Friday, June 09, 2006

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]


Blogger ana beynaam said...

i've been wondering about those two questions at the end for quite a while meself.

9:56 AM  
Blogger Shreeharsh said...

Why a long post on this boring, boring feud?

10:16 AM  
Blogger Amardeep said...

Shreeharsh, this post is partly inspired by comments from a blogger I didn't want to link to, for fear of encouraging him. He calls himself "Angy Brown Man" and his blog is He has made it his quest to 'flush' everyone he deems to be a sell-out. In every case I think he's been unfair to the artist or writer he's gone after.

So I think it's a 'live' problem, not just for the Rushdies and the Sardars, but for us small-time bloggers.

10:49 AM  
Blogger Manorama said...

I agree, Amardeep--it is definitely something that affects not just those who are known like Sardar or Rushdie. I recently saw Deepa Mehta's Water (I loved your post about that film, by the way), and when I read more about it on the official site, I learned that some people gave Mehta "advice" to not make such a film because "the West" (or it may have been specifically the U.S.) would think badly of India. I do think that we are often positioned as people who are under the pressure/obligation of "representing," whether we want to or not, whether we should or not. The idea that being good at representing should necessitate not speaking out about the horrendous treatment of widows is, of course, absurd, but the fact that one would actually offer that advice shows how persistent the pressure is. Even when I teach, I constantly find myself emphasizing, for instance, that there were Indians who were against sati, not just British people. This has much to do with accuracy, of course, but it also has to do with fighting statements in student papers which relegate Indians to backwardness and British people to enlightened progress as though there were no disagreements, debates, or messiness. And part of that is feeling, as a South Asian woman, that I must represent, that I must fight against the idea that "my people" are backward (let's forget that "my people" in the nineteenth century were living in ways that were not necessarily very close to the Hindu and later Brahmo debates--these were east Bengal Muslims!). I think a lot about why I feel that pressure and what to do about it. You are right, I think, that trying to blame each other for not representing is not the answer.

1:41 AM  
Blogger Manorama said...

Also, sorry to add to my already obscenely long comment, but I should say that part of the reason I feel the pressure is because students already seem to expect it--as though because of the body I inhabit I should be some kind of source of knowledge about India (in an Adela Quested kind of "real India" way). I have actually had a student ask me in class if I am Hindu or Muslim. Because I'm South Asian and so obviously I must be one or the other. (The real answer is way complicated!) We blame each other about not performing, but why do we feel compelled to perform to begin with (at least, some of us--maybe I'm in the minority in feeling this pressure)?

1:46 AM  
Anonymous Karan said...

It is important for all freedom of speech to be tolerated, regarldess of how insane it may be to some. we can all agree to this, right?

Rushdie offended a large portion of the Muslim community, the west tolerated this very well, the same should be reciprocated for Sardar.

Labeling an indvidual as an uncle tom or brown sahib very well can be justified as most communities using these terms have been hitorically the victims of some regime, race, etc., thus communities still struggling to find equal ground among their former or current oppresors or enslavers carry a keen intution when they feel a traitor is among them. At the least we can do is encourage their freedom of expression. Perhaps this is one way they can begin to enjoy what they historically have not.

the south asian community is not very black and white. it is a community with its own oppressors and victims, individuals can not be expected to free themselves from a collective consciouness as they have yet to experience a feeling of complete justice and equality within their societies or from the west. thus how can we expect a western approach in their school of thought? (not saying at all that the western approach is the best)

for the record, i do not condone racial slurs, but do feel they can be justified if uncle tom or brown sahib really are racial slurs.

7:47 AM  
Blogger ana beynaam said...

well, 'uncle tom' and 'brown sahib' are in-house slurs in my humble opinion. and yes, freedom of speech should be tolerated, but the point is that sardar's labelling of rushdie as a brown sahib is not justified, if one reads the body of rushdie's work, including SW. yes rushdie offended a large portion not only of the muslim community, but others as well. that offensive part was also linked to other parts, which challenge ideologies -- a preoccupation, it seems with rushdie.

it's not that we shouldn't stop critiquing our fellow 'south asians'. but let us allow for diversity of opinion, as deep said, and belief. and not sink to the level of calling someone a brown sahib simply because one has a broader world view that encapsulates both east and west.

and i'm not exactly sure how racial slurs can ever be justified, but that's just me. :)

10:20 AM  
Blogger Amardeep said...

