On Becoming English

by Ibn Warraq


 A number of readers, reviewers and journalists but also some friends acquired since writing my first book, Why I am Not a Muslim, have regularly expressed their disappointment that the one question I do not answer in the latter book is why I am not a Muslim, or how I abandoned the faith I was born into. Second, many journalists are even more disappointed when they finally get to meet me, disappointed that I am not more exotic, with tales, interspersed with the correct guttural pronouncements of Arabic words and names, particularly the “h” in Muhammad, of my years spent memorising the Koran in madrassas, flirting with fundamentalism, or taking part in some jihadi excercises. Not knowing anything about the real man behind the pseudonym, writers and journalists, in an attempt to contextualize the “brave apostate”, were obliged to fit me into certain moulds. Christopher Hitchens, for instance, wrote in 2003, ” My favorite book on Islam is the rationalist critique Why I Am Not a Muslim, published under the pseudonym Ibn Warraq and written by a recovering Pakistani ex-zealot who was originally shaken loose from his faith by the Rushdie affair”.Now I am truly beholden to Hitchens for these three lines, I am sure they helped boost the sales of my book, and also brought it out of the shadows, lending it some sort of respectability, but “a recovering Pakistani ex-zealot”?

For Andrew Stuttaford, writing in the National Review,(3rd June, 2002), I am an Indian, “Brought up a Muslim on the Indian subcontinent, Mr. Warraq is a slightly old-fashioned figure, a shabbily genteel man with more than a hint of India’s mid-20th-century intelligentsia about him. His talk (blunt in language and sharp in logic) was a fascinating analysis both of the roots of Islam and of its association with today’s religious violence. How accurate it was, I’m not expert enough to judge, but it is worth remembering that Lord Russell never had to conceal his real name. Certainly, in its analytical and textual rigor, Ibn Warraq’s lecture was a considerable improvement on the patronizing sugarcoating that usually passes for discussion of Islam, the “religion of peace”.”

Here is the real context of the author of Why I am Not a Muslim, in the form of a short memoir of how I acquired a love of things English, and perhaps an English identity too.

My family belongs to a distinct group of Indian Muslims known as Khatris who first appear as a Hindu subcaste in the 15th century. This caste of dyers of cloth converted to Islam in the 16th century and eventually settled in the Rann of Kutch and the Sind, gradually becoming merchants and traders. My mother tongue is Kutchi, a dialect linguistically related to Sindhi. There are ninety families in this subcaste, and my real family name is Valera. However I do not know why my father changed it when applying for our passports.

I was born, in 1946, into a Muslim family in Rajkot, in the state of Gujarat, a town where Gandhi also grew up (though he was born elsewhere-Porbandar also in the Gujarat). The year is significant, one year later, my father, his mother, (my own mother had died of tuberculosis a few months earlier), my brother, a year older than I, and I moved to Karachi, the capital of the newly created country of Pakistan, a creation that Salman Rushdie once described as resulting from a failure of imagination. I therefore grew up in Karachi. My earliest memories are of my circumcision and of my first day at Koranic school. I only have the vaguest of memories of learning rote-fashion at the age of  seven or eight the Fatiha, approximately fifty words, that is the opening chapter of the Koran, which is often described as the Muslim equivalent of the Lord’s Prayer. My brother and I carried some sections of the Koran called sipirahs, which is the Persian term for the thirty juz or divisions of the Koran, in a simple bag we hung round our necks and shoulders. We learned to read the Koran rather easily since the national language of Pakistan was Urdu, and although an Indo-European language was written, like Persian, in a modified Arabic alphabet, though Arabic belonged, like Hebrew and Syriac, to the Semitic group of languages. We had already mastered the Urdu alphabet, and our reading of the Arabic Koran was entirely with a Urdu pronunciation, with, for example, the Arabic “th”, as in “think”  becoming “s” as in English “sweet“. We had to follow our teacher with our fingers on the Koranic text as he read aloud from the Koran. We did not stay very long at the Koranic school since we were soon enrolled at a secular school, where I do not remember receiving any religious instruction.

Sending us to Koranic school was a surprising decision on the part of my father, since he himself was not at all religious,- though paradoxically, he always took pride in the achievements of Islamic civilisation- most of his friends in Rajkot were Hindus, whom he found more progressive, and he only attended the mosque during religious festivals such as Id al-Fitr. He nonetheless had a particular horror of Christian symbols- once removing the two arms of a cruciform paperknife; and his office had framed verses of the Koran hanging on the walls, and also photos of the Kaaba, the cube-like structure draped in black cloth in the centre of the mosque at Mecca. Yet he profoundly shocked my grandmother when he ripped off a miniature Koran that she had hung round my neck, saying he did not want his sons being brought up on religious mumbo-jumbo. My grandmother went into a frenzy of prayers, wails and imprecations, invoking Allah’s mercy, understanding, and forgiveness for my father’s impiety. But we did imbibe something of Islam from my grandmother, who recited entire verses from the Koran without understanding a single word of them, and who taught us Arabic prayers, which we, the two brothers, did not understood either. Islam or religion was always associated in my mind with my grandmother. I watched her often on her bed as she posed the Koran on its traditional kursi, that is, a little X-shaped chair or stand, and began to rock back and forth while reciting parts of it. She seems also to have organized religious meetings that took place in our small apartment, and which were attended by women only, with guest speakers. If I passed through when such a meeting was in progress, I was called over by my grandmother who insisted on showing what she believed was the Arabic letter alif in the middle of my forehead to all those present since she believed this was a sign that I was especially favoured by God. We also accompanied her to a shrine to a holy man on the outskirts of Karachi on the road to the port. I think orthodox Islam frowns upon any prayers that smack of “saint worship”, but which in fact are common as ordinary believers seek to create and pray to mediators between themselves and the remote and rather forbidding God. We also, of course, attended the mosque especially on Fridays and during religious festivals, always in the company of adults. My father took us to a public garden not far from our flat for a service attended by thousands of believers once a year at the end of the month of Ramadan, the month of fasting. We were delighted to be with the adults, and we knew that at the end of the day the Eid presents (Eid al-Fitr, sometimes described rather inaccurately as the Muslim Christmas, but which does correctly indicate the atmosphere of festivities, with exchange of Eid cards and gifts) would come from uncles, cousins, and family friends.

