The Rushdie Affair – 1988 – 1991

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.

British Muslims came to be recognized as a distinct entity within mainstream society after an epic confrontation between the secular literati of the day and first generation immigrants who rallied on an issue of religious principle. 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 Christians, was not in the Muslim psyche.  Once the genie of the collective Muslim identity was out of the bottle it could not be put back.

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 2002,3604,738807,00.html

The British Muslim community was able to respond rapidly because of a pre-existing institutional infrastructure and collaboration in place for over a decade: scholars such as  Dr Manazir Ahsan at the Islamic Foundation, Leicester, were alert to orientalist literature;  Hashir Faruqi, editor of Impact International,  London, possessed the forensic skills and contacts to analyse the challenge and mobile an influential network.  

Both 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, with Iqbal Sacranie appointed joint-convener.  Key support came from Dr Mughram Al-Ghamdi, Director General of the Islamic Cultural Centre, London.  The Committee was also based at the Centre.  By 21 October 1988, several hundred thousand Muslims had signed the petition protesting against the publication and calling on the publisher Viking Penguin for its 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.

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 hat 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 worked:

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 in Britain.   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 will 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 and abuse. 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 presentation.

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, 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

The water-carrier Khalid is there, and some sort of bum from Persia by the outlandish name of Salman, and to complete the trinity of scum there is the slave Bilal, the one Mahound freed, an enormous black monster, this one, with a voice to match his size. (p.101) Mahound comes to me for revelation, asking me to choose between monotheist and henotheist alternatives, and I’m just some idiot actor having a […obscenities removed…] nightmare, what the […obscenities removed…]  do I know, yaar, what to tell you, help. Help. (Gibreel, p.109) In those years Mahound – or should one say the Archangel Gibreel? – should one say Al-Lah? – became obsessed by the law. Amid the palm trees of the oasis Gibreel appeared to the prophet and found himself sprouting rules, rules, rules, until the faithful could scarcely bear the prospect of any more revelation, Salman said, rules about every damn thing, if a man farts let him turn his face to the wind, a rule about which hand to use for the purpose of cleaning one’s behind. It was as if no aspect of human existence was to be left unregulated, free. The revelation – the recitation – told the faithful how much to eat, how deeply they should sleep […crudities removed … ]

Gibreel further listed the permitted and forbidden subjects of conversation, and earmarked the parts of the body which could not be scratched no matter how unbearably they may itch. He vetoed the consumption of prawns, those bizarre other-worldly creatures that no member of the faithful had ever seen, and required animals to be killed slowly, by bleeding, so that by experiencing their deaths to the full they might arrive at an understanding of the meaning of their lives.. (364).

Rushdie’s supporters

The British Muslim community’s protest against Rushdie prompted a vehement response from sections of society,  outraged that their cultural norms were being challenged.  Professor Tariq Modood noted that “Indeed, the Rushdie Affair made evident that the group in British society most politically opposed to (politicised) Muslims weren’t Christians, or even right-wing nationalists but the secular, liberal intelligentsia.” (in ‘The Place of  Muslims in British Secular Multiculturalism’,

For example:

The Koran is food for no-thought. It is not a poem on which society can be safely or sensibly based. It gives weapons and strength to the thought-police – and the thought-police are easily set marching and they frighten… You can build a decent society around the Bible… but the Koran? No. [Fay Weldon in her pamphlet Sacred Cows]

Muslim society looks profoundly repulsive… It looks repulsive because it is repulsive… A westener who claims to admire Muslim society, while still adhering to Western values is either a hypocrite or an ignoramus, or a bit of both.  [Conor Cruise O’Brien in The Times in May 1989]

I gain the impression that few of the protesting Muslims in Britain know directly what they are protesting against. Their Imams have told them that Mr Rushdie has published a blasphemous book and must be punished. They respond with sheeplike docility and wolflike aggression. They forgot what Nazis did to books … they shame a free country by denying free expression through the vindictive agency of bonfires… If they do not like secular society, they must fly to the arms of the Ayatollah or some other self-righteous guardian of strict Islamic morality. [Anthony Burgess in The Independent, 16 February 1989]

It was such racist responses that prompted Shabbir Akhtar to remark in a book reflecting on the Rushdie affair: “the next time there are gas chambers in Europe, there is no doubt concerning who’ll be inside them” (in Be Careful With Muhammed, London: Bellew Press, 1989)

Some Muslim responses

Many distinguished Muslims felt betrayed by the intolerance of their liberal friends and significantly for the future development of the community, from that point onwards were far more willing to be associated with defending the Muslim corner in public and academic debate:

…The central point in my review article was that – whatever the author’s intentions – The Satanic Verses controversy reinforced the crudest cultural and religious prejudices about Muslims in general.  In the UK, it re-drew the boundaries around Muslim immigrants, showing them as a species apart, and opened them to the most horrendous racist taunts and even attacks…British Muslims – a decent, law-abiding, low-profile community – were equated to Nazis and barbarians.  Muslims explaining why they were deeply offended by certain passages in the novel were simply dismissed as fanatics or fundamentalists, and non-Muslim critics became unenlightened cultural philistines….In a world torn by ethnic and religious confrontation, I personally abhor violence whether in the name of religion or politics. But Mr Rushdie must recognize that over 20 people have died protesting about his book and countless numbers have been humiliated and angered.  He owes the deepest apology to Muslims. Professor Akbar Ahmed, The Times, 7 Dec 1990

I look back at the hundreds of cuttings I collected then and even now feel shaken by the names, the tone and the content of what was hurled at us all, all Muslims. Yasmin Alibhai-Brown, The Independent, 15 Oct 2001

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.