Manorama, thanks for the comments -- it's been awhile!

We blame each other about not performing, but why do we feel compelled to perform to begin with (at least, some of us--maybe I'm in the minority in feeling this pressure)?

In my own case, I think I 'perform' South Asia mainly because it's what I know and love best. I actually find that there isn't much pressure from my colleagues or students to be the 'authority' unless I've chosen the topic -- by doing classes on South Asian literature, for example.

But as a 2nd gen person, my 'authenticity' is always a question, and I always make it a point to stress that in my classes.

8:22 AM  
Blogger BidiSmoker said...

I'm the "desi writer who flushes people" so I'll chime in. His site is Since you're all busy with the love fest for Amardeep, I'll point out the the fallacy in his super PC college prof. spiel. We all know that race is an artificial construct. If the world was populated by college professors, we wouldn't have a racial problem. Instead we'd have a problem of people who never had opinions on anything until they were universally agreed upon. People used to think that India was exactly how Kipling portrayed it. Now they get it first hand from Roy, Rushdie and Chadha. I'm not saying Indians are better than other races, or that we don't have thousands of problems. Just that some of us don't think we are a terrible society, or that we should bow down to Westerners inherent ideas of superiority just because the whole country doesn't fit a "abrahamic"'s sanitized idea of what civilisation is supposed to look like. (The same superior western societies that are RIGHT NOW killing 100 times more Muslims than have ever died in Gujurat). I'm not saying that either is better, but that both sides are equally guilty. So how come all art by brown people focuses on how lacking we are as a culture? You may not want to be part of a "brown identity" but I guarantee that 5 out of ten white people see you that way. I might sound really cynical, but I can pass for white, and I hear what they say when they think none of us are aroun.

Please explain to me why it's OK for Winston Churchill, arguably the most respected and quoted Western politician of the twentieth century, to describe us as a race of savages, and Gandhi as a naked little man? The point of brown intellectuals criticizing other is not simply to put each other down to get ahead. It's to exercise the same intellectual freedom that Rushdie does when he typifies all muslims, or Lahiri does when she equates all Indians in America with nerdy Bengali intellectuals. We deserve our right to be angry and brown. Maybe you have never been the subject of a racial attack, but some of us have.

11:52 AM  
Anonymous karan said...

ana...i dont think anyone is called a brown or uncle tom because he has a broader world view that encapsulates both east and west, but due to exactly the opposite. usually those terms are given to those who choose to ignore their native cultures and its norms or struggles all in the hopes of acceptance from the west. im not saying that the words are not abused, but again there are communities, such as the african american community, which most of the time uses "uncle tom" to refer to those who deserve it very obviously.

in the case of rushdie, again i feel sardar is entitled to his opinion, and perhaps sardar does have a larger world view than rushdie, although it might not be the kind western thinkers prefer.

11:16 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Have you actually read anything by Rushdie, or Roy for that matter? Cause, I'm not sure where you are getting the idea that either of them think, or their work portrays, that India is a terrible society. But anyway. This is a boring argument.

12:12 AM  
Blogger Amardeep said...

Angry Brown Man,

You're not making a lot of sense, I'm afraid. You're sprinkling hostility to the west in with criticisms of desi art's "negativity," and your writing as a whole just seems over the top and confused. Stick to one thing at a time. Yeah, we all know about what Winston Churchill said and we're all glad India is an independent nation, but it's not necessarily relevant to the topic at hand.

An earlier commentor asks whether you've read Rushdie or Roy. I might second that question, and zoom in on Rushdie: have you read The Satanic Verses? You should.

So how come all art by brown people focuses on how lacking we are as a culture?

Well for one thing, I think you're focusing exclusively on diasporic art (it would be silly to say that Bollywood does what you're talking about, for instance). And even diasporic S.Asian art doesn't just do that.

