• The Rushdie Affair – 1988-91
• The Bosnian War – 1992 - 96
• September 11 & its Aftermath
• Anti-War Marches, London – 2001-03
• Lib Dems seize Brent East victory
• The Kilroy-Silk Affair (2004)
• Super- Thursday 10th June (2004)
• Holocaust Memorial Day 2005 - 2007 (updated December 2007)
• The General Elections 2005
• Incitement to Religious Hatred - are you for or against the new law?
• 7th July 2005 - Muslim organisations' reaction to London bombings
• 7th July 2005 aftermath - The saga of the Home Office's Working Groups, projects and largesse
• The Danish Cartoons Controversy - January/February 2006
• The open letter to the Prime Minister - August 2006
• The Jack Straw Veil remarks
• Sidelining genuine leadership
• London Mayoral Elections 2008
• Archbishop Rowan Williams - the shariah debate
• 42 day detention
• Gaza & the UK perspective
• Contest 2 Contestation
• The Bradford West By-Election, March 2012
- The Rushdie Affair - 1988 - 91
British Muslims came to be recognized as a distinct entity within mainstream
society after an epic confrontation between those who take religion seriously and those who do not.
It was the first indication that notwithstanding the demands for assimilation
and the natural process of settlement, Muslims possessed a set of values which
they would not compromise. Interestingly, this assertion occurred during the
same period when three North African girls in Creil, North Paris insisted on
donning head scarves to school, thus rattling the French establishment.
The Rushdie Affair was prompted by revulsion towards Rushdie’s The Satanic
Verses, first available for sale in September 1988. The posture of silent resignation
in the face of blasphemy of what is most sacred, that unfortunately had come
to be commonplace amongst some faith communities, was not in the Muslim psyche. Once the
genie of the collective Muslim identity was out of the bottle it could not be
It was the Rushdie controversy that forced us into the
open. An invisible community then - if such a word could be used for a
group as diverse as we were, divided by language, national origins, race
and class - we were attacked by the racist scorpions then set loose, stinging
us all without distinction.
Rana Kabbani, The Guardian, 17 June 2002
The British Muslim community was able to respond rapidly because of a pre-existing institutional infrastructure and collaboration in place for
over a decade, notably the Islamic Foundation in Leicester and the 'Impact International' Musim news magazine in London. The Foundation had earlier requested a review copy from the publishers, but none was forthcoming. In September 1988 Dr Manazir Ahsan at the Foundation received an alert from the Jamaat Islami's offices in India - via Syed Faiyazuddin Ahmed based in Leicester - on the blasphemous contents of The Satanic Verses. Dr Manazir then purchased the book and read it over a week-end. He acted immediately by notifying the main mosques in the UK and Hashir Faruqi, editor of Impact.
Both Dr Manazir Ahsan and Hashir Faruqi were instrumental in convening a meeting
of over twenty like-minded Muslim organizations to form the UK Action Committee
on Islamic Affairs (UKACIA) on 11 October 1988 in order to mobilize public opinion
and coordinate actions against The Satanic Verses. Dr Ahsan succeeded in convincing
Dr Mughram al-Ghamdi, Director General of the London Islamic Cultural Centre
(ICC) of the seriousness of the issue. UKACIA appointed the representative from
Balham Mosque, Iqbal Sacranie, and Dr Mughram Al-Ghamdi as joint-convenors of
committee. Active participants included Maulana Yakub Miftahi of the Hizbul
Ulema UK, Blackburn, and Maulana Sher Azam, of the Bradford Council of Mosques.
Shaikh Darsh also worked closely with UKACIA. He delivered memorable and powerful
khutbas at the Muslim Welfare House, London, on the Islamic position on the
so-called 'satanic verses' and also alerted the Islamic Shariah Council. UKACIA
was based at the ICC, an indication of the courageous support of its Director
General. By 21 October 1988, several hundred thousand Muslims had signed the
petition protesting against the publication and calling on the publisher Viking
Penguin for the book's withdrawal. The appeal was ignored. On 27 October 1988,
UKACIA wrote to all Muslim ambassadors in London calling for a ban on the book.
Among the recipients was Mr Ahkunzadeh Basti the Iranian charge d'affaires,
who forwarded it to Tehran, eventually leading to intervention from Ayatollah
Khomeini.Among other unsung heroes of the era was Maulana Abdal Miah, imam of a mosque in Tower Hamlets: working on his own and with only two telephones at his disposal, he mobilised the community across Britain for a march in London. A prominent former activist in the Bangladesh Workers Association, Rumman Ahmed, was later to provide him invaluable support in its organisation. In the course of the march, the Police arrested five young Pakistanis. It was only after the pressure of a sit-in in front of New Scotland Yard on Victoria Street, master-minded by Rumman, that they were released and were able to rejoin the march.
There were other instances too of unprecedented direct action taking a leaf out of the Gandhian non-violent protest tradition: finding their route towards Parliament blocked at Westminster Bridge, the marchers lay down on the road across Westminster Bridge. Riot Police rough-handled a few protesters, but later gave way.