I also have vivid memories of the various Muslim festivals of whose religious significance, as children, we had no idea. There was Bakra Eid, held in memory of Abraham’s offering of his son. Mainly goats and sheep are sacrificed, ritually slaughtered in the Muslim manner to render them halal (or kosher). Our servants carried out all these gruesome duties in the backyard of the building housing our apartment. Here were left for months the festering and stinking stomachs of the slaughtered beasts. The only other vivid memories related to Islam that I have concern the Shiite festivals of Muharram (we were Sunnis). They were very disturbing but at the same time fascinating, since they involved colorful processions, and bloody spectacles of self-flagellation, with chains, whips, and razor blades as each participant tried to outdo his companion in the quantity of blood he could draw from his back or tongue.[1]                  

We had a surprising amount of personal freedom, and virtually had the run of the whole city, free to roam wherever we chose, even though we were only eight and nine years old. One of our first schools was not far from the Karachi zoo, then called the Gandhi Gardens, and we often dawdled there, either to see jackals or perhaps hyaenas fighting each other in the cages, a bloody spectacle witnessed by crowds and crowds of people, or to gather tamarind from the tamarind trees in the grounds. More often we took the cycle rickshaws back, and to this day remember that it cost eight annas to our flat in Lawrence Road, then in the early 1950s still surprisingly carrying the name of a British official of the time of the Indian Mutiny, now called, I think, Muhammad Ali Jinnah Road. We had no television and for many years we did not even have a radio. Our pastimes were playing gilly-danda, a game where one tries to send as far as possible a shorter stick (gilly) pointed at the both ends by hitting it with a longer one (danda), a game that led us all over the city. Flying kites, and engaging in aerial kite fights, was also a national passion. Telegraph wires in Lawrence Road were entangled with colourful kites and their equally colourful tails, and their threads. Of course, the real national game was cricket, and I was besotted with it. Our school, unfortunately, did not have organised sports, and I, in fact, never played it properly until I arrived in my prep school in England, where I quickly became the school captain, as wicket-keeper-batsman. But I did collect photographs of cricketers, and as cricket is a heaven-sent gift for those obessessed with statistics, I knew off by heart the batting and bowling averages of the leading players. My father had many journalist friends who passed onto him original photographs of various test matches and cricketers, I cherished them like any schoolboy with a hobby.

We attended two schools before leaving Karachi for good. The classes were large, and chaotic. The first of these is fixed in my memory thanks to a bizarre episode: a drunk man came into one of our classes, and there were farcical moments as the headmaster tried to have the drunk thrown out, in the process ripping off the latter’s shirt sleeve. The second, New Era High School, situated behind one of the major cinemas of Karachi, seemed more organized and discipline was higher. I remember that the mathematics that I learnt at the age of nine in the latter school was several years in advance of what I learnt in my English prep school. But all schools were poorly equipped, and manned by unqualified teachers who had no clear guidelines about the curriculum. Hopes embodied in the name of the school, New Era, were not likely to be fulfilled, thought my father.

Thus, suddenly, at the age of ten I was sent, with my brother, to an English preparatory school, a prep school in Tenbury Wells, Worcestershire. On the plane, the two of us were asked by another passenger-an adult- where we were going. He then asked us if we had enjoyed the duck that had been served us during the in-flight meal. We did not know if we were permitted to eat duck, whether it was halal, and so had played it safe by refusing. My father who was very fashion conscious, and spent considerable time and money on his choice of clothes- he once stood in the courtyard of our apartment block decked out in his latest purchase from the United States, a shirt with the front page of a newspaper printed on it, allowing himself to be admired- had dressed us in white, very heavy, double-breasted silk suits, something out of our experience. In the streets of Karachi we hardly ever put on shoes, and dressed very simply in shorts and shirts.

My father had picked the school from a number of prospectuses that he had written off for, and was eager to get his sons out of Karachi, for he saw no future for them in Pakistan, and though he made fun of the British Empire, he once told a friend that whatever their sins, the English, at least, “had an ethical way of doing things”. As I noted before, my father was not particularly religious, and I doubt that many educated middle class intellectuals like my father were either. Thus he always feared that populist politicians would turn Pakistan into a theocracy, and he always felt uneasy about the political instability of Pakistan. Every time martial law was declared, riots, looting, and general violence resulted. He was apprehensive of the religious fanaticism of the masses, as he had witnessed the massacres in the Gujarat in 1947; he always blamed religion for India’s endemic violence. Lawlessness, political instability and the threat of religious fanaticism convinced him to get his sons out of Pakistan to a country he had always admired from a distance.

We were met at the airport by someone sent by our prep school, by a certain Mr.Cole, whom we found very red-faced. I remember the first morning walking in Hyde Park, and our ruddy chaperon pointed to a pigeon and asked us if we knew what that was called in English. We replied: “dove”. We had never spoken English; we had learnt it for a few years at school though the medium of instruction was Urdu, and not English. We belonged to a film club at a local cinema, the Nishat Cub Club, where all the films were in English, and many of the young members were English boys, sons of expats working as advisors or business men, who taught us the expression, “don’t push”, while waiting in a rather unruly queue. I was also rather taken with the sight of milkmen putting out milk-bottles on the doorsteps of London houses very early in the morning.

