Multicultural Frontiers

Construction of Migrant Identities in "The Satanic Verses"

Master's Thesis, 2007

51 Pages, Grade: 2.1




1. Defining the Terms: Multiculturalism, Discourse and Identity

2. The Structure and Plot of The Satanic Verses

3. Explicating the Function of Discourse in the Process of Identity Formation

4. Identifying the Discourse Induced Frontiers
4.1. The Transforming Effect of Discourse
4.2. The Marginalising Effect of Discourse
4.3. The Polarising Effect of Discourse

5. Undermining the Discursive Structure
5.1. The Role of the Angel in Perpetuating the Discursive Structure
5.2. The Role of the Devil in Undermining the Discursive Structure
5.3. The Role of Blasphemy in Undermining the Discursive Structure
5.4. The Role of Migrancy, Metamorphosis, and Hybridity in Undermining the Discursive Structure




This study was inspired by the ongoing debate on multiculturalism in the UK, which as a country with an imperial past embodies a social fabric largely shaped by migrancy. Contrary to commonsensical expectations, the object of this debate is not the nature of a policy implied by the term, since the major problem arises in defining the policy meant by the dubious suffix “-ism.” This difficulty is partly due to the diversified expectations, and partly to the susceptibility of any definitive measure to an economy of postcolonial discourses - borrowing from Ania Loomba, here ‘postcolonial’ is used to signify a period “not just as coming after colonialism and signifying its demise, but more flexibly as the contestation of colonial domination and the legacies of colonialism”1 - circulating in the intellectual sphere. Informed by the colonial discourses, the postcolonial world inherited skepticism towards the emphasis of ‘difference,’ liable to intimate discrimination; as well as ‘sameness,’ liable to intimate homogenisation. Under the influence of these ideas, the main concern presented itself in Paul Gilroy’s words:

We need to consider whether the scale upon which sameness and difference are calculated might be altered productively so that the strangeness of the strangers goes out of focus and other dimensions of a basic sameness can be acknowledged and made significant.2

As it can be seen in these lines, the discussions engage the recognition of ‘sameness’ or ‘difference’ of individuals and groups that constitute the postcolonial society. In this respect identity becomes an elemental component of the scale upon which the ‘sameness’ and ‘difference’ is measured. These notions will be discussed in detail under the title “multiculturalism,” so for the moment it will be suffice to say that this paper relates the above-mentioned scale to the differential structure Edward Said deemed as fundamental to colonial discourses, and focuses on its implications for multicultural coexistence.

The discourse which amplifies “the strangeness of the strangers” has also been a concern in postcolonial works of literature. Authors like Hanif Kureishi wrote on the migrant experiences in the multicultural UK, and devastation of their “dreams of doing well in England;”3 while expressing the tension between ‘I’ and ‘the other,’ and exploring the dimensions of politics of difference. Moreover, literature (especially the novel, partly due to its traditional reputation as “the book of life”4 ) through its power to represent has always been of crucial importance as a device affecting the ways of thinking and behaving in the society. Because, this representation does not simply amount to mimesis by reflecting an outside reality like a mirror: it has a formative aspect. As Stuart Hall pondered, “how things are represented and the ‘machineries’ and regimes of representation in a culture do play a constitutive, not merely a reflexive, after-the-event, role.”5 Literary representation of life matters because of the role it plays in the transformation of minds. For instance, postcolonial critics like Edward Said and Stuart Hall were inspired by, or have reacted to works of literature in postulating or developing postcolonial theories. This formative aspect of literature also lays down the basis for the choice of a work of literature as the object of this study.

