This is an outstanding observation from Kenan Malik’s talk at Conway Hall:
In recent decades, faith has, in other words, transformed itself into the religious wing of identity politics. Religion has, ironically, become secularised, driven less by a search for piety and holiness than for identity and belongingness. The rise of identity politics has transformed the meaning not just of religion but of blasphemy too. Blasphemy used to be regarded as a sin against God. These days it is felt as a sin against the individual believer, an offence against the self and one’s identity. That is why for Sardar, ‘Every word [of The Satanic Verses] was directed at me and I took everything personally’, why he imagined that Rushdie had ‘despoiled the inner sanctum of my identity’. This is also why many laws these days that ostensibly protect faith – such as Britain’s Racial and Religious Hatred Act – are framed primarily in terms of protecting the culture and identity of individuals or communities. In today’s world, identity is God, in more ways than one.
It sums up so much of what is so godawful about these battles – the narcissism, the petulant self-regard, the insistence on taking everything personally, the inflation of arbitrary outrage into some kind of political principle. Ziauddin Sardar had no right to think every word of Rushdie’s novel was directed at him; that’s a stupid, infantile, pre-theory of mind thing to think. It’s His Majesty the Baby thinking.
People make too god damn much of identity and belongingness. It’s the idol of the age. No doubt that goes a long way toward explaining why there is so much hostility to atheists: we prefer freedom from the celestial dictator to endless coddling of our identities.
What, however, defines a community? And who defines which beliefs are essential to a community? Or to the identity of individuals within it? These, too, are matters not of theology, or even of culture, but of power. The struggle to define certain beliefs or thoughts as offensive or blasphemous is a struggle to establish power within a community and to establish one voice as representative or authentic of that community. What is called offence to a community is in reality usually a debate within a community. – but in viewing that debate as a matter of offence or of blasphemy, one side gets instantly silenced.
As in the serial fusses about Salman Rushdie.
Back in the 1980s Rushdie gave voice to a radical, secular sentiment that in then was deeply entrenched within Asian communities. Rushdie’s critics spoke for some of the most conservative strands. Their campaign against The Satanic Verses was not to protect the Muslim communities from unconscionable attack from anti-Muslim bigots but to protect their own privileged position within those communities from political attack from radical critics, to assert their right to be the true voice of Islam by denying legitimacy to such critics. And they succeeded at least in part because secular liberals embraced them as the ‘authentic’ voice of the Muslim community.
Huge, huge mistake. Mistake any way you look at it – not just for literature but for all the people who got stuck in those “communities” ande have never been able to escape since. More than twenty years stuck being “authentic,” which means being trapped.
Same thing with Gurpreet Kaur Bhatti’s play Behzti.
The protestors outside the Birmingham Rep outraged by Kaur Bhatti’s play no more spoke for the Sikh community than did Kaur Bhatti herself. Both spoke for different strands within that community. But, as in the Rushdie affair, only the protestors were seen as authentically of their community, while Kaur Bhatti, like Rushdie, was regarded as too Westernized, secular and progressive to be authentic or truly of her community. To be a proper Muslim, in other words, in secular liberal eyes, is to be offended by The Satanic Verses, to be a proper Sikh is to be offended by Behzti.
And that’s where the damn LSE Student Union is stuck now – with the idea that only Muslims who are “offended” by Jesus and Mo are proper Muslims, and all others are inauthentic because secularized instead of theocratic. And they think that’s the more progressive view! It’s tragic.
There’s more great stuff in that article; read it at Kenan’s.