From the parched streets of Karachi, a dirty, sprawling concrete nightmare, that I recollect having left only once in my ten years, where I spoke only Urdu and Kutchi- I found myself in green Worcestershire, my English vocabulary limited to “don’t push”.  What better guide could there be to my future school, and its very English setting than that most English of poets and architectural writers Sir John Betjeman,

                    ” …[T]he unique atmosphere of St. Michael’s College, Tenbury. I shall never forget my first impression of the place. There was the climb up from the little market town of Tenbury whence some of the lay clerks make their twice daily journey to Mattins and Evensong to lend men’s voices to the boys’ choir, and there before me stretched an enormous common. In the far corner, in a land of blossoming orchards and backed by the blue distance of Clee Hill, rose a chapel, seemingly as large as Lancing. Attached to it were Warden’s house, school buildings, cloister and dining hall, all in a style of the fourteenth century, re-interpreted in local materials for the nineteenth century by the genius of its architect, Henry Woodyer. After Evensong, where the music was equal to that of the best cathedral choirs, and a walk round the buildings in the quiet of a Worcestershire evening, I visited the large dormitory, which runs almost the whole length of a building parallel with the chapel. Here Christopher Hassall read his poem to the boys and held them spellbound as the stars shone through the narrow Gothic windows in the gabled roof….”

                   “The unique quality of St. Michael’s persists….It would be impossible for any boy not to be influenced by the morning and evening thanks to his Creator which he hears so perfectly sung in this tall chapel among the orchards of Worcestershire.”

The College had been founded in 1856 by Sir Frederick Arthur Gore Ouseley, Bart. to “promise a course of training, and to form a model, for the daily choral services of the Church in these realms, and, for the furtherance of this object, to receive, educate and train boys in religious, secular and musical knowledge.” The school was famous for its annual choral concerts that were broadcast on BBC Radio.          

In that most English of settings, rural Worcestershire, I began unconsciously but surely acquiring an English education but also an Englishness, a love of things peculiarly English, the English countryside, especially its bird-life- my early heroes being bird artists C.F.Tunicliffe and bird photographer, Eric Hoskins,- the descriptions of the natural history and village life in Northamptonshire in the writings of Denys Watkins-Pitchford, who often wrote under the pen-name, “B.B”; English folk songs, like The Lincolnshire Poacher, The Vicar of Bray or Early One Morning. My holidays were spent with an English family near Norwich, Norfolk, which inevitably led to a passion for English watercolours of the Norwich School, early nineteenth century artists such as John Crome, and John Sell Cotman, whose works, watercolours of the Norfolk countryside, were on display at Norwich Castle Museum; the Englishness of English art of such painters as Samuel Palmer, whose landscapes are described by himself as “sprinkled and showered with a thousand pretty eyes, and buds …and blossoms, gemm’d with dew”; and architecture, the Wren churches in London, the uniqueness of London’s architectural history, hence my anguish when the University of London destroyed some parts of Georgian squares in and around Gordon Square, and literature…. But I was also acquiring Englishness of manner, and feeling, the same awkwardness about sex, money and clothes. Pakistanis had already naturalised the game of cricket and had adopted it as their own, and but once in England, I followed the fortunes of the Worcestershire cricket club, the 1950s were the days of Peter Richardson, the opening batsman, and Coldwell and Flavell, the fast bowlers.

Our first glimpse of St.Michael’s was the ivy-covered façade, and my abiding memory of those early days was always of the ruddiness of English faces. Some of the other impressions were of what we thought were the childishness of the games played by the boys in the playground with dinky toys, Hornby Dublo, and toy tractors. Many of the children rushed round pretending to be driving Massey Ferguson tractors, an obessession I could not share or understand. My brother and I were far more street-wise even at the age of ten and eleven than any of our peers at the English school. I also have vivid memories of the village tuck-shop which we were allowed to visit on Saturdays. One of the cleaning ladies of the school called me in the most affectionate of ways “darkie”, and sympathized with me, telling me that it must have been awful to be away from mother, father and family. I was rather touched by her concern for my feelings of loss. I also have nothing but fond memories of the kindness of my fellow pupils who often invited me to their homes particularly at half-term exeats when I had nowhere to go.

I was always a voracious reader but my early reading at the prep school went on parallel lines. On the one hand there were children’s favourites: I was hooked on Enid Blyton- as many of her series that I could get hold of, from the Famous Five to Adventure Series; Richmal Crompton’s Just William stories; Anthony Buckeridge’s Jennings books, from which I picked up much schoolboy slang; Frank Richards’ comic tales of Billy Bunter and public school life at Greyfriar’s – not at all offended by Richards’ creation Huree Jamset Ram Singh, “the dusky Nabob of Bhanipur”,  indeed rather pleasantly surprised that an Indian  should figure in an English story where he is taken as the English boys’ equal despite the gentle satire on his way of talking ; Biggles adventures of Capt. W.E.Johns. But at the same time, I was also absorbed by crime stories, thrillers with lurid covers more suited to an adult reader; of writers such as Edgar Wallace, now perhaps better known as the writer of the scenario of the first King Kong movie. Wallace was very prolific, and searching for and finding paperbacks of his The Four Just Men, The Clue of the Twisted Candle, The Crimson Circle, The Green Archer, The Ringer, and others was very exciting. Another crime writer who is now neglected and whom I read by the time I left my prep school was Richard S. Prather, whose private eye, the white-haired Shell Scott, began appearing in stories in the 1950s with titles such as Always Leave ‘Em Dying, and Darling, It’s Death (Raymond Chandler, and Ross Macdonald came later.)