This study aims to achieve a close examination of colonial discourse, its function in identity construction, and the implications of this process for multicultural politics in The Satanic Verses. This particular work has been chosen as the object of analysis, for it specifically reflects the function of aforementioned abstract structures in drawing concrete frontiers between racially constructed categories and thereby obstructing their coexistence in the multicultural context. Moreover, as a literary work it has an outstanding approach in tackling with these issues as it does not reproduce the dualistic structure while criticising it. The argument here, thus, is that the novel captures the scope of an existent dualistic structure which is used in constructing migrant identities; and this very structure is proven to be detrimental to cross-cultural relations. Through constantly shifting the relations of power between the extremes which represent the dualistic scale, the novel crosses the religious, cultural and racial frontiers. This in turn, is achieved through subverting the notion of static self, which enables the categorisations of individuals and groups as binary opposites. The governing proposal of the thesis, then, is that the conception of self as a fixed and closed-off entity, and construction of identities based on this premise should be altered as it has been done in the novel in order to move ‘otherness’ out of focus, and thus to break down the existent frontiers in the multicultural society.

In approaching the relationship between discourse and identity, the analysis will focus on the processes of identity formation in order to detect a systematic regularity, which is the precondition of speculating about the existence of discourse as it will be argued in detail under the title “discourse.” After identifying the discursive structure, the effects of discourse will be scrutinised in detail by looking at symbols and metaphors. These will be explicated with regard to their immediate context (the social formations and setting in the background) and the intertextual context (texts surrounding the novel to which it refers). Furthermore, the analysis will disregard the religious controversies surrounding the work - since its publication and the notorious incident of fatwa, the bulk of criticism was directed towards reading the readers of The Satanic Verses - and will attempt to achieve a secular reading of the text itself by treating the religious motifs as symbols and metaphors as well. By doing so, this paper aims to illustrate how The Satanic Verses engages in the debate on fundamental differences, between which there seems to be an unbridgeable gulf, and how it tries to bridge this gulf between ‘I’ and ‘the other’, East and West, good and evil.

The argument will start by defining and evincing the relationship between the key terms: multiculturalism, discourse and identity. In the following chapter (2), an overview of plot and structure will be presented in order to lay down the basis of analysis, and to clarify the complexity of novel in articulating the governing ideas. The next chapter (3) will exemplify the function of discourse in construction of identity through scrutinising one of the main characters’ process of identity formation. After explicating the relationship between discourse and identity, the fourth chapter will study the detrimental effects of discourse, and the implications of these effects for the cross-cultural relations. Subsequently the textual strategies for undermining the identified discursive structure will be articulated (5), which will also present an alternative way of conceptualising the abstract notions traditionally set in opposition to each other.

1. Defining the Terms: Multiculturalism, Discourse and Identity


The major part of The Satanic Verses is set in London: the multicultural capital of the UK. The novel in tackling with the issues of migrant condition and identity formation in metropolitan space, also directs one of the most critical questions of multiculturalism: how to break the mental frontiers drawn on the premises of cultural differences. The migrant self is depicted in the multicultural condition, and the identity-related reasons of cross-cultural conflict are dealt within this framework. In this sense, the relationship between the characters and their immediate context is pivotal to the explication of their identity formation process. Therefore, in order to understand the context of the novel, it is important to demarcate the meaning of multicultural as adopted within this thesis.

G. Gordon Betts defines multiculturalism as “an umbrella term that covers different types of cultural pluralism - a multicultural society is one made up of diverse ethno-national cultures.”6 Following this basic definition, it can be deduced that the existence of diverse cultures within a society is the basic ground upon which questions of multiculturalism formed, and the challenge is to ensure the coexistence of different cultures with equal status in a social system. However, there is a paradox stemming from the ambiguous concept of ‘difference,’ which is also central to the discriminative colonial discourse, and which, in Stuart Hall’s words, “makes a radical and unbridgeable separation.”7 Consequently, a conceptual problem arises in crediting an equality while recognising the ‘different’ identities of groups or individuals that constitute the social fabric. The term multiculturalism therefore, by its very definition engages a debate on recognition - of difference and sameness - and identity. The second point that should be emphasised is that the particular experience of a specific society determines the conflicts related to its multicultural condition. In this respect, the multicultural experience in the UK should be considered within its postcolonial context, as the discursive products of the colonial history are of crucial importance to understand the reasons of cross-cultural conflict. Because, history serves as a collective memory by means of which human beings interpret the world, as Catherine Hall argues “narratives of the past enable us to construct identities,” and “historical memories and the shadows and ghosts of memories are internalised in our lives.”8

