In the early 1990s, after the shock of the 1989 fatwa against Salman Rushdie, I began to do some research among those who condemned him, and learned that a strange thing was happening among young British Muslim men and women. I first wrote about this strange thing in my novel The Black Album, which concerns a young man who comes to London from the provinces to study and finds himself caught between the sex-and-ecstasy-stimulated hedonism of the late 1980s and the nascent fundamentalist movement. At the end of the novel the Asian kids — as they were called then — burn The Satanic Verses and attack a bookshop.
I followed this up with a story published in the New Yorker, ‘My Son The Fanatic’. Set in Halifax, this story became a film made by the BBC and was released in 1997. Once more it was centered around the strange thing I had noticed: that these young Muslims wanted less sex, more obedience, worldwide revolutionary change and their own state based on religious principles.
I can’t say that it seemed crazy that young people were turning to utopianism and revolution. After all, many of my generation had been Maoists, Marxists, communists, militant feminists, supporters of black power and Trots of various kinds. Some of these former ‘revolutionaries’ now owned several properties and were retiring with good pensions after a lifetime of service to journalism, academia or the arts.
However, the return to a new submission, this time to Allah, along with belief, sincerity and puritanical sacrifice, was shocking because I was aware that immigrants like my father had not come to Britain to foment political change. After the horrors of Partition and starvation in India, they wanted safety, security and education for their children. The mother country might be the seat of Satan with an absurd idea of itself as racially superior, but it was more tolerant than most other places, retaining, so the older generation believed, a patrician Orwellian decency and a spreading liberalism which would benefit the new migrants and their children.
Yet it didn’t; the humiliation and infantilisation of colonialism and racism remained. The whites, to misquote Enoch Powell, had always had the whip hand over the coloureds. There was still a deep bitterness and resentment in the community. And so, in ‘My Son The Fanatic’, the young man begins to throw out his pop paraphernalia and what he considers other trivial possessions. He leaves his white fiancée and rejects the fanatics of neo-liberalism and the Thatcherite worship of the market which promised somehow to elevate extreme selfishness to a liberatory creed. Accusing his father of being ‘too western’, the son becomes devout and imports an extreme preacher from Pakistan to instruct other local kids who feel the same way.
It was becoming clear that some young Muslims had had it with their parents’ compliant and sycophantic attitude towards their white masters. They no longer wanted to be failed whites. The father’s path was a lost highway. Now they had discovered an ideology, purpose, and direction home. The old religion could be used for new things.
We know now that the fatwa was a foolish if not fatal misstep for Muslims. It was where this community, formerly known as ‘Asian’, began to advertise itself as censoring, small-minded, regressive and ashamed of its more intelligent, critical and creative members. But it worked as a challenge to the West, and it was just the start.
Since I wrote those fictions in the mid-1990s — and after the attacks on the World Trade Center, wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, along with reprisal bombings in Europe and other horrors — the western world has lurched to the right, partly by constructing Islam as an alien Other. Now, after Brexit and Trump there will be Le Pen and worse. Muslims, like Jews or black people in other contexts, will be punished, stigmatised and harassed and surveilled. We are all afraid — and with good reason.
Muslims didn’t help themselves. But at least they, unlike many in the West, recognised that war and violence would always go both ways. How could it be strange that there would be bombings in the West while there were bombings in the East?
Now Muslims have also become the victims of a confining caricature which has helped build the new right. Race and religion will take a central place in the creation of a new Europe, and the right will use Islam and Muslims to create totalitarianism. Not that minorities haven’t been exploited before in this way. It should be noted, nonetheless, how much the two sides resemble one another. The contemporary view of Muslims is the mirror image of the current far-right ideology overtaking the West: sexist, homophobic, insular, monocultural, combative.
The form of political Islam I wrote about — emerging in the West in the 1990s — is exhausted. Clearly it led nowhere except to nihilism. It was shameful that the formerly colonised could barely wait to re-colonise themselves within a prison of religion and ideological darkness which, in the long run, made them subject to a double dumbing down and oppression: of the book and of intellectual stagnation. The submission they so desired — to be God’s instrument — is a static, slave-like ideal which freezes everyone.
Fortunately there is a fresh generation of young Muslims who can create a new radicalism, which is neither religious nor populist. They can rise against the power of a rigid, prescriptive Islam, and make a new identity in the face of the new fascism and the seductions of hate. This means the young must first take on their elders and a calcified ideology.
There’s nothing that suits the white ruling class more than benighted, uneducated kissers of God’s ass. If multiculturalism has become a diversion, monoculturalism is worse. What really scares contemporary power is not Islamism but solidarity: the idea that the marginalised could forge an alliance with the other disaffected young of the West to combat the obscene resurgence of racist enjoyment which is so stimulating our politicians at the moment.
The formerly excluded and deterritorialised could become an organised class of enlightened, educated young people prepared to join with others across Europe to struggle for freedom, equality and social change. This fight for a new identity not based on hatred and exclusivity, and supported by shared secular ideals, is essential and necessary. A new radicalism would give us something to look forward to in this fateful era of mob rule.