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The Carnival of culture

The Carnival of culture

Author: Hanif Kureishi
Publication: The Times of India
Date: July 31, 2005

Recently a friend sent me an article which was an attempt to sustain a non-violent version of Islam, one in which, meddling and manipulative clerics had no authority Without the requirement of intermediaries, no one could come between you and God.  The clerics were seen here as political figures, rather than the best interpreters of Islam.  If these fanatics and fundamentalists had twisted the word of God for their own political ends, why shouldn't the Koran be reclaimed and reinterpreted by the better intentioned?  This, the writer stated, was the only way for Islam to go.

In the early 1990s, after my first visit to Pakistan, where I'd had a taste of what it was like to live in a (more-or-less) theocratic state; after the fatwa against Salman Rushdie and finally, the death of my father, I began to visit various London mosques.  Perhaps I was trying to find something of my father there, but I was also beginning to research what became The Black Album, a novel which concerned a group of young radical Muslims in West London who burn the Satanic Verses and later attack a bookshop.  A film I wrote for BBC, My Son The Fanatic, about a young man who turns fundamentalist also emerged from this material.

I believed that questions of race, identity and culture were the major issues post-colonial Europe had to face, and that inter-generational conflict was where these conflicts were being played out.  The British-born children of immigrants were not only more religious and politically radical than their parents - whose priority had been to establish themselves in the new country - but they despised their parents' moderation and desire to 'compromise' with Britain.  To them this seemed weak.

The mosques I visited in Whitechapel and Shepherd's Bush were nothing like any church I'd attended. There would be passionate orators haranguing a group of people sitting on the floor One demagogue would replace another, of course, but the 'preaching' went on continuously, as listeners of all races came and went.  I doubt whether you'd see anything like this now, but there would be diatribes against the West, Jews, and - their favourite subject homosexuals.  I wondered whether, at the end of his speech, the speaker might take questions or engage in some sort of dialogue with his audience.  But there was nothing like this.  Most of the audience for this sort of thing was, I noticed, under thirty years old.

I had the good sense to see what good material this was, and took notes, until, one afternoon, I was recognised, and four strong men picked me up and carried me out onto the street, telling me never to return.

Sometimes I would be invited to the homes of these young 'fundamentalists'.  One of them had a similar background to my own: his mother was English, his father a Muslim, and he'd been brought up in a quiet suburb.  Now he was married to a woman from Yemen who spoke no English.  Bringing us tea, she came into the room backwards, and bent over too.  The men would talk to me of 'going to train' in various places, but they seemed so weedy and polite, I couldn't believe they'd want to kW anyone.

What did disturb me was this.  These men believed they had access to the Truth, as stated in the Koran.  There could be no doubt - or even much dispute about moral, social and political problems because God had the answers.  Therefore, for them, to argue with the Truth was like trying to disagree with the facts of geometry.  For them the source of all virtue and vice was the pleasure and displeasure of Allah.  To be a responsible human being was to submit to this.

I found these sessions so stultifying and claustrophobic that at the end I'd rush into the nearest pub and drink rapidly, wanting to reassure myself I was still in England.

If the idea of multi-culturalism makes some people vertiginous, mono-culturalism - of whatever sort - is much worse.  Political and social systems have to define themselves in terms of what they exclude, and conservative Islam is leaving out a lot.  In New York recently, a Turkish woman told me Islam was denying its own erotic heritage, as shown in the Arabian Nights, the Perfumed Garden, and the tales of Hamza.  Indeed, the Arabic scholar, Robert Irwin, states of the Arabian Nights, "In the modern Middle East, with certain exceptions, the 'Nights' is not regarded by Arab intellectuals as literature."

It is not only sexuality which is being excluded here, but the whole carnival of culture which comes from human desire.  Our stories, dreams, poems, drawings enable us to experience ourselves as strange to ourselves.  It is also where we think of how we should live.

You can't ask people to give up their religion; that would be absurd.  Religions may be illusions, but these are important and profound illusions.  But they will modify as they come into contact with other ideas.  This is what an effective multiculturalism is: not a superficial exchange of festivals and food, but a robust and committed exchange of ideas - a conflict which is worth enduring, rather than a war.

When it comes to teaching the young, we have the human duty to inform them there is more than one book in the world, and more than one voice, and if they wish to have their voices heard by others, everyone else is entitled to the same thing.

*Hanif Kureishi is a well-known playwright and writer based in London

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