These narratives, however, are not the objective representations of a self-evident historical reality, but part of flowing discourses. Accordingly, the thought patterns and therefore the identities of the postcolonial selves are shaped under the influence of colonial discourses that anticipate a closed system of binary oppositions between self and the other, coloniser and colonised, the centre and the margin. In Orientalism, Said argues that the colonial authority was established through the discourse “which promoted the difference between the familiar (Europe, the West, ‘us’) and the strange (the Orient, the East, ‘them’).”9 According to him, these binary oppositions had a significant function in constructing the European identity as opposed to its primary other: the Orient, and therefore Islam. Europe was at the centre as the ‘self4 and “the Orient [...] was culturally, intellectually, spiritually outside Europe and European civilization.”10 This discourse encouraged polarisation between ‘us’ and ‘them’ through contributing to the formation of identities in giving the parameters according to which the individuals and groups are defined.


The explication of discourse’s function in construction of identities demands the definition of the term itself as used in this particular context. The starting point would be to give a dictionary definition of discourse as “a mode of organizing knowledge, ideas, or experience that is rooted in language and its concrete contexts (as history or institutions).”11 This definition delineates discourse as a method, a practice which arranges its objects according to a particular system within the domain of language and its context. Supporting this definition, Sara Mills, in Discourse, utilises several meanings loaded to the concept of discourse by focusing on the common denominators, and asserts that:

[...] a discourse is not a disembodied collection of statements, but groupings of utterances or sentences, statements which are enacted within a social context, which are determined by that social context and which contribute to the way that social context continues its existence.12

Therefore, a discourse is a systematically produced body of statements that derive their meaning from their context, and that form their context by their effects. This effect is achieved, through discourse’s power to shape its objects.

Hence, as Michel Foucault suggested in The Archaeology of Knowledge, one should not treat “discourses as groups of signs (signifying elements referring to contents or representations) but as practices that systematically form the objects of which they speak.”13 In fact, for Foucault the very condition for the appearance of an object is its placement into a group of relations within the discursive structure: a discourse must establish certain group of relations in order to speak of an object; an object of discourse “exists in relation to other objects, if it is to establish with them relations of resemblance, proximity, distance, difference, transformation;”14 and these complex group of relations are the conditions of its conception. Thus everything conceptualized are in the domain of discourse as its objects, and are shaped by it; so are the identities. As Mills conclude “discourses structure both our sense of reality and our notion of our own identity.”15

Edward Said follows Foucault’s argument and further advances the idea that the objects of discourse can be individuals or groups, whose identities are shaped systematically by the discourse which speaks about them. He argues that there is a discursive regularity in the colonial descriptions of East by detecting a discursive structure common to them: “the line separating Occident from Orient.”16 This line stands for their difference to each other, and entails the dualistic scale upon which the identity is constructed as opposed to its other. This is the internal mechanism through which the object of discourse is defined. This point do not only highlight the rule- regulated nature of discourses as systems functioning on the basis of an internal structure, but also gives an insight into the premises upon which the identity is constructed. This discursive system with its dualistic structure and its rule-governed character presents itself as the main concern of Said, who elaborated on its otherising effect, which encouraged polarisation between ‘us’ and ‘them.’ Hence, it is this structure that should be disrupted, if we want to make progress in solving the issues of intercultural conflict.


