Last month saw the thirtieth anniversary of the publication of Salman Rushdie’s The Satanic Verses.
Rushdie’s sprawling novel defies summary: interlinking stories meld scurrilous fantasies, dark humour and cutting political satire directed not only at Islam, but British racism and Indian immigrants’ attempts to adapt. It is an honest attempt to deal with the warping pressures of racism, religion and cultural dislocation.
When it was published in September 1988 there was no spontaneous grassroots opposition. According to Kenan Malik in From Fatwa to Jihad, one early move against the book was in India, where pressure from Jammat-e-Islami led to the book being banned there in October. (Jammat is an Islamist organisation with the main goal of bringing in Islamic states in Pakistan and Bangladesh.)
Then literature radiated out vilifying the book as a blasphemous insult against Muslims. In early October 1989 Jammat, with Saudi funding, established the UK Action Committee on Islamic Affairs (UKACIA) to attempt to have The Satanic Verses banned. Initially it was a pressure group trying to influence government policy rather than mobilising on the streets.
UK Muslim opposition to The Satanic Verses which appears to have come about without the direction of Jammat or other Islamists was almost certainly informed by their literature. The first sizeable demonstration and book burning was in Bolton in December 1988, although it attracted little media attention.
A more media savvy demonstration was held in Bradford in January 1989, which reportedly included book burning. The emerging demands of the demonstrators were that the book be banned, and the UK blasphemy laws be extended to cover religions other that Christianity.
At this point Jammat turned to mass demonstrations, calling one in Pakistan, where the book was already banned.
The demonstration in February 1989, which for some reason targeted the US embassy, resulted in at least five demonstrators being killed. Two days later the theocratic leadership of Iran issued a fatwa, a death sentence, on Rushdie.
The competition between Saudi-backed groups and Iranian rhetoric (fatwa) breathed life into the campaign against The Satanic Verses. Rushdie was given police protection and went into hiding for many years. The book’s Japanese translator was murdered. In Turkey thirty-seven died in an attempt on the life of the translator there. The Norwegian publisher was shot, and the Italian translator stabbed; both were seriously injured.
It is likely that if the book had been published in the mid-seventies, rather than the late-eighties, it would have not been the focus of such anger. Why?
First, by 1988 there was an race between Saudi Arabia and Iran to win the leadership of Muslims globally by supporting various political Islamist movements, including armed groups.
Second, in the 1970s few Muslims would have taken that as their main identity, rather than black, or Asian, or a national origin. Nor was racism focused on religion; the term Islamophobia was not in wide use and few racists could distinguish a Sikh from a Hindu. The rise of religious identity came in part through the development of 1980s state-sponsored multicultural policy that sought to neatly package people into groups with identifiable leaders with whom the business of community relations could be transacted.
Third, in the 1970s British Asians were engaged in a number of struggles against state, fascist and other forms of racism, and for equality with the trade union movement and the labour force. Organisations from the Indian Workers’ Associations to the Asian Youth Movement worked in a broadly secular and socialist framework.
By the late 1980s many of the unionised jobs in which these migrants and their descendants worked had gone.
The trade union movement that had eventually looked like it might be willing to accept Asian workers and help them organise (at the time of the Grunwick strike, 1976-78), had been hobbled. Struggle was now more often focused on getting funding for “communities” from local government, once again, encouraging identity and communitarian politics.
The organised left supported Rushdie’s freedom of speech, opposed the fatwa and called out the Islamist attempt to sidetrack the Asian working class for the right wing fraud that it was, while opposing racist demonisation of Muslims.
The left-wing Campaign Group of MPs opposed the calls to ban the book and argued for the law on blasphemy to be repealed. Tony Benn tabled a symbolic motion to that effect in the House of Commons.
Only two members of the Campaign Group opposed him. Notably, Bernie Grant called for extension of the law to include Islam and called on Penguin not to publish a paperback edition. Grant was a militant but inconsistent left-winger who thought it more important to side with Muslims as the underdog with “nothing to live for but their faith”.
