Just a reminder of how the Islamists are thirsting for Salman Rushdie’s blood ( and for anyone’s who dare to think ); and how did we get there. Here are some of what I remember from various reports and reviews I published in 1988 and 1989 .
The 1988 (September) published The Satanic Verses , part historical , novel ( by Viking-Penguin) was contemporary to the 1980s and the decade’s social and political events and events. It was a satirical criticism of Thatcher’s Britain, strongly anti-racist, anti-colonial and dealt with the issues of of migrants and how they lived in cultural ghettos. The book was specifically about Britain of the 1980s. The novel’s narrative is set by turns in the London of Conservative Government that came to power in 1979 led by Margaret Thatcher (1925-1013) which Rushdie calls in the novel ‘ Mrs Torture ‘ – this is the conscious realism part- and the second ‘ location (if we can it as such) the imaginary ancient desert city of Jahiliyah ( interpreted as Mecca), taken by Muslims as their holiest site. The bits relating to the latter location is an imaginary time and place ( many interpreted as Arabia in the seventh century during Muhammad’s conflict with the merchants Mecca who were resisting his teaching as they thought it was bad for their trade. The latter location’s events was part of a dream of the two main characters; the dream of Gibreel Farishta, a movie star in Bollywood. The other was the English educated very British Saladin Shamsha. Their hijacked plane explodes over the English Channel. They survive the blast and fall from the sky and re-emerge on an English beach and mix with immigrants in London, the story unfolding in surreal sequences reflecting Rushdie’s magic realism style. Saladin later grows horns metamorphosing into a Satan-like creature, and hides with a self-isolating Muslim family in Brick Lane. Sofian the former school teachers in India reduced to helping hand in his wife, Hind’s restaurant. Sofian and Hind, seventh century Mecca aristocratic couple, are prominent figures in Muslim history.
Rushdie’s narrative employs a story from Islamic faith early history ( the 7th century satanic verses from the Quran 53d Chapter the al-Najm/Nagm Surah ( or swrat) or The Star Chapter . The Quran is believed by Muslims to be words of their god, Allah, delivered, as revelation, to Muhammed by the archangel Gibreer ( Gebril) . Rushdie uses this story to symbolise the Neil Kinnock ( the then leader of HM opposition) dilemma of choosing between the radical left in the 1980s labour party and the pragmatic centre to get elected . The story of Muslim historic references to the satanic verses as recorded by Muslim historians and scholars was interpreted as a compromise that Muhammed reached with the ruling elite in Mecca to elevate three of their goddesses ( Al-lat, Al-Uzza, and Manat ) to the status of ” Allah’s daughters”, which achieved a temporary short lived peace in Mecca. But the radical wing of the movement, when the Mohammed followers got stronger rejected that compromise based on an earlier lesson he preached them that Allah was a monolithic deity with no siblings, offspring or relatives. In response, Muhammed then said it was Satan that put those words on his tongue hence known as the “satanic verses” by historians . The whole section about Mecca and the prophet Mahound’s mission (Muslims interpreted as it was Mohammed ) was a dream in the head of Farishta ( the name means Angel, hence Gibreel Farishta) . So, the personae, and events were all symbolic and nothing really about Islam except in the terms of the patrician of India and the revolutionary radicals against the pragmatists . Ironically, the first nation to ban the Satanic Verses was his birthplace India by the then Prime Minister Rajiv Gandhi (1944-1991), immediately after Pretoria banned it and and cancelled Rushdie’s visa. He was supposed to be visiting apartheid South Africa to give some lectures on the subject of “racism as a legacy of colonialism.” The South African regime came up with the excuse that the novel disrespected Muslims (before Muslims thought of it ) and cancelled his visa and banned the book.
Indian politics also played a large part in this, when Prime Minster Gandhi banned the book from India in October 1988, ahead of elections . The reason was a it had become an issue in a by-election in Tamil Nadu who the congress party candidate used it successfully to win the constituency.
The others jumped on the bandwagon ; another 20 countries followed India in banning the book and declaring that Rushdie would be banned from entering their countries. It is worth noting that hardly any of protestors who burnt the book in public bothered to read it. The novel is a gigantic effort with a massive amount of research ( the satanic verses event of the 7th century AD was a subject of Rushdie’s essay for his master at Cambridge ). Although the novel itself, as a work of fiction and satirising contemporary politics by drawing on real events is quite remarkable literary work, you also need a vast knowledge of Indian culture, Bollywood industry as a national institution, the history of sectarian conflict and partition of India; also detailed knowledge of Islamic scholars’ studies of the early conflicts between the revolutionary Mohammed mission and his followers on one side, and with the establishment in Mecca on on the other, and of course a detailed knowledge of British politics in the 1980s, the split in the labour party and the decline of inner cities in UK. It is in this context and the vast complex subjects the novel dealt with, some might find book and some might find it overbearing or uninteresting. Others, familiar with Rushdie magical world, his style of writing and interested in one or more of those issues, couldn’t put the book down.
The late Iranian leader Ayatollah Khomeini (1902-1989) only targeted Rushdie after other countries competing for influence among British Muslims ( Pakistan, Libya, Saudi Arabia, Turkey, Egypt and other lesser players ) funded groups started the protests .