On a very basic level, identity can be defined as the distinguishing characteristics of an individual or a group. Epistemologically, it indicates the condition of being the same, as revealed in the usage of the word ‘identical,’ and a textbook definition of identity entails the “marking oneself as having the same identity as one group of people and a different one from others.”17 Accordingly, even within its basic conception, identity engages the notions of similarity and difference. Furthermore, the aforementioned definition also stresses the aspect of choice on the part of the self, “agency,” and the “relative importance of structures, the forces beyond our control which shape our identities.”18 Hence, any discussion of identity inevitably addresses the self, and its relationship with its context. As established before, the structural factors that this argument draws on are the discursive structures which influence the self in the process of identity formation within the postcolonial context.

Charles Taylor, in his influential essay “The Politics of Recognition,” evinces the relevance of the modern conception of identity for the politics of multiculturalism. He suggests that there is a correlated demand for the recognition of “the unique identity of this individual or group, their distinctness from everyone else,” which gives rise to “a politics of difference.”19 Conception of individual identity as distinct and peculiar to oneself is related to “the ideal of authenticity,”20 which implies the distinctness and uniqueness of the self. This conception oversimplifies the process of identity formation through assuming the fixity and purity of the self which is to be associated with ‘the same’ or differentiated from ‘the other.’ Defining the self as a clear-cut category is to induce identity formation to, in Stuart Hall’s words, “a simple process, structured around fixed ‘selves’ which we either are or not.”21

The formation of identities on the basis of difference, when augmented with the systematicity of discourse can be detrimental to cross-cultural relations. This idea connects well with Said’s aforementioned insight into the system of binary oppositions common to colonial discourses. Such a discursive system serves to induce polarisation through reducing its components’ complexity to the sum of supposedly essential features. Subsequently it fixes them into static positions - ‘I’ and ‘the other’ - upon a dualistic scale. Moreover, as it can be deduced from this proposition, the construction of identity according to the imperatives of a dualistic system anticipates the stability and authenticity of the self as a closed-off entity. It denies flexibility and the possibility of change to individuals by categorising them in pure cultural, ethnic or racial conditions of existence. Therefore the credibility of the dualistic structure, which works on the basis of differences, can be undermined by the disruption of the notion of a static and authentic self both as the agency and the object of identity formation.

Since the basis for the argument for the ‘difference’ of ‘I’ from ‘the other’ is the superimposed fixity and stability of the identities, what The Satanic Verses undermines is the purity, discreteness and authenticity of the self as the owner of identity. Appropriately, in the novel the experience of migrancy is a device used in articulating that identity is not a static category since its architect, the self, is not a pure and closed of entity uninfluenced from its surroundings. Reflecting upon these ideas, this thesis argues that identity like any other concept is constructed contextually; thus the analysis treats the multicultural setting arising from the colonial past to have a determining role in the formation of migrant identity. The overall concern of the following study is to question the construction of this identity in accord with The Satanic Verses, and interpret its implications for the politics of ‘I’ and ‘the other. ’

2. The Structure and Plot of The Satanic Verses

The structure of Satanic Verses is intriguing in the way it articulates and complements the thematic content, and in order to elucidate the unity of the novel this chapter will provide an overview of the plot and structure at a summary level. The novel is composed of various strands of narratives weaved through cross-references, repetition of the character names, images and most importantly interrelated questions. On the first level, the text alternately engages two main story-lines centred around (and related to each other through) the symbiotic relationship of two main characters: Saladin and Gibreel. These characters are inexplicably conjoined: They are migrants who survive a plane crush together and fall to London; one is metamorphosed into the Devil, the other into the Angel; both direct the question “who am I?”, and try to find a solution to their identity problem. Eventually Saladin embraces the multiplicity and mutability as an answer, whereas Gibreel prefers singularity and stability. Both are exposed to various assaults on their integrity: one survives while the other fails to survive. In this way, their relationship provides the main framework to the fictious content.

