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the book-burning that changed britain forever

sunday times, 1 february 2009

It was 20 years ago this month that Ayatollah Khomeini pronounced his fatwa on Salman Rushdie. 'I inform all zealous Muslims of the world', he proclaimed, 'that the author of the book entitled The Satanic Verses... and all those involved in its publication who were aware of its contents, are sentenced to death.'

This was not just a brutally shocking act that forced Rushdie into hiding for almost a decade; it also helped to transform the character of British society. The Rushdie affair was the moment at which a new Islam dramatically announced itself as a political force — and the moment when Britain realised that it was facing a new kind of social conflict.

Muslim fury seemed to be driven not by harassment or discrimination, but by a sense of hurt that Rushdie's words had offended their deepest beliefs. Where did such hurt come from? How could a novel create such outrage? Could Muslim anguish be assuaged and should it be?

Britain had never asked itself such questions before. Neither had I. I had watched the protests against The Satanic Verses with more than passing interest. Like Rushdie, I was born in India but brought up in Britain. Like Rushdie, I was of a generation that did not think of itself as 'Muslim' or 'Hindu' or 'Sikh', or even as 'Asian', but rather as 'black'.

Unlike our parents' generation, who had largely put up with discrimination, we were fierce in our opposition to racism. But we were equally hostile to the religious traditions that often marked immigrant communities. What, I wanted to know, had changed?

In January 1989 a group of Muslim protesters in Bradford had made headlines when they paraded through the town with a copy of The Satanic Verses before burning it. I knew Bradford and many of the players in the Rushdie drama, having helped to organise anti-racist protests in the town. Why, I wondered, were people taking to the streets to burn books? I went back to Bradford that February. It was three weeks after the book-burning and a week before the fatwa. I was waiting in the Victorian semi that housed the Council of Mosques when I heard a familiar voice. It was Hassan, a friend from London. 'What are you doing in this godforsaken place?' I asked him.

Hassan laughed. 'Trying to make it less godforsaken', he said. 'I've been up here a few months helping in the campaign against Rushdie.' And then he laughed again when he saw my face. The Hassan I had known in London had been a member of the Socialist Workers party (as had I). His other indulgences were Southern Comfort, sex and Arsenal. We had watched the Specials together, smoked dope together, argued together about football. He was secular through and through: the only god he worshipped was Liam Brady, Arsenal's magical midfielder. But here he was in Bradford, an errand boy to the mullahs, inspired by book-burners, willing to shed blood for a 1,000-year-old fable that he had never believed in.

In The Satanic Verses the two central characters, Gibreel Farishta and Saladin Chamcha, magically metamorphose. Saladin sprouts horns. Gibreel acquires a halo. Hassan's metamorphosis from left-wing wide boy to Islamic militant was no less extraordinary. And in that transformation lies the story of the wider changes that have shaped Britain over the past two decades.

* * *

When The Satanic Verses was published in September 1988, it had been expected to set the world alight, although not quite in the way that it did. Salman Rushdie's reputation had been established by Midnight's Children, which won the Booker prize in 1981. Two years later came Shame, which retold the history of Pakistan as a satirical fairy tale. Then came The Satanic Verses. It was, in Rushdie's words, both a novel about 'migration, metamorphosis, divided selves, love, death' and a satire on Islam, 'a serious attempt to write about religion and revelation from the point of view of a secular person'.

Ziauddin Sardar, the liberal writer and academic, read The Satanic Verses on a plane from Kuala Lumpur to London. By the time he landed, he says, 'It felt as though Rushdie had plundered everything I hold dear. This is how, I remember thinking, it must feel to be raped.' Rushdie presents the Qur'an as the work of Muhammad masquerading as the prophet of God. He calls Muhammad 'Mahound', an old derogatory name used by crusaders and names 12 prostitutes after the prophet's wives. Because 'the prophet and his personality define Islam', so Sardar 'felt every word, every jibe, every obscenity in The Satanic Verses was directed at me — personally'. Every Muslim felt the same, Sardar insisted.

Except they didn't. Until the fatwa, most Muslims ignored the book. The campaign against it was largely confined to the subcontinent and Britain. With the singular exception of Saudi Arabia, whose authorities bankrolled the initial efforts to ban the novel, there was little anti-Rushdie fervour in the Arab world or in Turkey, or among Muslim communities in France or Germany. It was not theology but politics that fuelled the Rushdie controversy. The Satanic Verses became a weapon in a conflict between Saudi Arabia and Iran about winning the hearts and minds of Muslims. Riyadh made the initial running. The fatwa was an attempt by Iran, the new-born Islamic republic and self-proclaimed home of Islamic radicalism, to wrestle back the initiative.

* * *

When I arrived in Britain in the late 1960s, 'Paki-bashing' was becoming a national sport. My main memory of growing up in the 1970s was of being involved almost daily in fights with racists and of how normal it seemed to come home with a bloody nose or a black eye. Britain was a very different place then. I remember having to organise patrols on east London estates to protect Asian families from racist thugs. I was on one of those patrols that I first met Hassan.

The struggle against racism drew young Asians into radical secular politics. By the end of the 1980s, however, the left was disintegrating, as was the idea of a common struggle against racism. People had started to see themselves in narrower ethnic terms: Afro-Caribbean, Sikh, Muslim, with every group insisting that it had its own specific culture, history and experiences.

These changes created opportunities for Islamic fundamentalists. There were many young Asians like Hassan who began as secularists but came to form the pool of discontents from which radical Islamic organisations began fishing for recruits.

