Where Is The Love? Ziauddin Sardar v. Rushdie

Ziauddin Sardar, a prolific left-leaning political writer based in London, has been going after Salman Rushdie lately, calling him a "brown sahib" -- the postcolonial equivalent of an Uncle Tom. I find Sardar's attacks upsetting (I side with Rushdie here, as I'll explain below), but more generally I am so over this habit of brown intellectuals tearing each other to shreds on the question of their loyalty to the "cause." Just because someone disagrees with you, it doesn't mean they are a traitor or a coconut, needing to be "flushed," as a certain desi blogger is fond of saying. There's something pathological and deeply self-destructive about the way minority writers do this to each other, and I wish it would stop.

The current feud is a bit of a convoluted story, starting most recently with Sardar's review of a book on Islam/terrorism by Anthony McRoy called From Rushdie to 7/7: The Radicalisation of Islam in Britain. It looks like your basic, "Watch out, Muslims in Britain have become very radicalized!" type book.

In the review, Sardar says some harsh things about McRoy's book that might or might not be accurate, as he tends to argue more from insinuation than evidence. I don't know, as I haven't read McRoy's book. But he says this about Rushdie:

For example, he suggests I labelled Rushdie as a "brown sahib" because I feared that the new generation of Muslims would become "contaminated" with "infidel ideas". This is laughably absurd. The "brown sahib" is a recognisable sociological type on the Subcontinent: an uncritical Anglophile. My point was that Muslims should not be surprised by what Rushdie had done. A brown sahib, somewhere, sometime, was bound to do just that. (link)

Now when this story broke last week, I searched the papers looking for what Sardar had originally said about Rushdie, and why. I couldn't find it -- it could either have been Rushdie's approving noises on the War in Iraq, or the act of writing The Satanic Verses itself. (But do you ever need substantial justification to call someone a race traitor? No -- you just do it, and you expect it will stick.)

Rushdie wrote an incensed reply to the Independent here:

There is much in this review that is, to use terms of which Sardar himself is fond, "skewed", "ludicrous" and "half-baked".

His assertion that "jihad is never offensive" will come as a surprise to those of us who live in the real world, not the ideological fantasy-universe he prefers, in which language loses its meaning, aggression becomes "defence", and aggressors become victims. His claim that "all Muslims see themselves as part of the ummah" could have been uttered by a dedicated clash-of-civilisations hawk, and blithely ignores the profound divisions, political, intellectual, tribal, nationalist and theological, within the Muslim world, and the struggles of genuinely courageous Muslim writers and intellectuals against the repressive Islam that is so much in the ascendant everywhere in that world.

As for his cheap shots at me for being a "brown Sahib", something I have never been called, to my knowledge, by anyone in India, where, Sardar tells us, it is a "recognisable sociological type", I wonder if you would so readily publish an attack on a well-known black writer which used the term "Uncle Tom"?>

Sardar describes me, bizarrely, as an "uncritical Anglophile", which suggests that it is he, not Mr McRoy, who "needs to read much more widely". By the immoderation of his tone and his argument, he goes some way to proving McRoy's point that "Islamic radicalism has become mainstream", which was not, presumably, his intention. (link)

To my eye, Rushdie is 'housing' Sardar here, calling him on the doublespeak of victimization as an excuse for random violence (Jihad can never be offensive, because that's not what the Quran says, so terrorism in the name of religion is by definition defensive); on the pathological use of "brown sahib"; and on his refusal to distance himself from radical Islamist positions. (Sardar, incidentally, has published several books pleading for a "moderate" interpretation of Sharia.)

Ah, but it isn't done yet, is it? Nope. Sardar then writes another column, this time in the New Statesman, replying to Rushdie's letter. This column spends about five paragraphs defining the "brown sahib" along the lines laid out by Sri Lankan journalist V. T. Vittachi in his 1962 book The Brown Sahib. In brief: cooperation with colonialism out of self-interest, gymkhanas, English mission schools, acceptance of the superiority of European civilization, lingering colonial mentality after independence. There's your brown sahib.

On how this applies to Rushdie, Sardar has only an assertion, not an explanation:

Now, I put to you this simple thesis: Rushdie fits the bill.

Alas, Rushdie is not the most prominent brown sahib on the planet. The top dog is the even more legendary V S Naipaul. One of the principal characteristics of brown sahibs is that each one considers himself to be the only authentic article, the true representative of the ideology of the colonial masters. So they direct most of their venom at each other. As Vittachi put it, the brown sahibs love nothing better than to indulge their fancy for "tearing their own kind apart, limb from limb, skin from bone, with finger-licking tooth-sucking glee". (link)

I can't imagine that Sardar is aware of the irony of his own perpetuation of this cycle of desi intellectuals destroying each other to get ahead. It's also deeply unfortunate that he doesn't acknowledge all the ways in which Rushdie's novels do challenge the "ideology of the colonial masters," and critique (gently) the "Chamcha" position that Vittachi and Sardar are ridiculing. It's as if he hasn't read The Satanic Verses, and so is forced to repeat it -- he as Gibreel, and Rushdie as Chamcha. (Guess who survives the fight?)

I have two concluding thoughts:

First, can we get over the idea that to establish yourself, you have to go after a brown figure who has become successful before you, and accuse him or her of being a sell-out?

And secondly, people, can we just flat-out stop using "brown sahib"/"uncle tom" as a kind of in-house racial slur? Can we actually accept diversity of opinion within the South Asian/ diasporic intellectual world?

[Cross-posted at Sepia Mutiny]