As a whole The Satanic Verses stands out as a very complex novel expressing multiple points of view in comprising variant strands of narratives, which in turn are surrounded by other texts to which the novel refers frequently. The intentional use of intertextuality emphasises relationality, interconnectedness and interdependence of texts, thus the meaning cannot be confined to the internal structure of the text. The novel imposes a universe upon us: a universe that is constituted by interwoven texts. Therefore, the reader must consider the contexts that comprise the universe surrounding and therefore shaping the text by its influence. This intertextual substructure also disrupts the prospect of a single definitive meaning by amplifying the diversity of connotations. Within such a universe of uncertainties, the text articulates the overarching themes of migrant condition, cultural conflict, identity formation and the nature of the self.

In the beginning of the first chapter Gibreel and Saladin are introduced during their fall, and their suspension in the air amounts to the disruption of the reader’s notion of reality. The narrative ‘I’ intervenes to remind the ‘authorial’ presence and further destabilises the reader with his questions. The qualities that are to be associated with the characters are introduced by narrative voice’s intimation “characteristics were acquired,”22 and set down by his question regarding the nature of Gibreel’s song: angelic and satanic.23 Saladin and Gibreel’s transmutation begin at this point: representing good and evil, two normatively opposite notions, they merge into each other without leaving room to the possibility of fixing their roles. However, as it is revealed while their stories unfold, the meanings loaded to these concepts are diversified as well. Thus, the idea that these characters function as fundamental binary opposites is ditched at the instance of its proposal. Therefore, although the use of two story lines connotes the idea of duality, their intrinsic interrelationship, maintained through the conjoinment of two main characters, undermines it concurrently. Such an arrangement also serves to the perennial reversal of discourses that which the novel addresses. In the second part of this chapter the backgrounds of Gibreel and Saladin are disclosed, and their personal stories are related up to the point of their boarding on the plane, Bostan. Then the plane is hijacked by religious fanatics (which again underpins the main themes of the novel as the triggering force behind the events) and the story leads up to the point which initiates the novel: a nebulous explosion, echoing the beginning of a universe; and a subsequent fall, evoking the Christian and Muslim myths of creation.

The second chapter begins with the first of the dream sequences related through the character Gibreel. In this respect, Gibreel serves as a joint that connects the variant strands to the plot. He falls asleep and dreams the fictional history of the rise of Islam, to which the setting is the metropolitan city Jahilia. The preaching of the new religion by Mahound is received with contempt among the idol worshipping, polytheist citizens of the city. This attitude is reflected through the governor of Jahilia, Abu Simbel, who commissions the poet Baal to satirize the prophet with his verses. The chapter also depicts the controversial incident of ‘satanic verses’, according to which Mahound is tempted by Shaitan to deviate from sharp monotheism by acknowledging the three goddesses as exalted peers of God. The deviation has a poignant effect on Mahound’s followers, and it produces an orgiastic series of events leading to death of some of them. Mahound realises that the verses dictated by Gibreel were satanic, and repudiates them by confronting the angel one more time. Persecution of the followers of Islam follows the repudiation, and they move to Yathrib to take shelter from the severe consequences of religious conflict.

In the third chapter, “Ellowen Deeowen,” the two main characters Gibreel and Saladin land on England. An ancient woman, Rosa Diamond, beholds the two figures’ descent from the sky and saves them. However, a group of police officers arrive to arrest Saladin for illegal immigrancy, while not suspecting the haloed Gibreel for a similar offence. Under custody, Police abuses Saladin, who has started to metamorphose into a goat-like creature, reminiscent of the Devil. After Saladin proves that he is a British citizen, he is deported to a mysterious hospital that lodges other immigrants like himself. Following his escape to London, he reaches at the door of his wife Pamela, who is having a passionate affair with Saladin’s friend Jumpy Joshi. Meanwhile, Gibreel, who has been mesmerised and captivated by dying Rosa until so far, arrives London in parallel to Saladin, intrigued likewise by the signs of his own metamorphosis. Haunted by unwanted angelhood and the ghost of his former lover Rekha Merchant, Gibreel encounters Alleluia Cone, his recent mountain- climber English lover.

