Radio review: Fatwa, and Assignment: The Pledge

15 February 2019

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AN ESSENTIAL fact for the intolerant and bigoted: books do not, on their own, burn easily. If you are planning a book-burning party, best bring a few bottles of paraffin. And then watch as the flames engulf even the densest tomes. The advice came as part of Fatwa (Radio 4, weekdays), which, in ten instalments over two weeks, is telling the story of Salman Rushdie and The Satanic Verses.

Rushdie’s notorious novel is, as the presenters here reminded us, “seriously long” — it took him five years to write, after all — and thus required a serious amount of lighter fuel.

Fatwa is one of a new breed of radio series: it has all the characteristics of a made-for-podcast production. BBC Sounds is a greedy platform, and requires regular feeding from every BBC network. Thus Fatwa’s bite-size chunks are each introduced by short summaries and histrionic percussion. The register of the presenters’ comment­aries is unbalanced, slipping all too easily into jarring informality: the British Muslims who convince the Ayatollah of the need for a fatwa are described as being “on a jolly to Tehran”.

But there is so much texture and depth to this account that one is almost prepared to forgive these lapses. It was particularly insightful to hear from witnesses such as the journalist Ed Husain, who tells of his feelings of betrayal when the real reason for the declaration of a fatwa was revealed: it was not the spontaneous response of a righteous theocrat, but the result of lobbying, by two British Muslims in particular, of a leader whose status had been undermined by the ending of the Iran-Iraq War.

The level of paranoia displayed by Khomeini in these months can be gauged by his reaction to a news report of an Iranian woman and her role-model. When asked by a television news crew, “Who do you admire above all others?”, the correct response was Fatima, the daughter of the Prophet. This particular woman declared her idol, instead, to be a Japanese soap-opera star. She and all those involved at the TV company were sentenced to death.

The programme manages to integrate an impressive variety of perspectives into its narrative. And yet there remain many more questions, one of which is why a swath of British Muslims, the vast majority of whom were and are Sunni, should respect the authority of a Shia ayatollah in the first place.

I expect a large number of Radio 4 and World Service listeners will regard the United States as a place at least as unintelligible as Iran. Certainly Assignment: The pledge (World Service, Thursday of last week) will reinforce the perception: it gave a study of “hazing”, the ritual humiliation of students in the course of initiation rituals.

The world-view that nurtures such behaviour was summed up by one proponent of hazing who declared that he did not want no “snowflake wearing my shirt”; after all, life is one long process of hazing.

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