Those unwilling to purchase the book were able to read extracts in the October
1988 issue of Impact in its cover story ‘Sacrilege – literary but
filthy’. This issue also provides some background to the Muslim campaign:
One had heard about the book mid 1986…it was said
to be a social novel about India and Pakistan, the usual subject of the
author’s sado-masochism, but one had no clue as to that filth he
was going to come up with this…two things arrived nearly about the
same time. One, a letter from the Islamic Foundation, Leicester, along
with a copy of some extracts from The Satanic Verses; and two, the news
that responding to strong protest by the Muslim leadership in India, Rajiv
Gandhi had promptly acted to ban the entry of the title… the extracts
read here were utterly shocking and outrageous….Muslim organizations
in Britain are therefore asking Penguin:
One – to withdraw and pulp all the copies of The Satanic Verses
and to undertake not to reprint it in the future.
Two – to offer unqualified public apology to the World Muslim community.
Three – to pay damages equal to the returns received from the copies
already sold in Britain and abroad…..
We have never ever made an editorial appeal like this,
but we are seeking readers to pursue these demands both with the publishers
and Muslim authorities, through telegrams, letters, telephones, personal
representations and through all civilized and legitimate means….
On 27 February 1989 a delegation met Mr. Patten, a Minister at the Home Office
to press for legal redress against abuse and sacrilege of Muslims religious
sanctities. Notwithstanding the efforts of Impact and UKACIA to channel Muslim
protest through economic, legal and diplomatic pressure, this cerebral approach
did not appeal to all sections of the community. The statement from the Attorney
General that British law precluded any action against the publishers provided
the trigger for more direct action. The ‘Bolton Action Committee’
organised a march in December 1988 at which the book was set alight. It was
not widely covered in the media, but a month later, on 14 January 1989, when
Muslims in Bradford repeated the book burning exercise the press was on hand.
The headlines portrayed Muslims as emotional hot-heads, both confirming and
perpetuating a convenient stereotype. The media chose not to report the strenuous
efforts that Muslims had made to resolve the matter with civility and dignity,
particularly the dismissive way the publishers had responded to the large-scale
petition. The Government of the day was also dismissive: on 1st February 1989
Douglas Hurd, Conservative Home Secretary, again ruled out any changes to the
blasphemy law and instead asked British Muslims to “join the mainstream”.
It became self-evident to British Muslims that regardless of their numbers,
their concerns could be treated lightly by the Government of the day. These
numbers had to be converted to political muscle in order to make a difference.
Having coming to an impasse on blasphemy laws, UKACIA now sought amendment to
the Public Order Act to deal with publications such as The Satanic Verses and
to protect the interests and dignity of religious communities.
World events, such as the deaths in Islamabad on 12 February 1989 during an
anti-Rushdie demonstration, and the subsequent Khomeini Fatwa declared in February
1989, intensified the spotlight on British Muslims. On 27 May 1989, several
thousand Muslims from all over Britain converged on Hyde Park for a march to
Downing Street organised by an ad-hoc ‘British Muslim Action Front’.
In July 1989, following Hurd’s appointment as Foreign Secretary, the
new Home Secretary, John Patten, sent a condescending letter to a number of
British Muslim organizations, including UKACIA, which included homilies on the
need to gain fluency in the English language and lessons on how democracies
4 July 1989
Dear Mr Sacranie
I am writing to you, and to a number of other influential
British Muslims, to set forth in full some of our recent thinking in the
light of the continuing concern – focusing on, but not exclusively
related to the publication of “The Satanic Verses”.
The last few months have been difficult ones for British
Muslims. The issue of race relations has been thrown into sharp relief
and all of us have had to think deeply about our objectives and priorities:
about what it means to be British and particularly what it means to be
a British Muslims. These reflections have been the more difficult because
of the long-term importance of the consequences that hinge on them…..
Of course, the process of adjusting to large numbers of
people with different backgrounds has not always been straightforward,
nor could one have expected it to be. And similarly it has not been easy
for many people who have had to adjust to a way of life very different
from the one they had left behind. There are inevitable stresses and strains.
Putting down roots in a new community does not mean severing
the old. No one would expect or indeed want British Muslims, or any other
group, to lay aside their faith, traditions or heritage. But the new roots
must be put down and must go deep, too. Language is the most obvious example.
It is quite natural and reasonable for the parents of an Asian child,
born in Britain, to want to bring that child up to speak their own mother
tongue. But they must not forget that for that child to prosper in Britain
and to reach his or her full potential, he or she will also have to have
a fluent command of English.
As with language, so with knowledge of institutions, history
and traditions….The same freedom which has enabled Muslims to meet,
march and protest against the book, also preserves the any author’s
right to freedom of expression for so long as no law is broken. To rule
otherwise would be to chip away at the fundamental freedom on which our
democracy is built. That is why we have no power to intervene with publishers
or to have “The Satanic Verses” removed from bookshop shelves.
Nor would we seek or want such power…..”
