Kamila Shamsie: Islam and offence
In an extract from her new book in the Manifestos for the 21st Century series, author Kamila Shamsie explores the reasons why Islam has become synonymous with offence There are moments in history when particular words seem to exert a magnetic field, drawing other words to them. In the early years of the present century, […]
20 May 09


In an extract from her new book in the Manifestos for the 21st Century series, author Kamila Shamsie explores the reasons why Islam has become synonymous with offence

There are moments in history when particular words seem to exert a magnetic field, drawing other words to them. In the early years of the present century, that magnetic field can be found around the word “Islam”,  pulling in a host of words of which the most thickly-clustered is “terror” and, hard on its heels, the word “offence”.

Living as I now do in London, where Muslims are a minority, though a significant one, it seems I can never go very far without running into the spectre of the offended Muslim. I ran into that spectre when asked to write this piece: two friends, independently of each other and neither of them Muslim, told me to “be careful”. And as they said the words I saw that spectre rise up before their eyes.

The more time I spend reading or hearing about this spectre from those who don’t live in the Muslim world, the more I am struck by the fact that, more often than not, the figure of the offended Muslim is merely partial. By “partial” I mean if you utter the words “Islam” and “offence” together, much of the non-Muslim world will doubtless think, “Danish cartoonsSatanic Verses … Teddy Bears named Mohammed … children’s stories with pigs as protagonists … women in skimpy clothes … bars and night-clubs”. In other words, offence is what happens when Muslims encounter the West.

Offence and Islam is a wide-ranging issue — I would go so far as to argue that it is primarily an intra-Muslim affair and only secondarily concerned with the non-Muslim world. And the manner in which offence is expressed varies almost as substantially as the causes of offence — from violent acts to tears shed in private, from parliamentary decrees to protest poetry.

One could ask, “why has the violently offended Muslim become such a prominent figure?” There are those who argue that Islam lends itself to violence, but this point of view entirely ignores the fact that the entwining of Islam, violence and offence has not existed in an unbroken thread through the centuries, but has become significant in very recent history.

To understand this entwining it’s necessary to step away from the partial viewpoint that regards offence through an Islam v the West prism. We cannot hope to understand any part of the diffuse and diverse Muslim world if we fail to take into account the internal history of different sects, groups, nations that has allowed the hardliners to grow in strength and put their stamp on the most visible global face of Islam. So rather than viewing the matter of offence as one of Muslims v the West, it might cast some light if we recast it as hardliners v anti-hardliners, a varied group that includes moderate Muslims, secularist Muslims, non-Muslims etc.

I remember quite clearly the first time the international figure of the offended Muslim acquired global significance. It was 1989: I was a teenager in Karachi with dreams of one day being a writer and a book called The Satanic Verses became the biggest news story of the day. With the exception of Turkey, every Muslim-majority nation — as well as several with large Muslim minorities — banned the novel on the grounds of its offensiveness to Islam.

The widespread banning of the novel certainly seemed to point to the fact that in the confrontation between freedom of expression and due respect for religion, an overwhelming majority of Muslims would come down in favour of the latter. But this confrontation and its outcome are not peculiar to Islam: in any religion where the word “blasphemy” exists there is a point beyond which freedom of expression becomes transgression. The confrontation and its outcome are far less significant than the particular nature of the response to transgression. The fact that so many believing Muslims were offended by The Satanic Verses — or rather by what they were told was written about Mohammed in the book — can pass almost without comment.

It is easy to see why anyone from the outside viewing the protests, the banning of the book, the calls for violence from Muslims in different parts of the world, would think they were viewing a monolith of the offended Muslim ranged against the freedoms of the West. But from where I was sitting, in Karachi, I remember the one question that had me transfixed: why are the British burning copies of this book? Even at 16 I could entirely understand the reasons for reactions in Pakistan being what they were, but what was going on in Britain? It was entirely baffling.

Years later, I saw the bafflement of my 16-year-old self reflected in my Pakistani compatriots when I returned to Karachi from London after the 7/7 bombings on the London Underground in 2005 to questions of, “What’s going on with these British Muslims? What does Britain do to these people?” While the British press was stressing the religion of the bombers, Pakistanis saw the root cause in the nation. “Sure, we have our own suicide bombers, but at least we know, broadly speaking, who they are, where they come from and why they’re doing it,” more than one Pakistani said to me. “These boys from Yorkshire just don’t make sense.”

The Bradford book burners didn’t make sense to me either because the fact that someone is Muslim has never been in itself an indicator or explanation of anything. I was living in a country that was 98 per cent Muslim which made for great heterogeneity, ranging from militant jihadis to whirling dervishes and to don’t-fast, don’t-pray, don’t-abstain-from-alcohol-or-premarital-sex but-of-course-I’m-a-believer Muslims. “Muslim” was a word that contained within it so many colours that it was itself without hue. The only way to prevent it from appearing as a blinding whiteness, revealing nothing, was to place it against some kind of defining context.

What I see is often frustrating, horrifying, maddening — but never baffling. The only thing that is baffling is expert commentators from outside the Muslim world who continue to quote the Quran and Hadith (sayings of the prophet) in explanation of Muslim reactions to offence rather than recognising the plurality of interpretation within the Islamic tradition and asking, more pertinently, why at a precise collision of history and geography certain forms of interpretations should be privileged over others, or gain ascendance in political, though not necessarily numerical terms, often in contravention of historical trends in that region. And why do the most damaging forms of interpretation currently co-exist at so many points of geographic and historic collision?

Anyone who doubts that there are widely varying forms of interpretation within Islam has clearly never watched Aalim Online a popular television show in Pakistan, where scholars from different sects debate religious questions. All the scholars proffer Quranic verses and Hadith in defence of their own positions and often end up with radically contrasting views. And yes, the position on the punishment for blasphemy and the authority necessary to make judgments about blasphemy does vary considerably among scholars.

This is an edited extract taken from the book Offence: the Muslim Case, from the Manifestos for the 21st Century series edited by Ursula Owen and Judith Vidal-Hall and published by Seagull Books