One of our teachers, John Gray, taught us Scottish dancing. Eight of us formed four couples; one boy taking the girl’s role. I was dancing the boys’ part (even at that age-eleven-I was developing a moustache). Much to our surprise, John Gray coached us to a proficient enough level to have us dance at a garden fete in Henry Woodyer’s Victorian Gothic cloisters of the school. We all wore kilts, and danced, I think, at least four dances, of whose names I can only remember two, Strip the Willow, and the Eightsome Reel.           

I was exempted from church services, but did study the Bible in Scripture classes.

But there was no Islam; I was not given any religious instruction about the religion of my birth. There was no contact with my family, apart from the weekly letters I wrote to my father- first in Urdu then in English.There were some Muslim students staying with the English family in Norfolk but they were not at all practising and I do not remember ever discussing religion, let alone Islam with them- I did meet by chance one of them years later, by when he was vehemently anti-Islam.

The Headmaster, or Warden as he was called, at St.Michael’s College found an English family in Norfolk for me and my brother to stay with during the school holidays.

There were many students from Pakistan, Iran, Japan, France, and Turkey lodged with the family of Dr. and Mrs. Buchanan, and their divorced daughter, and her two sons.

I wish I could say that this family took the place in my heart of my own family but unfortunately this was not to be, in part due to the jealousy of the divorced daughter for my academic success in contrast to the relative failure of her sons’. In part also the lack of warmth of the English family kept us at a distance. The Second World War predominated in their conversation, and was obviously the most significant event of their lives. They recalled with nostalgia the days they met James Stewart, the American actor who was stationed at the airfields in Norfolk. The family was not religious, and was rather philistine- there were very few books in the large house, and no-one showed any particular interest in the arts. But I was extremely happy in their large rambling Victorian house, the Old Rectory, where I once came upon a large pile of old copies of Country Life which contained so many advertisements for country houses on sale. Thumbing through them, I used to day-dream about owning one one day.

 At the age of fourteen, after sitting the Common Entrance Examination, I went onto a public school in Dorset, Bryanston. My prep school headmaster, the Reverend D.W.Stride, had chosen that particular school thinking that its liberalism, and comparative modernity (no fagging), would best suit my character. Dorset, of course, led me to read many of Thomas Hardy’s Wessex novels, and much later, his poetry. Still no Islam. Bryanston’s liberalism, and its lack of religious affiliation, attracted a large number of Jews from non-orthodox Jewish families, and all the Jewish pupils were, like me, exempted from the Christian prayers every morning, and so we all ended up together in a large hall waiting for morning assembly to end. Thus, it was natural that many of my friends were, in fact, Jews, but such was my astonishing ignorance and naivety that I did not know that they were Jews, and it never occurred to me ask why they were also exempted from morning prayers.  

While at Bryanston I did have rather unsophisticated discussions, from about the age of fifteen onwards, about religion with my peers, and none of us found it particularly shocking, or at least, we did not show it, when one or many of us avowed to any kind of skepticism, or even atheism. We were not at all aware of any details of any of the dogma, beliefs, philosophy or rites and rituals of any particular religion. I think we often ended up with the simple question, if there is a God who created Him? Even as a student of philosophy in my later years, I never took a particular interest in the Philosophy of Religion.

By the age of eighteen, I felt at home in England, which was the focus of my affection, my loyalty, of nostalgia, – and can one talk of nostalgia of a time when one did not exist?  If not, what name could I possibly give to the feelings evoked by hearing Vera Lynn singing,”We’ll meet again” popular when I was not even born? Later on, when abroad in France and Israel, I missed England, London, the English language, the second-hand bookshops along Charing Cross Road and Cecil’s Court, and I consciously sought out what I considered were parochially English works, like William Cobbett’s Rural Rides, or Mary Russell Mitford’s Our Village. Islam did not figure in any of this, my identity seemed to be assured, and attained naturally without me consciously trying to be English or trying to ape the ways of a people whom my father had mocked as imperialists, without any interference from family, without any anguish, and above all, without any recourse to a religion I knew very little about, having forgotten all the Arabic prayers or verses learnt mechanically.

There were two episodes in my early life which turned out to be emotionally turbulent, and led me to further quests on my pilgrimage in search of identity and reassurance in self-definition.

First, when I left the school, I had been awarded a travel grant by Bryanston on leaving it for the last time, to “study”, rather informally, the art and architecture of South West France. In my two weeks there, I found the French rude, and a charming landscape of Languedoc nonetheless was parched and un-English, and I remember being overjoyed at arriving back in England. And as I disembarked at Dover, I made for the outskirts of town, found a green field, went to the centre of it, and lay down in the rich, green grass. I was happy to be home!

Second, Bryanston, through an Israeli organisation called the Bridge in Britain, chaired by Greville Janner, now a Labour Peer, each year offered a certain number of travel scholarships to work on a kibbutz in Israel for six months for students waiting to start their university year. I applied, and during my interview my naive replies seem to have won the reviewing panel over, and I was sent to Israel, much to the embarrassment of my father. I still had a Pakistani passport, but had no idea that Pakistan had no diplomatic relations with Israel, and I did not know anything about the turbulent years of Israel’s creation, and could not understand what all the flap was about. I loved my six months on the kibbutz Kfar Hanassi, and my travels throughout Israel, from Hazor in the North to Eilat in the South.  Having been cooped up in an all-male English boarding school for the last six years, I was so happy, in Israel, to be free and in the company of some beautiful women, some of whom even found me attractive. Second, there was an extraordinary ambiance, the old-fashioned camaraderie of pioneers, and above all, a strong sense of belonging that I adored. It was really akin to acquiring a new extended family, something I had missed since I had grown up without one, no mother or father, a brother glimpsed only during school holidays. Finally, there was the climate, archaeology, one of my early passions, still flourishing after all these years. Hazor, Megiddo, Jerusalem, and Masada, an archaeology enthusiast’s dream.