Although the campaign to ban The Satanic Verses did not achieve its stated goal, in many ways it won. The worst aspect of this is that the muddled thinking demonstrated by Bernie Grant has become more common.
In early 1989, the SWP was clear in stating “No to censorship. No to racism” and was the last publication to interview Rushdie before he went into hiding. In the subsequent years the group has become so fixated on “British Muslim” identity as “a source of self-confidence” and the idea of “Muslims joining with others to oppose not only Islamophobia, but also war and wider injustices” that its commitment to the freedom of speech to criticise reactionary religious ideology has all but disappeared.
Jammat, on the other hand, consolidated its leadership and broader influence. UKACIA and other Sunni Islamist groups (including the Muslim Brotherhood aligned Muslim Association of Britain) came together to form the Muslim Action Front which organised a London demonstration in May 1989. This was bravely opposed by Women Against Fundamentalism, whose roots that could be traced back to the Asian Youth Movement.
In 1997, the anti-Rushdie alliance morphed into the Muslim Council of Britain, purporting to speak for British Muslims. It was given power for many years by the British state’s complicity with it.
The SWP facing both ways on Rushdie
In 1989, the SWP had a clear position on the freedom to criticise reactionary religious ideology.
Under the banner of “No to censorship, No to racism”, they supported Rushdie against what they called “Islamic Fundamentalists” and carried a sympathetic interview with Rushdie.
Over the years their pronouncement became ambiguous. At the time of the Jyllands-Posten Mohammed cartoon furore of 2005-06, leading SWPer Alex Callinicos (Socialist Worker, 11 February 2006) argued that The Satanic Verses was a special case of “a complex work of art by an author of Indian Muslim origins who was trying explore the roots of the faith into which he was born”. But this sympathetic stance was undermined by Callinicos’s support for the original form of the New Labour government’s Racial and Religious Hatred Bill that sought to outlaw “abusive and insulting behaviour” against religion. (The House of Lords rightly amended the Bill to limit it to threatening behaviour, adding that it must be intended to stir up religious hatred).
The original Bill might well have led to the banning of a work such as The Satanic Verses on the grounds of offending believers. It thus met the demands of the anti-Rushdie protestors of 1989.
Equally abjectly, Callinicos accepted the bona fides of the Iranian fatwa, “the book caused great offence among Muslims … and led to the Iranian leader Ayatollah Khomeini issuing a judgment (fatwa) condemning Rushdie to death.” The Iranians did nothing in the five months after the book was published, during which time it was reviewed in the Iranian press. Khomeini only moved against it in response to Saudi-backed protests against the book.
In a further article (Socialist Worker, 9 February 2011) Yuri Prasad defended multiculturalism after attacks by the Prime Minister David Cameron, but failed to defend The Satanic Verses, rather arguing that it had led to Islamophobia and saying: “Some liberals became unable to separate Rushdie’s right to publish his book from the need to defend an entire religious minority being painted as intrinsically intolerant”. Prasad entirely buys into the Islamist narrative stating that, “to many Muslims The Satanic Verses came to symbolise the humiliation and discrimination they suffered, both in Britain and throughout the world.”
The SWP continue to attempt to face both ways on the issues. Reviewing Rushdie’s memoirs in 2012, Gareth Jenkins wraps opposition to censoring Rushdie in a pernicious argument (Socialist Review, November 2012). He rejects Rushdie’s opposition to the spread of Islamist ideas, suggesting a “more complex” understanding is needed. This turns out to be excusing these ideas on the grounds that the book was “the last straw for an oppressed minority whose only bulwark against a hostile, racist society seemed to be religious identity”.
And in a recent article to mark the 30th anniversary of the book’s publication (Socialist Worker, 25 September 2018), Hassan Mahamdallie hides mild criticism of censorship under a long preamble that suggests the anti-Rushdie movement was a response to Western governments pursuing anti-Muslim policies internationally and domestically through the 1970s and 1980s.
He concludes that the “British Muslim” identity that grew out of the movement has opened up options for the left.