The UKACIA response, drafted by the Trinidadian-born writer and educationalist
AbdulWahid Hamid, is of historic importance because of its content – it
set out an agenda – but also its form – the style and tone became
a benchmark for Muslim presentations:
19 July 1989
Dear Mr Patten
Thank you very
much for your letter dated 4 July 1989 setting forth ‘in full’
some of your ‘recent thinking’ concerning the Muslim community
The UK Action
Committee on Islamic Affairs would like at the outset to assure you that
as British Muslims we are concerned about the strength and stability of
our country and the common concern of all. We do share the commitment
you set out to the principle that all groups must aim at full participation
in our society. Muslims are not and do not seek to be a ghetto community.
Participation, however, cannot mean as you rightly observed, forfeiting
our faith, the proper practice of which, we are convinced, can only contribute
to the well-being of society as a whole…
We do welcome
your many encouraging statements and assurances such as those on full
participation, the right of people to worship in an atmosphere of mutual
respect and toleration, and the recognition that each group in British
society wil have its own specific issues which are of importance. However
there are a number of assumptions and inferences in your letter which
seem to detract from the statement of these fine principles.
There is, I
can assure you, no conflict or tension between practicing our faith and
having a fluent command of English or having a clear understanding of
British democratic processes, laws, system of Government and the history
that lies behind them. There is no question that Muslims, like others
in society, have rights and responsibilities and being British, have indeed
put down roots that must grow deeper. However, the mere fact that you
felt the need to refer to these self-evident truths, perhaps calling into
question thereby the motives and objectives of the community, reflects
on the communication gap between the Government and the Muslim community.
On the issue
of race relations, which you highlight at the very beginning of your letter,
we believe that it is very unhelpful to look at human relations in Britain
on the basis of race and it is most misleading to see the Muslim community
as an ethnic community. Such categorizations distort a lot of perspectives
and serve to make racism endemic in our society; they also make for bad
laws and create major difficulties in the provision of essential services…..
While we acknowledge
that we have responsibilities to the society we live in, we feel that
these responsibilities will be better discharged if the community’s
need to preserve its ethos is recognized and if the facilities and where
necessary the legal provisions for doing so are accorded, not grudgingly
or as a result of a process of attrition, but willingly and in a spirit
of goodwill and harmony….
We do appreciate
your statement that ‘the Government understands how much hurt and
anxiety htat book has caused’ but we find it incomprehensible that
there is no discernable willingness on the part of the Government to take
decisive action against what is not only sacrilege but a calculated attempt
to create public disorder and mischief by giving free reign to insult
Instead we are
repeatedly told about two guiding principles: the freedom of speech, thought
and expression; and the notion of the rule of law. All of us uphold and
cherish these freedoms. But the notion that people have a ‘right’
to commit sacrilege and insult and abuse the deeply held sanctities of
other people is extraordinary. There can be no absolute freedom of expression
except in a society where there is complete absence of law or government.
The notion of the rule of law and unregulated and undisciplined freedom
of speech, thought and action cannot and do not go together.
The crisis over
‘The Satanic Verses’ refuses to go away for the perfectly
understandable reason that our legal framework does not envisage a situation
in which an offence of sacrilege could be committed against religions
other than the Anglican faith…We strongly feel that there is an
urgent and pressing need for legislation to deal with sacrilege and incitement
to religious hatred and abuse…
UKACIA’s hallmark was that it approached the Rushdie affair by applying
pressure through the accepted routes in the British system – the courts,
lobbying politicians, forming alliances. This was a strategy supported by legal
professionals and other informed sections of the community, thus allowing UKACIA
to draw on ‘in-house’ expertise and improve the quality of the Muslim
British Muslims were nonetheless acutely aware of the lack of unity within
their ranks. UKACIA’s efforts were not well coordinated with local initiatives
such as those of the Bolton Action Committee or the Bradford Council of Mosques
in early 1989. The rhetoric from the articulate and media savvy head of the
Muslim Institute, London, Dr Kalim Siddiqui, particularly in support of the
Khomeini Fatwa, jarred with the approach of his erstwhile colleague, Dr Zaki
Badawi of Muslim College, London, who publicly offered Rushdie a refuge in his
own home from any would-be assailants.
However the most positive outcome of the Rushdie Affair was that it prompted
the formation of UKACIA, that was to be a precursor of a more ambitious initiative
to unite British Muslims in a movement that began in 1994 and culminated in
the formation of the Muslim Council of Britain in 1997. Moreover UKACIA’s
delegates attended several of the OIC (Organisation of the Islamic Conference)
meetings of Foreign Ministers held at Riyadh, Cairo, Tehran and Karachi, playing
a major role in the adoption of the OIC Declaration and Resolutions for combating
Blasphemy. UKACIA was invited to the Sixth Annual Summit in Dakar, Senegal,
in December 1991, and worked energetically to brief Muslim heads of states of
the real scale of the sacrilege and what was being done by British Muslims.
The Rushdie Affair thus not only launched British Muslims on a new trajectory
but also put them in the orbit of Muslim world affairs.
Extracts from The Satanic Verses
Some Muslim responses
Members of UKACIA’s Steering Committee