I think my six-months in Israel reminded me of my original Muslim identity in several ways. First, The Israeli Minister of Religious Affairs asked to see me especially: intrigued that a Pakistani was among the group from England. He proudly pointed out to me of that Israeli Muslims enjoyed complete religious freedom. Second, in Tel Aviv, I met an Arab scout master, a Muslim, who persuaded me to go the mosque. I explained that I no longer knew the prayers or even the genuflections necessary. But he reassured me that I simply had to copy him, and I complied to please him.

I cannot report any moral tussles concerning religion, no epiphanies, no revelations on Syrian roads, or even among the bookshops of the Charing Cross Road. But soon there was a feeling of insecurity engendered by British passport officials at frontiers, and by well-intentioned questions like, “Where are you from?” To the reply, Notting Hill, I would still be asked “No seriously, where are you really from?”  Would I ever be really accepted as an Englishman? I was reminded of my non-English origins in subtle ways, but the one that hurt me most was when, on my remarking that I admired Bertrand Russell’s elegant literary style, I was firmly put in my place by being told, “Well you would, you are a foreigner, an Englishman would not notice”. This was a variation on the complaint that if a foreigner spoke flawless English, “it was too perfect, no Englishman would talk like that”. I had a kind of crisis of identity. There is an old joke about a clearly exasperated customs’ official who is shaking a form filled in by the voyager in front of him, shouting, “Yes, yes, we are all atheists nowadays, but are you a Christian atheist, Muslim atheist, Jewish atheist or Hindu atheist? What kind of an atheist are you?” It seems we can never entirely escape from our past, our origins.

I was accepted to study essentially European Art History at Edinburgh University, but in my quest for my roots I chose to study Arabic, Persian, and Islamic Civilization, and by chance Edinburgh had a small but prestigious Arabic department, since it’s head was Professor Montgomery Watt, highly revered author of a biography of Muhammad that was greatly admired in the Islamic world, with L.P.Elwell-Sutton as the Professor of Persian, and Dr.Pierre Cachia as Lecturer on Arabic language and literature.

Kim, the eponymous hero of Kipling’s masterpiece, asks, “What am I? Musselman, Hindu, Jain, or Buddhist? That is a hard nut.” Only to be told by his companion, “Thou art beyond question an unbeliever, and therefore thou wilt be damned…” That was what I wanted to find out, and that was exactly my conclusion. I did not wish to study Arabic, my real love being Italian art, especially at one moment of my enthusiasm, the Italian Baroque of such painters as Annibale Carracci (1560–1609), aspiring to be an art critic, thinking I would one day write my autobiography with the title , “From Karachi to the Carracci- Annibale and Lodovico”- but I felt I had to quieten my restlessness, and insecurity, and acquire some knowledge of the religion of my birth. By the time I went up to Edinburgh, I had seen my father only once since leaving Karachi at the age of ten. He died in Mozambique of a heart-attack at the age of forty-eight, during my second year at Edinburgh.

Who was I?  Perhaps an Oriental ? I was delighted every time I discovered some contribution of Oriental civilization to the making of the modern world; or the way Persian, Babylonian and Mesopotamian philosophy, thought, and art had influenced Greek philosophy, art and science, as recounted by scholars such as Walter Burkert, Rudolf Wittkower, and M.L.West. Or the way that Arabic philosophy and science of Averroes, Avicenna, Rhazes and al-Hazen, for example, had influenced the European Twelfth Century Renaissance of the schools of science and philosophy of Padua, and scientists such as Robert Grossetete and Roger Bacon. Not forgetting the influence of India on Schopenhauer, and Schlegel, Iran on Nietzsche, Buddhism on Wagner and T.S.Eliot, and so on. Rather crudely, when I read Sir Steven Runciman’s History of the Crusades, I felt exhilarated each time the Saracens successfully stormed a Christian castle.

And yet this was equally a fantasy. I no longer spoke any Indian language, I thought in English, had no contacts whatsoever with Pakistan or India, having been orphaned while at the University of Edinburgh, and I certainly did not feel any sense of loss or nostalgia for the artificially created country of my childhood. More fundamentally, I discovered my deep skepticism- skepticism in its finest sense of a profound respect for reason, critical thought, evidence, tolerance for other points of view, intellectual humility, the need for compromise, the skepticism of Edward Gibbon, Montaigne, Spinoza, Diderot, Hume, Mill, and Mill’s godless godson, Bertrand Russell.

Evidentally I was more Occidental- Islam does not tolerate dissent, doubt, or atheism, Muslims had turned away from Greek rationalism in favour of the putatively superior truth of revelation, and were now, in the 20th century, paying dearly for it. Ironically, now I was pained each time I heard of any Oriental influence on my beloved Greek civilization, and I actually re-read Runciman’s History of the Crusades, but this time I admired the Crusaders when they held out in their beseiged strongholds in the Syrian desert, and I was profoudly thankful to Charles Martel for his victory over the Moors in 732 B.C.E. at Poitiers, France. I saw resurgent fundamentalist Islam as the greatest threat to the kind of civilization to which I gave allegiance. The distinction between the secular and the religious is totally alien to Islamic thought and practice. There is no personal, private space in Islam. It controls and intrudes in every nook and cranny of an individual’s life. There is no modesty and no discretion. Many non-Muslims in Islamic countries have their rights denied. Sometimes citizenship is defined by religion alone. Often the testimony of non-Muslims against Muslims in a court of law is not accepted. Non-Muslims are not permitted to visit the holy cities of Islam such as Mecca. The celebration of Christian or Jewish festivals is expressly forbidden in Saudi Arabia. Sura 2:288 and 4:34 make it clear that women are inferior to men and must be obedient. In Pakistan in cases of rape, the women’s testimony is not accepted. Atheists and apostates are to be executed. Anti-Jewish sentiments abound in the Koran, Hadith (Muslim Traditions), and the life of the Prophet, who had the men of the Jewish tribe of Banu Qurayza- between 600-900 individuals- beheaded publically. Non-Muslims are second-class citizens. Freedom of thought and artistic creation are severely restricted.

