Monday, June 24, 2019
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"Salman Rushdie has radicalized my generation"

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It is Valentine's Day 1989. Margaret Thatcher is Prime Minister and Kylie, Yazz and Bros make noise. Far away, Iran's supreme leader is raising a fatwa calling for the death of British writer Salman Rushdie – and the impact on young Muslims in Britain is enormous.

Alyas Karmani absorbed everything student life had to offer. He grew up in Tooting, south London, in a traditional Pakistani household, and his father was a bus driver and trade unionist. Religion was an important part of Alya's education, but nothing that he was particularly interested in.

"We were obedient to our parents, we went to the mosque when needed, but we had a secret double life," he says. "We celebrated, we smoked weeds, we went out with girls and we did everything we could."

When it was time to choose a university, Alyas fled from his Pakistani Muslim identity and drove 400 miles north to Glasgow. "I ran as fast as possible, I was a" self-hating Paki. "I did not want brown friends, all my friends were white, liberal mainstream guys, that was my lot."

In Glasgow Alyas became an important fixture in the student scene. He organized club nights and loved music and dancing. "I had a wonderful time and in 1989 something really unpleasant happened."

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Alyas Karmani in June 1990

This discomfort was Ayatollah Khomeini's fatwa imposed on Salman Rushdie for his novel Satanic Verses, widely regarded as blasphemous in the Muslim world. While Alyas did not think Rushdie was going to die, he did not think the satanic verses were alright. Now he was accused of a fatwa that had nothing to do with him.

"I thought these friends understood and accepted me, but now they were pointing with their fingers and the conversation went like this:" What's wrong with you guys? Why are you doing this? Why did you confront Salman Rushdie with a death threat? Are you with us or against us? & # 39; It was really so blatant. "

Alyas felt uncomfortable going to mosques, which in the 1980s were run almost entirely by older South Asian men whose mother tongue was not English. So Alyas searched for Islamic instructions from younger, English-speaking Muslims and found them. Under her influence, he rejoined the faith of his parent generation, but was more radical – the focus was more on the global Muslim identity than on personal morality or spirituality.

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… and six months later, in December 1990

"It was a counterculture, it had a dress code and a language, I left my non-Muslim friends, and when I left the university, I was totally dedicated to the movement," he says.

"It all started with the release of the satanic verses and how people pushed me away, so I always say that I'm one of Rushdie's kids, radicalized by white liberals."

The Salafi school of thought to which Alyas belonged is more Puritan than traditional South Asian Islam and has obvious political leanings. Some of the people Alyas worked with fought as members of the Bosnian army in Bosnia. He never made it to the battlefield, he says, because his skills were "the promotion of ideology."


Find out more

Listen to BBC Radio 4's 10-part series Fatwa or download the podcast

The Satanic Verses: 30 Years On will be broadcast on BBC Two on Wednesday, February 27, at 9:00 pm


Today, Alyas has tempered his approach. "Back then, we only saw binary options: good or bad, with or against, Halal or Haram, now I prefer grayscale," he says.

He remains a devout Muslim who is committed to the middle ground. He is an unconventional imam and psychologist. He provides advice to his communities in Huddersfield and Bradford in everything from sex and relationships to mental health.

Ed Husain was several years younger than Alyas when The Satanic Verses was published. He was still excited at school when his father took him to Hyde Park to protest the book.

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The satanic verses burn in Bradford

At the demonstration truckloads of Muslims from Glasgow, Bradford, Birmingham and elsewhere arrived – a total of about 20,000 arrived. Communal prayers, for which the mosque was largely reserved, now took place in the public squares of London. Portraits of Rushdie were burnt and posters threatening violence were commonplace. When Ed's father saw people burning his Satanic verses in Hyde Park, he decided it was time to leave.

At home, Ed's father said that they were not "such a kind of Muslim," but the protest had sparked Ed's interest. He visited the East London Mosque without his father and was inspired by English-speaking imams who liked politics.


"I came out as a Muslim"

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Salman Rushdie was a hero for Yasmin Alibhai-Brown, then a journalist for the New Statesman – not only because of his writing, but also because he had spoken publicly about racism in the UK. So she read the book.

"I was not offended, I'm not such a Muslim, but I was wondering, why are you doing this?" It was deliberately provocative to me, "she says.

When the Muslims began to burn the book, many white friends of Yasmin were disgusted. "It quickly became" them and us. "When I spoke at dinner parties about disagreeing with Rushdie, people would go out, it was that difficult."

Yasmin describes what followed as "a moment of awakening". "I came out as a Muslim and I said," I am Muslim. The Muslim of my mother. The Muslim of my family. The white liberals I worked with were shocked. They had never seen me like this. It was uncomfortable for her. "


"The fatwa has given priority to the East London Mosque because they are the people who shout the loudest, they were the people who protested outside of Downing Street, they had an ideology that made them relevant," he says.

This new zeal for political Islam culminated with Ed's father, who issued an ultimatum – if Ed were to live under his roof, he would have to give up Islamist politics. It was a blatant choice between what Ed saw as the worldly comfort of his parents' parents, or the divine cause of serving the global Muslim community. Ed opted for the latter. He ran away from home.

The adventure was short-lived as his father wanted him back under his roof, but in the following years Ed continued the radicalization path.

"I moved to even more extreme organizations like Hizb ut-Tahrir, which believed in a global caliphate," he says.

Ed's religious identity was shaped more by notions of global injustice and suffering than by spirituality.

"The parks in which we protested Salman Rushdie were now being used to protest British foreign policy, and we had turned against the British government, not against an author, but completely politicized."


The satanic verses

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A demonstration in Paris

  • Salman Rushdie's surrealistic, post-modern novel ignites outrage, demonstrations and calls for a ban as soon as it is published in 1988 – but also counter-demonstrations that protest against censorship and book burning
  • The fatwa takes things to a whole new level and triggers a global diplomatic crisis
  • 59 people are dying all over the world – including murdered translators and people who died during demonstrations
  • Rushdie hides for nine years.

In college, Ed experienced a deadly attack on a little boy who was considered Christian. He says it is the result of a "Muslim supremacist mindset."

"The person who killed him had come to campus and said," If you have any problems Kuffar (Non-Muslims) call me. & # 39; A few weeks later I saw this boy stabbed, wounded lying on the street and convulsive. "

It was a wake up call. Ed realized that he had lost sight of everything he loved about his faith. He distanced himself from Hizb ut-Tahrir. He later became advisor to Tony Blair and one of the founding members of the anti-extremist think tank, Quilliam.

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