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How the Satanic Verses affair laid down the gauntlet to Eurocentrism

Dominant narratives have contrasted the 'enlightened' West against Muslims who supposedly lack such values
The Satanic Verses author Salman Rushdie in Los Angeles on 19 April 2013 (AFP)

This week marks 33 years since Ayatollah Khomeini’s fatwa against Salman Rushdie over his novel The Satanic Verses.

This is one of the most significant moments between Muslims and the West in the post-colonial era, because it was a juncture when Muslims began to be recognised by their Muslimness, rather than their ethnicity. Before 1989, political activism by Muslims in the West was mostly critiqued without maligning their Muslimness.

The fatwa, along with Muslim political activism, led to accusations that Muslims were against free speech, an Enlightenment value. The New York Times published a statement from 28 writers born in 21 different countries, all supporting Rushdie. Writer Claes Kastholm Hansen argued that Muslims calling for the book’s withdrawal posed a danger to the West itself. In 2006, Denmark’s prime minister later equated being critical with democracy, saying it has led to progress in our society

The term 'rational' is used today to encourage wars in Muslim countries, while putting demands on Muslims in the West to assimilate

Such narratives equated the British/West's notion of being enlightened with being tolerant, non-reflexive, plural and intellectual. These values were contrasted against Muslims who supposedly lacked them. Implicit in this narrative was the danger Muslims posed to the West. 

The reaction to this onslaught ranged from rejecting such accusations, to internalising them. Some responded by aiming to prove that Muslims are also rational, noting that the teachings of the Prophet Muhammad and the Quran promote critical thinking. However, by accepting the Eurocentric understanding of "critic", this approach equated Islam and Muslims with enlightenment, a western value system that aims to promote itself at the expense of others. 

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Others internalised the onslaught, arguing that by suppressing philosophy and emphasising memorisation, Muslims abandoned critical thinking. This argument assumes that Muslims rose to a Golden Age and then declined to an intellectually barren desert, supporting the idea that critical thinking, once prevalent within Islamic societies, has disappeared - and that Muslims lack rationalism. This projects Muslims as a danger to the West, bolstering Islamophobia.

Other intellectuals adopted an Enlightenment approach. They claimed that a dearth of critical thinking among Muslims has promoted fundamentalism. Here, the argument is that Muslims must mimic the West in order to liberate themselves. They called for a reformation of Islam in line with the western/liberal Christian model. 

Critical Muslim Studies

However, there is an alternative way to critique the notion of "critic" - an approach informed by Critical Muslim Studies. It is important to note that this topic area, while allied with critical race theory, has significant differences. 

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Critical race theory operates to expose the constructed nature of race and racist political structures that undermine people of colour. By contrast, Critical Muslim Studies is a project strategically built around recognising the need to challenge the unipolar Eurocentric narrative, and it is rooted in anti-foundationalism, rejecting the idea that philosophy must be grounded in a singular set of ideas or values. It provides an alternative reading of concepts, respecting the value systems of various peoples around the globe. 

Critical Muslim Studies promotes the idea that truth has nothing to do with the conclusion, but everything to do with the framing of the argument. It interrogates the idea of the "critic" as understood through the work of Enlightenment philosophers. The analysis reveals how the Enlightenment rationale of the "critic" is employed in constructing the Orient in such a way as to justify the notion of western superiority and colonialism.

Similarly, the term “rational” is used today to encourage wars in dominant Muslim countries, while putting demands on Muslims in the West to assimilate. Equally important is how Enlightenment thinking promoted faith and reason as being contradictory. While all faith groups were derided as irrational, an exceptional attack was mounted against Islam and Muslims, making them hyper-visible as the “Other”. 

Challenging the West

Therefore, those who countered the accusations that Muslims lacked critical thinking, without critiquing the Eurocentric idea of the "critic", still held a worldview that accepted that Muslims lack critical thinking; that western thinking is superior, and Islam and reason are mutually hostile. 

The challenge to Eurocentric "critic" is not to say Muslims reject critique, but to show there is an alternative way to think of "critic".

While Enlightenment promotes the division between the heart/soul and the rational, Muslims and others believe there is a direct link between the rational and the heart. For Muslims, the heart and mind are interlinked, supporting each other for the overall healthy composition of the whole being. 

The Islamicate also questions the notion of "critic" that creates a boundary for establishing a hierarchy between peoples.

Eurocentric critiques in 1989 failed to see Muslim analysis of The Satanic Verses as an alternative form of 'critic' and their political reaction as a democratic right

Adopting a Critical Muslim Studies approach is a direct challenge to Eurocentrism, which attempts to consider everything "western" as universal and "what Muslims do" as, at best, ethnic - or, at worst, irrelevant. For example, it questions the idea that westerners eat food, while others eat ethnic food; that westerners wear clothes, while others wear ethnic garb; that westerners compose music, while others produce ethnic music; and that westerners think and produce knowledge, while Muslim knowledge sources are faulty. 

In other words, Critical Muslim Studies helps to critique Eurocentrism’s claim of being the only way to understand the world.

This reading helps us to see how Eurocentric critiques in 1989 failed to see Muslim analysis of The Satanic Verses as an alternative form of "critic" and their political reaction as a democratic right. While the Rushdie affair did challenge Enlightenment values, I vehemently disagree that Muslims undermined democracy, were violent or failed at critical investigation. 

In this sense, this is the 33rd anniversary of providing alternative reading(s) of Eurocentric concepts, aiming for an inclusive world - a challenge to the West, at the expense of its supremacy against the rest.

The views expressed in this article belong to the author and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of Middle East Eye.

This article is available in French on Middle East Eye French edition.

Ismail Patel is the author of “The Muslim Problem: From the British Empire to Islamophobia”. He is also Visiting Research Fellow at the University of Leeds and the Chair of the UK based NGO Friends of Al-Aqsa.
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