To arm myself against the charge that I was not “racially” British and hence not Occidental, and being rather sensitive on the issue of race, I carried in my head an anthology of examples and arguments, or as T.S.Eliot put it, “These Fragments have I shored against my ruin”, fragments of the following kind:

           We are what a character in Nabokov’s Lolita  calls a salad of racial genes, the radical nationalist fear of racial dilution is misplaced, and as Gibbon said even dangerous, “The narrow policy of preserving, without any foreign mixture, the pure blood of the ancient citizens, had checked the fortune, and hastened the ruin, of Athens and Sparta.”[2] Had not Defoe also written in his famous, The True-Born Englishman,

      The Romans first with Julius Caesar came,

      Including all the nations of that name,

      Gauls, Greeks, and Lombards; and by computation,

      Auxiliaries or slaves of very nation.

      With Hengist, Saxons; Danes with Sueno came,

      In search of plunder, not in search of fame.

      Scots, Picts, and Irish from th’ Hibernian shore:

      And conqu’ring William brought the Normans o’re.

                     All these barb’rous offspring left behind,

                     These dregs of armies, they of all mankind;

                     Blended with Britains who before were here,

                     Of whom the Welsh ha’ blessed the character.

                     From this amphibious ill-born mob began

                     That vain ill-natured thing, an Englishman. [3]




   These are the heroes that despise the Dutch,

   And rail at new-come foreigners so much;

   Forgetting that themselves are all derived

   From the most scoundrel race that ever lived.

   A horrid medley of thieves and drones,

  Who ransacked kingdoms, and dispeopled towns.[4] ?




     Defoe ends his poem with a translation of a line from Juvenal,

             “Tis personal virtue only makes us great.”[5]     

Like nineteenth century German Jews who, during their assimilationist phase, carried a list of Jews who had contributed to German culture, like the composer Felix Mendelssohn, or the painter Moritz Daniel Oppenheim as a kind of talisman to protect them from anti-semitism, I carried my own list of examples, particularly of non-English writers of English, Joseph Conrad, Vladimir Nabokov, and various writers of Indian origin, V.S.Naipaul, Arun Joshi, Nayantara Saghal, Khuswant Singh, and of course Salman Rushdie  

Did English art not benefit from the arrival on its shores of Hans Holbein of Augsburg, who died in London in 1543, Van Dyck came over in 1632, Peter Lely arrived the same year? Ah yes, but they are all Europeans at least, you might counter. Well what of Alexander Pushkin, the Shakespeare of Russian literature, and Alexandre Dumas, author of The Three Musketeers?  Alexander Pushkin’s grandfather was a black slave the son of an African ruler, perhaps from Chad, or more probably Abyssinia. At an early age he was either abducted or sent to the court of the Turkish Sultan in Constantinople. Bought from the Sultan, Pushkin’s grandfather arrived in Russia, and was baptised with Tsar Peter as his godfather. Alexandre Dumas’ father was Thomas-Alexandre Dumas who was the son of Alexandre-Antoine Davy de la Pailleterie and a slave, Louise-Céssette Dumas, from the Caribbean island colony of Saint Domingue (now called Haiti). The adventures of his father, who fought in Egypt under Napoleon were the basis of Alexandre Dumas’ tales.

It was culture, I wanted to argue that mattered, not race. It was the values, sentiments and loyalties to certain institutions, customs, and ideals, espoused that counted. There was a most illuminating study by Professor Ackernecht in 1944 of white children abducted from their parents by North American Indians, or Native Americans in the eighteenth and nineteenth century. All the abducted children studied were between the ages of four and nine years, with the  one exception of a girl who was taken in adolescence. All of them forgot their original white culture, and all, even the girl captured when she was of fifteen years of age, became completely Indianized. In every case, these “white Indians” resisted all attempts to persuade them to return to their white relatives and to the culture of their birth. As Ackernecht says, the “white Indians”, seemed to have found “a kind of unity and thought and action and a kind of social cohesion which deeply appealed to them, and which they did find not find with the whites, especially with the pioneers”. Even more remarkably, these “white Indians’ not only became completely Indianized culturally, but developed all the physical powers of resistance said to be peculiar to Indians. All of them had acquired the facial expression and outward impassibility characteristic of the Indian.[6] Arthur Koestler alludes to a similar phenomenon in his book The Thirteenth Tribe.


The Rushdie Affair, Pseudonyms, Reason, Identity, and Culture.


   I.The Rushdie Affair.

It was undoubtedly the Rushdie Affair that finally brought into focus in an unequivocal way where my real allegiances lay, what values I had unconsciously acquired, and which I was prepared to live by, and which, equally, I knew with absolute certainty, I had to defend. In February 1989, the Ayatollah Khomeini delivered his fatwa on Salman Rushdie. Immediately in its wake came articles or interviews with western intellectuals, Arabists and Islamologists, many of which blamed Rushdie for bringing the barbarous sentence unto himself. Astonishingly, Professor Trevor-Roper (Lord Dacre) even seemed to encourage violence against Rushdie: “I wonder how Salman Rushdie is faring these days under the benevolent protection of British law and British police, about whom he has been so rude. Not too comfortably I hope … I would not shed a tear if some British Muslims, deploring his manners, should waylay him in a dark street and seek to improve them. If that should cause him thereafter to control his pen, society would benefit and literature would not suffer.”