In February 1989, thousands of Pakistanis attacked the US Information Centre in Islamabad, shouting “American dogs” and “hang Salman Rushdie”. Police opened fire, killing five. Radical Shia’s told Khomeini of the incident and that there was a section in the Satanic Verses depicting an Imam exiled in London who was plotting against the empress in his home country, which they interpreted as Rushdie’s ridiculing him. The Fatwa came in February 1989.
To understand how the protests started in UK, specifically in the towns with Muslim populations, one needs to put it in context of the time . There was a case of blasphemy tried in English courts 10 years earlier that was launched by Dame Mary Whitehouse CBE (1910-2001) . The Mary Whitehouse winning the blasphemy case ( 11 July 1977) against Gay News was ( and still is abroad) has been quoted at the time as precedent to incite agitation and protest .
The first burning of the book in Bradford was January 1989 (a month before Khomeini’s fatwa ) was, allegedly , in response to CPO rejecting a petition from some self-styled Muslim committee ( later evolved into the Muslim Council of Great Britain) to ban the book and put Viking-Penguin books and Rushdie on trial for blasphemy citing Whitehouse V. Gay News ( blasphemy laws weren’t abolished in England & Wales until My 2008) .
Khomeini’s fatwa provoked horror around the Western world.
There were protests in Europe, and London and Tehran broke off diplomatic relations for nearly two years.
Although there were attempts to find a compromise with the Iranians and other Muslim countries, especially those having big trade deals, there were also many of us supporting Rushdie and urging for protecting Freedom of Speech.
A few of us were warning about the long-term implications if we bowed to the mob calling for censorship . We organised a big event at the Conway Hall in spring 1989 when Radical Islamists had already flown abroad to Lebanon and some to Iran to meet with Hezbollah and Khamenei’s men . At the same time people like Kelim Sadiqi and the like were funded by Islamist institutions from abroad, and the six years Gulf war between Iran and Arabs and USA backed Iran that ended in summer, found a new cultural and social battle ground in UK as rivalry between Shia and Sunni heated up. Rich powerful Sunni Arab originations & Iran’s proxies would fund and exploit the ( some true, some imaginary and some made up) grievances voiced by some British Muslims ( most of them were living in cultural ghettos isolated from mainstream British culture and society). The players included Egyptian, Turkish. Libyan and UAE intelligence too were funding Islamic centres and Islamic activists in UK . The Conway Hall event was significant as we had a long list of artists, musicians, writers and poets from various faiths ( at least five or may be six) and ethnic background. ( UK, USA, Australia, Sudan, Nigeria, South Africa, Egypt, Israel, Iran, India etc) as well as reading from the Satanic Verses we also deliberately told blasphemous jokes and verses. The faiths that weren’t present on the stage, audience from other faiths participated with their blasphemy. It was successful; and largely ignored by BBC and other left-wing media which surprisingly were more sympathetic to Muslims than backing the principles of free expression. There are complicated reasons for such bias but I will mention two main ones : The left wing media and BBC were anti-Tory seeing them as too pro-Saudi Arabia ( the main reason Thatcher Government was a bit hesitant ) ; and the left were pushing the idea of multicultural society ( I am very much against this concept which deepens division and prevents integration and assimilation since we are multiracial or multi-ethnics but we should be all under one culture called British culture ) . During the Conway hall event; there were loud protests (but verbal and largely non-abusive) from mostly younger Muslims . When I challenged them to discuss any specific passages in The Satanic Verses that upset them, it turned out that none of them has read the book. Back in 1988-1989, there was very few of us who were thinking of the long-term implications if the protesters got away with it . I was right. Self-censorship ( also known as political correctness) , thought police ( the police forces now investigate more of alleged ‘ hate speech’ on twitter than they do robberies and car theft ) and the cancel culture.
The worst of all: You cannot publish a book like The Satanic Verses today or like the 1926 Taha Hussein’s “fi-el-Sher El Gaheli ” ( on pre-Islamic Poetry) . in which the great francophone Egyptian thinker and writer argued that some pre-Islamic poetry was inauthentic, and cast doubt on the authenticity of the Quran. ( by the way the Azhar – which is the de-facto official Muslim church in Egypt) tried via the courts to ban the book and charge Dr Hussein with incitement of hatred against Islam. Egyptian Courts at the time threw out the case on the ground that ‘ courts aren’t the place nor the institution to rule on academic and literary works ‘. The outcome today will be different. Not only British publishers won’t touch a book like The Satanic Verses , they wont even dare to discuss publishing a book that the courts in Egypt praised 100 years ago… Hence when you start on the slippery slope of censorship, the entire foundation of our civilisation could be washed away when the drip-drip- of being ‘ sensitive to cultural difference ‘ (another expression for intolerance generated self-censorship) turns into a flood, then turns into a tsunami. Just think now of un-platforming, banning speakers from universities campuses, the cancel culture, the Orwellian rewriting of history and BBC & CO blacklisting guest commentators who dare to question the prevailing orthodoxy ( as dictated by the loudest lynch-mobs favoured by MSM ) . Sorry to sound gloomy, in post 1984 Britain ,but, as the cliché goes ‘ we saw it coming 40 years ago but the captain placed the spyglass on his patched eye !’