The Satanic Verses thirty years on

Submitted by AWL on 2 March, 2019 - 8:56 Author: Matthew Thompson

It is thirty years since the publication of Salman Rushdie's novel The Satanic Verses, partly based on the life of the founder of Islam, Muhammad, sparked protests across the Muslim world, with riots in India and Pakistan in which dozens of Rushdie's fellow Muslims were shot dead, book burnings on the streets of Britain, and ultimately an Iranian death sentence which sent its author into hiding under armed police guard.

In BBC Two's The Satanic Verses: 30 Years On, radio presenter and journalist Mobeen Azhar travels around the country, speaking to protagonists in what became known as the Rushdie Affair to see if any of them had changed their minds about it after three decades (spoiler: very few, if any, of them had).

Before 1989, Salman Rushdie, if he was known at all, was notable for being the first Indian-born writer to win the Booker Prize, in 1981 for his masterpiece Midnight's Children, a magical realist tale of post-Partition India-Pakistan politics set in his native Bombay (now Mumbai); by the end of that year, his face was on the front of every newspaper, especially after Iran's spiritual leader, the Ayatollah Khomeini, pronounced his fatwa calling for Rushdie's assassination on the grounds of blasphemy, the case had been debated on TV and in Parliament, and had even spread to the football terraces, with supporters of Chelsea and Leeds, both clubs with a large fascist following, chanting in his support (one of the interviewees, a former member of the National Front, talks about how they saw the Muslim backlash against the novel as an opportunity to recruit those enraged by the protests against the book to the far right).

The film outlines the overt racism of 80s Britain that led many young, working-class Asian men in the Midlands and Northern cities to which their parents and grandparents had migrated in the 60s and 70s to work in mills and foundries to feel marginalised and alienated from the mainstream of British society. One Birmingham man whom Azhar speaks to tells him that he went on a coach from the local mosque to the London demonstration against the book for a day out with his mates, without really knowing anything about it, and it was the racist abuse directed at him by the Metropolitan Police after his arrest on it which sparked the anger that led to him becoming an Islamist and fighting as a jihadi in Bosnia and Afghanistan.

1989 and the Rushdie Affair can also be seen as the turning point for Asian youth beginning to self-identify as Muslims rather than as Pakistani or Bangladeshi. Part of their outrage stemmed from learning, after they had asked the Government to ban the book, that the blasphemy laws only protected the religious beliefs of Christians (they were finally abolished in 2008). The left, both inside and outside the Labour Party, was also split on the issue, with some supporting the calls for a ban.

My own memory of the Rushdie Affair is of being a sixth former at a comprehensive in Stockport, in the school library one morning before lessons began where the librarian was registering her class of younger students. After she had completed the roll call, two of them told her that they wouldn't be there the next day as they were going into Manchester city centre for a demonstration against Rushdie's book with their parents. She responded with a long, classically liberal, speech about free speech, and how she had dedicated her life to books; I don't think they said much in reply to her, beyond maybe muttering something about it being against their religion, and in any case were missing the next morning.

The programme ends where the Rushdie Affair really began in Britain, in the square in Bradford, West Yorkshire, where a crowd gathered in January 1989 to witness the setting alight of a fuel-soaked copy of the novel nailed to a stick. As Azhar stands there, asking other British Muslims, most of them, like him, too young to remember the original outcry, their feelings about it, a middle-aged man snatches the copy of the book he is holding and runs off with it, ripping its cover and saying that he is taking it home to burn it, while another, younger, man berates him for having brought it into Muslim area.

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