I read avidly the western press in Britain, France and the United States looking for support for the values I held so dear. So often I was disappointed, in many of these articles there was no unequivocal support for Rushdie or the principle of freedom of speech. Political and literary figures who were critical of Rushdie included Jimmy Carter, who[7] wrote that “The Satanic Verses” vilified Muhammad and defamed the Koran. “The author, a well-versed analyst of Moslem beliefs, must have anticipated a horrified reaction throughout the Islamic world”. To his credit, Carter condemned the death sentence and affirmed Rushdie’s right to freedom of speech, but went on to argue that “we have tended to promote him and his book with little acknowledgment that it is a direct insult to those millions of Moslems whose sacred beliefs have been violated and are suffering in restrained silence the added embarrassment of the Ayatollah’s irresponsibility.” In effect Carter was tacitly calling for self-censorship to protect the tender sensibilities of Muslims.

John Berger writing in The Guardian in February 1989 advised Rushdie to withdraw the book because of the danger to the lives of those involved in its publication. In other words, Berger advocated giving into intimidation. In a letter to The Times of London, Roald Dahl dubbed Rushdie “a dangerous opportunist,” who “must have been totally aware of the deep and violent feelings his book would stir up among devout Muslims. In other words, he knew exactly what he was doing and cannot plead otherwise. This kind of sensationalism does indeed get an indifferent book on to the top of the best-seller list, but to my mind it is a cheap way of doing it.” Dahl also advocated self-censorship. It “puts a severe strain on the very power principle that the writer has an absolute right to say what he likes,” he wrote. “In a civilized world we all have a moral obligation to apply a modicum of censorship to our own work in order to reinforce this principle of free speech.”

While John le Carré said in an interview, “I don’t think it is given to any of us to be impertinent to great religions with impunity”. Another writer who refused to side with Rushdie was Germaine Greer, describing Rushdie as “a megalomaniac, an Englishman with a dark skin”. She also said, “”Jail is a good place for writers – they write….”.

There were also many intellectuals and politicians who supported Rushdie and his right to free speech, among them Fay Weldon, Christopher Hitchens, Harold Pinter, Susan Sontag, Norman Mailer, and Stephen Spender. I wrote my first book Why I Am Not a Muslim (most of it in 1993 but which did not appear until 1995) to add my name to the latter distinguished group, and as a response to the pusillanimous reaction of so many other western intellectuals, who seemed incapable of seeing the implications of the Rushdie Affair for the future of the hard-won western freedoms, and democracy. Twenty years later, the West still seems unable to defend robustly its values which are more than ever under attack from militant, political Islam, and what I wrote in 1995 remains valid. What I argued in my last chapter, Islam in the West, was that we in Britain but also in Europe generally had been betrayed by our intellectuals, educationists, and politicians. I was a primary school teacher in Inner London in the 1970s for five years, and fully subscribed to the prevailing philosophy of “multiculturalism”,- the thought being that children from immigrant families would perform better scholastically if their own culture was seen positively in the classroom making them feel proud rather than ashamed of their parents’ background-  but gradually became aware of the disastrous consequences of such a policy for our society.

Education ought to have played an important part in the assimilation of the children of immigrants into the mainstream British culture. But something has drastically gone wrong. Assimilation is no longer considered a respectable social policy. Multiculturalism and bilingualism have been the fashion since the 1970s at least. The notion that one could produce integrated individuals subscribing to a minimum of common core values is now condemned as chauvinism, racism, cultural imperialism or cultural genocide. But Multiculturalism is based on some fundamental misconceptions. First, there is the erroneous and sentimental belief that all cultures, deep down, have the same values; or if these values are different, they are all equally worthy of respect. Multiculturalism, being the child of relativism  is incapable of criticising cultures, of making cross-cultural judgements; it emphasizes differences but fails to teach allegiance to a common core or values or even the country that has received them with such generosity. Furthmore, the truth is that not all cultures have the same values, and not all values are worthy of respect. There is nothing sacrosanct about customs or cultural traditions, they can change under criticism. After all, the secularist values of the West are not much more than two hundred years old. Respect for other cultures, for other values than our own are a hall-mark of a civilised attitude. But if these other values are destructive of our own cherished values, are we not justified in fighting them-by intellectual means, that is by reason and argument and criticism, and legal means, by making sure the laws and constitution of the country are respected by all? It becomes a duty to defend those values that we would live by. While religious beliefs are to be tolerated, religious practices and institutions must not automatically or necessarily be accorded the same freedom if they conflict with the law or constitution of the wider state.

Non-Muslim politicians trawling for Muslim votes have often betrayed the very principles on which British democracy was founded. Here is a letter from a prospective Labour parliamentary candidate, Michael Knowles, that was published, soon after the Fatwa on Rushdie, in The Daily Telegraph of December 31, 1990 but which has not lost its force or pertinence:

“As a nation we have extended to fundamentalist Islam a tolerance which as you rightly state (editorial, Dec 28), we would never extend to any other religious group and which is contrary to all the principles on which our freedom is based. The question must be: why have we done this? Blame can be laid squarely at the doors of both the Government and the parliamentary Labour Party and leadership; the former perhaps for reasons of trade, the latter for electoral advantage. I will leave it to Conservatives to deal with the motives of their party leadership; as one who was a Labour candidate in the last general election, I express my shame and regret at the way the Labour Party has behaved in putting votes before democratic principles. In numerous constituencies it is believed that fundamentalist Islam can manipulate the outcome of an election. A decision must have been made that freedom of speech take second place to electoral success; that not to antagonize certain fundamentalist Muslims is more important than the life of Salman Rushdie.The leadership has therefore kept quiet and, in doing so, has prostituted for votes the most basic principles of life and liberty. In the event of Labour coming to power , it has put itself in danger of creating the equivalent of the Jewish vote in the United States.

