Britain before the Rushdie Affair, its embrace of the rhetoric of multiculturalism and Islamophobia, has only further weakened its ability to do so. The apparent intractability of race in the present day might be best understood as a symptomatic expression of regression, rather than advance, in (and through) social political progress. The elaborate legal structure of segregation and discrimination has long collapsed. Ever since the 1960s, Britain has witnessed the decline of legal segregation, but also the simultaneous rise of a new kind of de facto segregation, such as separate religious schools, ethnic constituencies, and isolated neighborhoods, measures enacted in the name of multiculturalism. The policy of multiculturalism may have made sense to Labour and the Tories in the era of violent street clashes between the National Front and the AYM, especially against the backdrop of the prolonged economic crisis of the 1970s, but it has by now shown itself to be altogether chimerical as a means of grappling with racism. Multiculturalism was in this sense exemplary of the rise and fall of neoliberalism, nostalgia for which was especially evident in the 2015 campaign of Jeremy Corbyn, whose stint as the leader of Labour supposedly marked a return to “socialism.” Corbyn was of course committed to the idea of Britain as a multicultural community of communities and the remnants of the Left in Britain threw their support behind his campaign, at least until it was racked by controversies over anti-Semitism, in which one could detect the faint echoes of the undigested legacy of the Rushdie Affair. Unwittingly, multiculturalism has contributed to the rise of new fundamentalisms that are modern and metropolitan. The origins of the anti-Rushdie campaign owe more to the collapse and transformation of the Left, in Britain as well as globally, than to religious tradition or fundamentalist ideas that were imported from the ex-colonies. If nationalism revealed the failure of socialism after World War I, the new tribalism evident everywhere, since the Rushdie Affair, expresses the failure of capitalism in our own era.

The Rushdie Affair was a late manifestation of the crisis of the New Left. And the failure to digest the history of Rushdie Affair has meant that contemporary Left is fated to a form of repetition compulsion. “The exhortation to submit to events,” Rushdie once remarked, “is an essentially conservative one.” [87] Though Rushdie intended the statement as a critique of authors who sought to remain apolitical, or “inside the whale,” his description better suits the contemporary Left, which is hesitant, or possibly unable, to defend the freedom of speech once considered vital by the Left. Much less could leftists today offer a dialectical critique of liberalism; instead, the Left celebrates illiberal and reactionary views as forms of “resistance.” With civil rights generally, but the freedom of speech particularly, under assault from all sides, the contemporary Left may well get what it has wished for: an end to the freedoms it neither uses nor even seems to want.


[1] Peter Martagh, “Rushdie in Hiding after Ayatollah’s Death Threat,” Guardian, February 15, 1989,

[2] BBC World Broadcast, February 24, 1989, in Lisa Appignanesi and Sarah Maitland (eds.), The Rushdie File, (Syracuse: Syracuse University Press, 1990), 75.

[3] Salman Rushdie, The Satanic Verses, (London: Viking, 1988), 205.

[4] Martin Amis, “Rendezvous with Rushdie,” Vanity Fair, December 1990, 162.

[5] Hamid Dabashi, “The Salman Rushdie Affair: Thirty Years and a Novelist Later,” Al Jazeera, February 19, 2019,

[6] Chelsia Rose Marcius, Tracey Tully and Ana Facio-Krajcer, “‘I’m Done With Him’: A Mother’s Anger Over Rushdie Attack,” New York Times, August 17, 2022,

[7] Ben Ashford,, August 14, 2022, The Daily Mail story was recirculated by other news agencies.

[8] Steven Vago and Ben Kesslen, “Salman Rushdie Attacker Praises Iran’s Ayatollah, Surprised Author Survived: Jailhouse Interview,” New York Post, August 17, 2022,

[9] Guillermo Altares, “Andrew Wylie, ‘The Jackal’ of Books,” El Pais, October 22, 2022,

[10] An excerpt from the novel, “A Sackful of Seeds,” appeared in the New Yorker, December 12, 2022,

[11] Christopher Hitchens, “Siding with Rushdie,” London Review of Books, Vol. 11, No. 20, October 26, 1989.

[12] Kenan Malik, From Fatwa to Jihad: The Rushdie Affair and its Legacy, (London: Atlantic Books, 2009), 145.

[13] Mick Hume and Brendan O’Neill, “Where is the ‘Je suis Salman’ Movement?” The Brendan O’Neill Show, August 18, 2022,

[14] Jake Kettridge, “Why The Satanic Verses Would Bever be Published Today,” Telegraph, August 15, 2022,

[15] Slavoj Žižek, “Islamic Fascism and the Failure of the Left,” New Statesman, January 16-25, 2015, 14-15.