Your expectation that Indian art should reflect only the best of the civilization is skewed, and suggests you're thinking of your audience primarily as non-Indian. According to your logic, the function of art should be limited to celebrating the positive. But do insiders in a cultural group really need to see some kind of artificially constructed positive? Will they be interested in it? Not likely; if I am Indian, I know the reality of my community all too well. Some politically correct pageant of beauty is going to be less interesting than a drama that resembles my real experiences. So the only answer is that you're thinking of the audience of Indian art as composed of non-Indians: people who don't know the culture, and who use art as a proxy for ethnography, to learn about the culture from outside.

All this is ironic, given your broader argument, and your own personal investment in negativity. I think lasting art comes when writers and artists forget their audience and focus entirely on capturing the truth of a situation. It may be a political situation, but the truth in art has to be a human truth that transcends politics. If it's just politics, it isn't art.

It doesn't happen when we're slavishly trying to appease our audience (this what you think Chadha is doing), nor does it happen when we're trying to get revenge on them.

Incidentally, Fanon's "On National Culture" may be relevant to this argument. Have you read it? It's in "The Wretched of the Earth."

The point of brown intellectuals criticizing other is not simply to put each other down to get ahead.

Well, didn't you just say you were going to do that on your blog? You said that your traffic was down, so you were going to start attacking some people to get attention.

I have some news for you: the blog world (like most of the real world) doesn't work that way. You have to respect your peers (even if you disagree with them) if you want them to link to you. It's an inherently collective and collaborative project that runs on a 'link exchange economy'. If you want friends, you have to contribute something positive.

Maybe you have never been the subject of a racial attack, but some of us have.

You're talking about things you know nothing about. Try being a Sikh in rural Pennsylvania after 9/11. I was. It wasn't pretty.

7:53 AM  
Blogger ana beynaam said...


it certainly wasn't my intention to suggest that the reason to call anyone an uncle tom or brown sahib just because they have a broader world view, but given your reasons, where or how has rushdie ignored his 'native' culture and its norms and struggles? critiqued them yes, but out and out ignored them?

it wasn't my intention to come out as the defender of rushdie either. i have criticised him as well, but it bothers me that there are folk who label him as one who is a brown sahib, or a slave to the west, etc. if i 'accuse' sardar of not being broadminded, it is not because he doesn't think like western thinkers. it is because he sees rushdie's works and words through an incredibly narrow lens, if he even 'sees' or 'reads' them. yes, he is entitled to his opinion, but so are we.

11:08 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

i think it is clear that my arugment was not entirely focused on just rushdie or sardar, i used them, as amardeep did, to argue a greater point. yes, as western thinkers we may waste away arguing the details of each writer, but i think amardeep was presenting a greater idea and that is wat i tried to respond to.

to the anonymous indvidual...i think you havent read my comments attentively. my statements about india and indian writers, brown sahibs, was to answer a broader question prsented by amardeep. i think u are having trouble with comprehension. dont need to extend your diplomacy now, the thrust of my first comment was that all freedom of expression should be tolerated, no matter how insane it maybe to some, and in the same spirit i believe certain labels are justified, as diplomacy is the silent and blind spectator of most astrocities in the world.

9:39 PM  
Blogger Chandra said...

Anonymous said

"Have you actually read anything by Rushdie, or Roy for that matter? Cause, I'm not sure where you are getting the idea that either of them think, or their work portrays, that India is a terrible society. But anyway. This is a boring argument."

Just because Rushdie and Roy write English fiction don't put both of them in the same category. Rushdie is lot more thoughtful and sane person than Ms. Roy ever was or will be.

For Ms. Roy latest tirade against India (for not being a communist dictatorship) during her latest trip to US see

11:13 AM  
Anonymous meninder said...

i used to be an angry brown man. i would listen and relate to dr. dre's 'the chronic'. 2pac also relays similar sentiment. but then i got through adolescence. i chuckle when i think back to those times. now, i focus my energy on more positive things. and regardless of being angry, you cant not appreciate the genius (dare i use that word) of rushdie. his writing is phantasmological.

i still find myself angry sometimes, but i dont think id ever have the gumption to call someone out on their dedication to the cause.

10:10 PM  
Blogger Amardeep said...


Welcome -- we hope to hear more from you in the weeks to come.

10:01 AM  
Anonymous svend said...

Sardar wrote a book a while back where he presents some arguments for labeling Rushdie (and V.S. Naipaul) thus. It's called DISTORTED IMAGINATION

5:39 PM  

Post a Comment

<< Home