Now we, in this country, are in grave danger of seeing the Labour Party serving the whim of what is, though numerically a tiny section of the electorate, one that is strategically positioned and ruthless enough to utilise its influence solely to its own advantage. I never thought I would work for more than 20 years for the principles of the Labour movement before witnessing its leadership and parliamentary party abandoning some of them so shamelessly in order to achieve ephemeral electoral success” Michael Knowles. 

    2.Pseudonyms, and the Genetic Fallacy.

A few years ago, I edited a book of testimonies of ex-Muslims, Leaving Islam. Apostates Speak Out. All the testimonies were witnesses to the authors’ courage, for a free discussion of Islam remains rare and dangerous, certainly in the Islamic world, and even in our politically correct times in the West. A surprising number of the apostates had decided to write under their real name, a gesture of defiance and freedom. Many, on the other hand, had chosen to write under a pseudonym, and  since this is a fact that seems to irritate many in the secular West, I shall briefly indicate the reasons why. Apostasy is still punishable by long prison sentences and even death in many Islamic countries such as Iran and Pakistan, and as many of our authors had relatives in those countries, and whom they regularly visited, it was common-sense and simple prudence not to use one’s real name. Others still do not wish to unnecessarily upset husbands, wives, parents and close relatives who for the most part remain ignorant of their act of apostasy. I have a brother who is unaware of my writings critical of Islam. He is a practising Muslim but a mild, kind person who would probably not hold such writings against me. However, he would worry intensely about my security. Furthermore, he lives in a largely Muslim community that may well decide to ex-communicate him or take it out on him and his family in a thousand subtle ways. I should also like to continue my research and to travel in Islamic lands, hardly thinkable for a Muslim apostate in the public eye as the author of Why I Am Not a Muslim. And can one any longer doubt the danger of criticizing Islam in the West after the Rushdie Affair, and the assassination of Theo Van Gogh? Are Western intellectuals prepared to pay for the security of Muslim dissidents? Most of us cannot afford the luxury of private security guards, and take our own precautions, adopting pseudonyms being the simplest.

Three years ago, I was present at a conference at the University of Notre Dame, in the United States, on the work of the pseudonymous scholar Christoph Luxenberg. One disgraceful paper presented at the conference concentrated entirely on his pseudonym; the paper speculated on the “motives” of Christoph Luxenberg. Not once did the paper address any part of Luxenberg’s tightly argued thesis of the Syriac origins of the Koran. Unfortunately, pseudonyms do engender speculations of the latter kind, and often lead to the genetic fallacy whereby the arguments of a writer, thinker or scholar are dismissed because of the ethnic origins or religious allegiances of the scholars. Instead of asking if the thesis presented is well-argued, backed up by evidence, one lazily disregards it as soon as we are made aware of the origins or affiliations of the writer. One of the consequences of this manner of thinking is that any criticism of Islam by a non-Muslim is deemed unacceptable.

Criticisms of Islam by Jews, Christians, and Hindus are contemptuously waved aside as being biased, distorted, and polemical. Though of course Muslims are happy to accept the Christian apologists of Islam, and they are feted in Islamic lands. Criticisms of Islam cannot be left to Muslims alone, it is the duty of all Western intellectuals to argue, and present the case against militant Islam whenever appropriate.

Apologia Pro Vita Sua. 

Two years ago, I was among the twelve intellectuals, Muslim, ex-Muslims, and non-Muslims, who signed a manifesto against the new Islamic totalitarianism- signatories included Salman Rushdie, Ayaan Hirshi Ali, and French philosopher, Bernard-Henri Lévy. Soon afterwards, a death threat was posted at the British Muslim web site, ummah.com. Someone on the latter website wrote (original grammar and spelling has been retained):

“Now we have drawn out a hit list of a ‘Who’s Who’ guide to slam into. Take your time but make sure their (sic) gone soon- oh, and don’t hold out for a fatwa it isn’t really required here.” And then: “Has anyone got that Christian kaffir ‘Ibn Warraq’s’ real name yet?”  “Well them (sic) disbelievers [the signatories] have in effect signed a death wish via this statement so to hell with them, we’ll just provide the help that they so dearly crave.”

When I was interviewed by journalist Diana West of the Washington Times about the threat, I replied, “We must take it seriously in one sense, but we mustn’t let it stop us in our tracks”. Why did I sign it? I was asked. In reply, I offered the words of John Stuart Mill: “A man who has nothing for which he is willing to fight; nothing he cares about more than his own personal safety is a miserable creature who has no chance of being free, unless made and kept so by exertions of better men than himself.”

           Muharram is period of mourning for Shias in remembrance of the death of Husayn, the son of Ali by Fatima, Muhammad’s daughter. Hasan, the eldest son of Ali, was poisoned at the instigation of the future Caliph Yazid, and Husayn was murdered at Karbala [680 C.E.]. Shias fast for ten days, and the seventh night, an image of Buraq, the horse on which the Prophet ascended heaven, is carried in procession, while on the tenth night are biers representing the tomb of Ali at Karbala. These were thrown into the sea. The mourners beat their backs and breasts with whips, all the while crying “Ya Hasan! Ya Husayn!” or “Ya Ali!”

[2]           Gibbon, Decline and Fall, Chapter. Vol.1, Chapter 2.

[3]           Daniel Defoe. The True-Born Englishman, lines 175-187.

[4]           Ibid.,lines ,233-238.

[5]           Ibid, last line of poem, line 1216, quoting Juvenal, Satires VIII, 20: Nobilitas sola est atque unica virtus.

[6]             Ashley Montagu. Man’s Most Dangerous Myth.  New York: The World Publishing Company, 1964 .pp239-240

[7]             Jimmy Carter . “Rushdie’s Book Is an Insult”. Op-Ed article in The New York Times March 1989 .