[16] The move to halt the importation of the book was an empty threat of sorts, since, in the absence of a cheaply available Indian edition, imported, hardback copies ofThe Satanic Verses were prohibitively expensive. The representatives of Penguin India had tabled the idea of publishing an Indian edition of The Satanic Verses after an unfavorable reader review by writer Khushwant Singh. Rushdie recounts the episode in Joseph Anton (New York: Random House, 2012), 113. Khushwant Singh offers his version of events in the BBC documentary, The Satanic Verses Affair (2009), directed by Janice Sutherland,

[17] Rushdie himself made use of the libel courts in 2008 to suppress a tell-all book by an ex-bodyguard. Helene Goldberg, “The Shame of Salman Rushdie’s Secular Fatwa,” Spiked, August 27, 2008.

[18] Rushdie, The Satanic Verses, 52, 56.

[19] Rushdie, “India Bans a Book for its own Good,” New York Times, October 19, 1988.

[20] Rushdie, Joseph Anton, 117.

[21] GPD, “Blackmail Works,” Economic and Political Weekly, vol. 23, no. 43, October 22, 1988, 2199.

[22] Syed Shahabuddin, “You did this with Satanic Forethought, Mr. Rushdie,” in The Rushdie File, 37.

[23] Tim Black, “The Fatwa and the Birth of Muslim Identity Politics,” Spiked, August 22, 2022,

[24] Mary Ann Weaver, “The Novelist and the Sheikh,” New Yorker, January 30, 1995.

[25] See Tariq Ali, “It didn’t need to be done,” London Review of Books, Vol. 37, No. 3, February 5, 2015.

[26] Johnathan C. Randal, “Rushdies’s Book Burned in Britain,” Washington Post, January 18, 1989.

[27] See Salman Rushdie, “The Book Burning,” New York Review of Books, vol. XXXVI, no. 3, March 2, 1989; also see the comments on Kinnock in Joseph Anton, 180.

[28] Matt Cooper, “Thirty Years since The Satanic Verses,” August 8, 2022, originally run in 2018,

[29] Rushdie, “Charter 88,” in Imaginary Homelands (London: Granta Books, [1988] 1991), 164; also, Joseph Anton, 131.

[30] Rushdie, Joseph Anton, 145.

[31] Tariq Ali, “Smoked Salman’s Fishy Flavour,” Literary Review, March 1991: 12-13.

[32] Eric Malling, Salman Rushdie, The Fifth Estate, March 7, 1989,

[33] Later, in the 1990s, the Japanese translator of The Satanic Verses was killed and would-be assassins targeted the Italian translator and the head of a publishing outfit in Oslo linked to book.

[34] The Satanic Verses Affair (2009), directed by Janice Sutherland, Also see

[35] Hanif Kursehi addresses this in his fictionalized account of the Rushdie Affair in his novel The Black Album (Lonon: Farber and Farber, 1995).

[36] Malik, From Fatwa to Jihad, xxi.

[37] Ibid., 95.

[38] Ibid., 22.

[39] While some critics, such as Homi Bhabha celebrated Rushdie as giving voice to the concerns of cultural hybridity, alterity, and translation, others such as Aijaz Ahmed were critical of Rushdie, see Bhabha, “The Power of the Text,” Artforum International, vol. 27, no. 9, May 1989, and Ahmed, “Salman Rushdie’s Shame: Postmodern Migrancy and Representation of Women, in In Theory (London: Verso, 1992).

[40] Well before the tragedy of Grenfell Tower in 2017, Rushdie wrote of the squalid conditions, rife with fire hazards in which migrants were housed by Camden Council. See “An Unimportant Fire,” in Imaginary Homelands, 139 – 142.

[41] Rushdie, Imaginary Homelands, 130 – 131.

[42] Ibid., 138.

[43] Rushdie, Imaginary Homelands, 137.

[44] BA Hepple, “The British Race Relations Acts, 1965 and 1968,” The University of Toronto Law Journal, Vol. 19, No. 2, Spring, 1969: 257

[45] Roy Jenkins and Anthony Lester (Eds.), Essays and Speeches by Roy Jenkins (London: Collins, 1967), 267.

[46] Malik, From Fatwa to Jihad, 59.

[47] Ibid., 76.

[48] Ibid., 57.

[49] Ibid., 59.

[50] Ibid.

[51] Ibid., 63.

[52] James and the Trotskyists originally took an integrationist stance, whereas the official American Communist Party continued pushing their “Black Belt” thesis of the 1930s, the view that black citizens formed an oppressed nationality within the United States that had to be liberated. The view that the struggle for socialism was distinct from the fight against racism was thus a well-established view on the Stalinist Left, when it was taken up by radicals in the Civil Rights Movement in the late-1960s, under the slogan of Black Power; as was the idea that fight against racism was akin to struggles for national liberation and anti-imperialism. See Max Shachtman, Race and Revolution [originally titled Communism and the Negro], (London: Verso, 2003 [1933]).

[53] Lenin quoted by CLR James, “Black Power,”

[54] John Rose, “The Southall Asian Youth Movement,” Notes of the Month, no. 91, September 1976: 5-6, For more attempts by the International Socialists to reach South Asian workers in Britain see their Punjabi and Urdu newspaper Chingari and the tract The Black Worker (1977).

