Last Friday marked the 20th anniversary of the publication of Salman Rushdie’s novel, The Satanic Verses. The ‘affair’ that ensued was, as the Commission on British Muslims and Islamophobia stated some years later, “one of the formative, defining events” in shaping how Muslims and Islam are understood in British society today. As such, I thought that I’d (belatedly) mark this anniversary with a short retrospective.
As Rushdie’s fourth novel, ‘The Satanic Verses’ was understood to be constructed around stories from the life of the Prophet Muhammad, the title referencing Ibn Ishaq’s biography of him. Causing some controversy at the time of its publication, it was interpreted by many Muslims as blasphemous with many of its analogous storylines allegedly denigrating Muhammad and his prophethood as well as his wives. Similar denigrations were also alleged against some of the theological tenets and beliefs of Islam. Following India’s lead in banning the book, in early 1989 the Ayatollah Khomeini took the matter to an unprecedented level at the time by issuing a fatwa in Iran that called for the death of Rushdie, claiming that it was the duty of every Muslim to obey his pronouncement. Despite this, at no time in his life did Khomeini read the book.
In Britain, the response to the book was overwhelming. On the 14 January 1989, a large number of Muslims took to the streets of Bradford and publicly burnt copies of it. Whilst the local and national press initially showed little interest, a small group of protesters videotaped the proceedings, later distributing it to various news agencies. Despite being poorly produced, shortly afterwards images of Muslims burning books on the streets of England were broadcast around the world. Evoking comparisons to the Reconquista, the Inquisition and the Reformation, the most damning comparisons were those that recalled Hitler’s Nazis less than a century beforehand. In what was an attempt to gain publicity, the images evolved into little more than a PR catastrophe that inadvertently signaled the beginning of much wider processes: of the widespread condemnation of Muslims and their indiscriminate vilification.
The presence of Muslims in Britain (and by default Islam too) was brought sharply under the public and political gazed, framed and informed by history and its various legacies about Islam and Muslims. More importantly, it was also informed by what had gone before and what was yet to come. Given that Muslims and their presence in Britain had previously been somewhat unacknowledged – most had previously been collectively defined within the homogenous marker of ‘Asian’ – so the first formal recognition of British Muslims and the presence of Islam in Britain was a highly politicised one and through the association with Khomeini, one that was largely indistinguishable from the ‘fundamentalist’– to employ the terminology of the day – forms of Islam that had initiated revolution in Iran.
The protests went global and within a month of the events in Bradford, similar protests had taken place in Bombay, Kashmir, Dacca and Islamabad, the latter seeing five protesters killed and hundreds more injured. Unsurprisingly, these protests were also broadcast around the world and were uncannily similar to those associated with the protests that followed the second publication of the Prophet Muhammad cartoons in the Danish newspaper, the Jyllands-Posten in early 2006. Both events were highly mediatised and to a great degree, hyper-real.
As with the Danish cartoons furore, so the Satanic Verses affair was seen to present a direct challenge to many of the deeply held values of Britain and ‘the West’ per se: freedom of expression, disagreement, equality, democracy and tolerance. As Elizabeth Poole has since wrote, the Satanic Verses affair was represented by the media as posing a serious threat to liberal and progressive British and Western values: threatened by archaic, retrogressive and irrational Muslims, adherents to an outdated and outmoded religious belief system that history had shown us was inherently violent, barbaric and intolerant.
Despite twenty years having passed, some Muslims, some Muslim organisations and some parts of the media appear to have learned nothing. In February this year I wrote how I was increasingly distressed by knee-jerk reactions by some Muslims and their organisations that afford the media far too many opportunities to show pictures of Muslim men or angry niqabis with placards shouting abuse whilst commentators warn of the impending clash of civilisations at the same time as opinion polls pit sharia law against democracy. Those same Muslims and their organisations then turn on the media and denounce them for further vilifying and stereotyping them. It’s a vicious, self-perpetuating cycle that neither ‘side’ seem to want to break and for whom all are equally to blame.
And it is this, for me, that perpetuates and reinforces the legacy of the Satanic Verses Affair and why this legacy continues to inform much of how all Muslims and the entirety of Islam continues to be indiscriminately presented and perceived.
Next month will see the publication of a new novel, ‘Jewel of Medina’ and the potential for a whole new’ Satanic Verses affair’ to unfold in front of our very eyes. The book is said to be about the Prophet Muhammad’s relationship with his youngest wife, Aisha, and has been described as a “soft-porn” novel. Already it is believed that emails are being circulated calling on British Muslim organisations to act now to stop its publication.
If the necessary lessons have been learned from the Satanic Verses affair, neither individual Muslims nor Muslim organisations will take the bait. If the lessons haven’t been learned, then we will see history repeat itself and the legacy of the Satanic Verses affair will likely continue for at least another twenty years also.
If however the lessons have been learnt, then we will see the beginnings of a far more mature and confident approach that may will contribute to the right to freedom of expression, the right to disagreement, the right to equality and the right to democracy that all of us have.
This work by Chris Allen is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-Noncommercial 2.0 UK: England & Wales License. Based on a work at www.chris-allen.co.uk.