It was not just disenchantment with the left that drove young Asians into the hands of the radical Islamists. It was also the multicultural policies pursued by local authorities and national government. The popular perception is that Britain became multicultural because minorities demanded that their differences be recognised. Not so. My generation was concerned less about preserving cultural differences than about fighting for political equality. We campaigned on issues such as discriminatory immigration controls, racist attacks and police brutality. These struggles radicalised a new generation of activists.

Take Bradford. In April 1976, 24 people were arrested in pitched battles in the Manningham area of Bradford, as Asian youths confronted a National Front march and fought police protecting it. It was seen as the blooding of a new movement. The following year the Asian Youth Movement was born. AYM activists challenged not just racism but many traditional values, too, confronting traditionalists on issues such as the role of women and the dominance of the mosque. 'Our children were growing up hating our culture', observed Sher Azam of the Bradford Council of Mosques. 'They were being drawn to western values and western lifestyles.'

Bradford's political elite was unnerved, too. Faced with growing militancy, Bradford council drew up an anti-racist strategy on a template pioneered by the Greater London Council. It established race relations units, drew up equal opportunities policies and dispensed millions of pounds in grants to black and Asian community organisations. Bradford's 12-point race relations plan declared every section of the 'multiracial, multicultural city' had 'an equal right to maintain its own identity, culture, language, religion and customs'. It also helped to set up and fund the Bradford Council of Mosques to act as a more conservative voice for Bradford's Muslim communities.

The new-found relationship between the local council and the mosques allowed religious leaders to reassert their power. As the secular tradition was squeezed out, the only place offering shelter for disaffected youth was militant Islam. The council's multicultural policies transformed the character of anti-racism.

By the mid-1980s the focus of anti-racist protest in Bradford had shifted from political to religious and cultural issues: a demand for Muslim schools and separate education for girls, a campaign for halal meat to be served at school and, most explosively, the confrontation over the publication of The Satanic Verses. Secular Muslims were regarded as betraying their culture (they belonged to the 'white left') while radical Islam became not just more acceptable but, to many, more authentic. That was how Hassan ended up as a bag boy for the mullahs.

* * *

Peter Mayer, chief executive of Penguin books, was in New York on St Valentine's Day 1989. Early in the morning he received a call from Patrick Wright, the head of sales in London. 'The Ayatollah Khomeini has issued a fatwa against Salman Rushdie', Wright told him. 'What's a fatwa?' asked a bemused Mayer.

The news made the front page of The New York Times. 'I was astonished', says Mayer. 'I was just a publisher of a novel. I still did not see it as a world event.' He has never talked about it before, but it is an issue that 20 years on still causes him pain and bafflement.

The day after the fatwa, armed police patrolled the street outside Penguin's offices. Mayer himself was subject to a vicious campaign of hatred: 'I had letters delivered to me written in blood. I had telephone calls in the middle of the night, saying not just that they would kill me but would take my daughter and smash her head against a concrete wall.'

Mayer still seethes at the callousness of others. 'My daughter was nearly expelled from her school', he recalls. 'A group of parents said, "What would happen if the Iranians sent a hit squad and got the wrong girl?" And I was thinking: what, you think my daughter is the right girl?'

Despite the constant threat, Mayer and Penguin never wavered in their commitment to The Satanic Verses: 'We developed the argument that what we did now affected much more than simply the fate of this one book. How we responded to the controversy over The Satanic Verses would affect the future of free inquiry, without which there would be no publishing as we knew it but also, by extension, no civil society as we knew it.'

Twnenty years on, liberals have come to think very differently. They are more concerned with appeasing cultural sensitivities than in defending free speech. 'What we have developed today', says the Bangladesh-born, Bolton-bred novelist Monica Ali, 'is a marketplace of outrage. And if you set up a marketplace of outrage you have to expect everyone to enter it. Everyone now wants to say, "My feelings are more hurt than yours".'

Ali herself has been a victim of the marketplace of outrage. Her debut novel, Brick Lane, published in 2003, is a story about the social and sexual awakening of Nazneen, an 18-year-old Bangladeshi who finds herself in London after an arranged marriage to a 40-year-old man she has never met. It was condemned by community leaders as 'a despicable insult to Bangladeshis'. In 2006 Ruby Films tried to film the novel in Brick Lane itself. It withdrew after opponents organised a protest march.

The whole campaign, says Ali, 'was a phoney war played out for the headlines... The protest march went through Brick Lane and it would have been easy to join the demo if people really felt angry. But very few did. It was mainly elderly men and many had been bussed down from Bradford. There were 100 people on that march. But 1,000 people queued up to be extras in the film.'

Many Bangladeshis were sympathetic to Ali. Many liberals supported the protesters. Germaine Greer claimed that 'the community has the moral right to keep the film-makers out'. Ali gives such criticism short shrift. Liberals, she says, 'begin with sympathy for the underdog. They want to defend minority communities because they are beleaguered communities. But what they end up doing is listening to the loudest voices in those communities and ignoring the diversity.'

It is striking, she points out, how, in the name of respect for minorities, minority voices themselves get silenced. The liberal idea of respect, Ali notes, is patronising: 'It is a kind of moral superiority. What liberals mean when they talk about respect is that they can handle complex fiction, ambiguity, criticism, but other people can't, especially people in minority communities, because they are too sensitive.'

For Ali, the giving of offence is not just inevitable. It is also important because it is 'necessary for social progress'. Women, she points out, are often the ones to pay the price for prohibitions against giving offence. In the past, liberals recognised the importance of free speech to the overcoming of social iniquities. Today, too many liberals see 'a clash between freedom of expression and the defence of minority communities'.