[55] The history of the IWA is recounted in the 2016 film Indian Workers’ Association, directed by Sav Kyriacou & Matthew Rosenberg, On the rise of the AYM, see Malik, From Fatwa to Jihad, Chapter 2, “From Street-fighters to Book-burners.”

[56] The party recounts its own background and fight against the National Front on its website,

[57] Talat Ahmed, Avtar Singh Jouhl, Rahul Patel, “Lessons in Division,” Socialist Worker Review, no. 119 (April, 1989): 12 – 13.

[58] See Marx’s comments in 1871 to the IWMA.

[59] Chris Myant, Morning Star, 25 June 1982 quoted in Ihab Shabana, “From an Understanding to a Securitizing Discourse: The British Left’s Encounter with the Emergence of Political Islam, 1978–2001,” Religions, no. 13 (2022): 206.

[60] Tony Coughlin, “Labour, Rushdie, and Separate Education,” The Leninist, August 23, 1989,

[61] Ibid.

[62] See Yasmin Alibhai, “A Member no More,” Marxism Today, December, 1989, and Jeffery Weeks, “Value for Many,” Marxism Today, December, 1989, 13,

[63] Rahul Patel, “A Burning Issue,” Socialist Worker Review, no. 117, February, 1989, 24-45.

[64] Gareth Jenkins, “The Devil’s Prose?” Socialist Worker Review, no. 118, March, 1989, 15.

[65] Alex Callinicos, “In a Heartless World,” Socialist Worker Review, no. 119, April, 1989, 14-15.

[66] “Rushdie: Defend the Right to be Offensive,” Living Marxism, no 6. April 1989, 4-5.

[67] Editorial, “Satanic Flames Ignite British Racism,” The Next Step, no. 7, February 24, 1989, 2.

[68] Workers Hammer, no. 106, April 1989, 1; 3.

[69] See Chris Cutrone, “Class Consciousness (from a Marxist Perspective) Today,” Platypus Review, no. 51, November 2012,

[70] Zizek, Trouble in Paradise: From the End of History to the End of Capitalism, London: Allen Lane, 2014, 99.

[71] SWP chief theorist Alex Callinicos wrote in 2006 that, since 9/11, “Islamophobia has become the most visible—and ‘respectable’—form of racism in the Western world.”

[72] Tariq Ali, "Islamophobia Exposed," Socialist Worker, no. 2209, July 6, 2010, .

[73] Rosa Luxemburg, Socialism and Churches, 1905, <>.

[74] Hassan Mahamdaille, “Islamophobia, Free Speech and Salman Rushdie’s The Satanic Verses,” Socialist Worker, no. 2623, Friday 21 September 2018.

[75] Rushdie, “Imaginary Homelands,” in Imaginary Homelands, 14.

[76] Kushwant Singh referred to scenes in the book as “sheer bad taste,” Hesham El Essawy remarked that the book was “hard going,” while Boris Johnson called Rushdie’s novels “impenetrable.”

[77] Years earlier, when the Danish newspaper Jyllands-Posten had run cartoons of the Muhammad, Alex Callinicos of the SWP lamented, “If there are no limits to free speech, would it be okay for newspapers to publish child pornography on their front pages?” Such moralism is best suited to a clergyman rather than to a Marxist. The cartoons, as Callinicos had explained previously in the Socialist Worker, were but “crude attempts to insult Muslims, whereas The Satanic Verses ‘was a complex work of art by an author of Indian Muslim origins.’”

[78] See Charlie Kimber and Alfie Steer. Gareth Jenkins, “The Tragedy of Salman Rushdie,” Socialist Review, November 1, 2012,

On Hitchens and the Left, see, Spencer A. Leonard, “Going it alone: Christopher Hitchens and the death of the Left,” Platypus Review, no. 11 (March, 2009). The argument that Rushdie and Hitchens shifted rightward together is made explicitly by Richard Seymour in Unhitched: The Trial of Christopher Hitchens, (London: Verso, 2013).

[79] When Rushdie was knighted in 2007, the critic Terry Eagleton remarked on the pages of the Guardian that the novelist had been rewarded for his self-transformation from a remorseless satirist of the west into a cheerleader for its misadventures in Iraq and Afghanistan. Terry Eagleton, “Only Pinter Remains,” The Guardian, July 7, 2007,

[80] Rushdie, Joseph Anton 121.

[81] Ibid., 179.

[82] Ibid., 396.

[83] Hitchens, “Siding with Rushdie.”

[84] Rushdie, Imaginary Homelands, 388.

[85] “Salman Rushdie on Writing, Political Correctness, Censorship, First Amendment, Chicago Tribune, November 9, 2015.

[86] Rushdie, Joseph Anton, 187.

[87] Rushdie, “Outside the Whale,” in Imaginary Homelands, 97.

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