The fourth chapter is opened up with the resumption of the dream sequence and introduces the Imam: a fanatical religious fundamentalist. The Imam is in exile, dreaming of returning home and overthrowing the current regime. Gibreel takes him to the city of his desire, where he becomes the part of a revolution that results in the execution of the evil ruler Ayesha. After this story, a new discrete strand of dream sequence begins in which Mirza Saeed Akhtar, his wife and Ayesha are the main characters and the setting is the village of Titlipur. The idea that the dreams of Gibreel are related to the subconscious (and not to a spiritual experience with claim to truth) is clearly established with the inclusion of this story. It is evident that Gibreel is under the influence of the surreal magazines he read in which butterflies can fly into a woman’s mouth. Likewise, Ayesha is depicted as a mysterious girl eating butterflies, claiming to have been confided with God’s orders through the revelation of Angel Gibreel. Consequently, she commences a pilgrimage to Mecca on foot, involving the crossing of the Arabian Sea in the same manner.

In chapter V, the plot resumes in London where Saladin is taken by Jumpy to Muhammad Sufyan’s apartment, situated above the Shaandaar Cafe.


1 Ania Loomba, Colonialism/Postcolonialism (London: Routledge, 1998), p. 12.

2 Paul Gilroy, After Empire: Melancholia or convivial culture? (London: Routledge, 2004), p. 3.

3 HanifKureishi, “My Son the Fanatic,” The Post-colonial Question: Common Skies, Divided Horizons, eds. Iain Chambers and Lidia Curti (London: Routledge, 1996), p. 235.

4 D. H. Lawrence, “Why the Novel Matters,” The Theory of Criticism: From Plato to the Present, A Reader, ed. Raman Selden (London: Longman, 1988), p. 507.

5 Stuart Hall, “New ethnicities,” Stuart Hall: Critical Dialogues in Cultural Studies, eds. David Morley and Kuan-Hsing Chen (London: Routledge, 1996), p. 443.

6 G. Gordon Betts, The Twilight of Britain: Cultural Nationalism, Multiculturalism, and the Politics of Toleration (New Brunswick: Transaction Publishers, 2002), p. 45.

7 Stuart Hall, op. cit., p.446.

8Catherine Hall, “Histories, Empires and the Post-colonial Moment,” The Post-colonial Question: Common Skies, Divided Horizons, eds. Iain Chambers and Lidia Curti (London: Routledge, 1996), p. 66.

9 Edward W. Said, Orientalism (London: Penguin, 2003), p. 45.

10 Ibid., p. 71.

11 "Discourse," Merriam-Webster Online Dictionary,, last viewed 20 February 2008.

12 Sara Mills, Discourse, (London: Routledge, 1997), p. 11.

13 Michel Foucault, The Archaeology of Knowledge, trans. A.M. Sheridan-Smith (London: Routledge, 2002), p. 55.

14 Ibid., p.50.

15 Mills, op. cit., p. 15.

16 Edward Said, “Orientalism Reconsidered,” Postcolonial Criticism, ed. Bart Moore-Gilbert (London: Longman, 1997), p.128.

17 Kath Woodward, “Questions of Identity,” Questioning Identity: Gender, Class, Nation, Ed. Kath Woodward (London: Routledge, 2000), p. 8.

18 Ibid., p. 6.

19 Charles Taylor, “The Politics of Recognition,” Multiculturalism, Ed. Amy Gutmann (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1994), p. 38.

20 Ibid., p. 28.

21Stuart Hall, op. cit., p. 445.

22 Salman Rushdie, The Satanic Verses (London: Vintage, 1998), p. 5.

23 Ibid., p. 10.

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Multicultural Frontiers
Construction of Migrant Identities in "The Satanic Verses"
Humboldt-University of Berlin  (Centre for British Studies)
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Satanic Verses, Multiculturalism, Discourse and Identity
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Serda Brauns (Author), 2007, Multicultural Frontiers, Munich, GRIN Verlag,


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