Lines of resistance

Salman Rushdie’s novel The Satanic Verses was burned in Bradford 30 years ago, but one of the men involved insists they never meant it to end with death threats against the author

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The morning of January 1989, was, according to Ishtiaq Ahmed, a “typical Bradford winter day”.

Thick cloud hung over the square that sat between City Hall, the magistrates court and the police station. It was drizzling and windy. “It was quite bleak,” recalls Ahmed.

That didn’t stop in excess of 2,000 people gathering in the space that is, today, occupied by Bradford’s award-winning Mirror Pool and City Park. But whereas crowds today flock there for shopping, eating and relaxation, those there 30 years ago had an altogether different agenda. They were there for a book burning.

Ahmed was representing Bradford’s Council for Mosques at the time, and in the weeks before the event had been involved in exhausting meetings as Muslim communities across the UK tried to find ways to express their anger and disappointment at the publication in September 1988 of the author Salman Rushdie’s fourth novel, The Satanic Verses.

Bombay-born and Rugby and Cambridge educated, Rushdie was already a big literary name by the time The Satanic Verses was published, having won the Booker Prize with his 1981 novel Midnight’s Children. The Satanic Verses followed a similar path, using Rushdie’s Indian heritage to tell a sprawling, multi-faceted epic on a dreamlike, magic realism tapestry.

“We just can’t be burning books. There’s a swift descent from that once we start doing it.

However, the book’s portrayal of the prophet Mohammed – the title refers to a legend that the devil tried to fool Mohammed into putting false verses into the Quran – angered and dismayed Muslims. Objections to the book began with its title, which refers to that legend but uses a name unknown to Muslims. The book also uses the name Mahound for Mohammed, said to be an insulting term used in the Crusades, and questions the way Allah was said to have revealed his so-called truths to him. There were calls for a ban on the book, or for the offending passages to be removed. Publishers Viking Penguin began to receive floods of angry letters, and by the end of 1988 import of the British edition was suppressed in India, Bangladesh and Sri Lanka.

As far as Britain’s Muslim community was concerned, complaining didn’t seem to be getting anywhere. Ahmed remembers: “We had appealed to the government, to the publishers, to the author. Nobody was interested in our concerns.

“We had knocked on every door without any joy or acknowledgement of our concerns. So we decided that we had to do something that would capture people’s attention. We had to do something that would be seen as an act that symbolically represented our level of anger.”

Bradford Council for Mosques had met several times with its sister organisations around the country three or four weeks before the decision was taken to burn a copy of the book. “It was a collective decision,” says Ahmed. “It is important to understand that this was a last resort for us. It was an act of desperation.”

Hanging on the fringes of the crowd in Bradford that drizzly, windy morning was a young man called Aki Nawaz. He was something of an outsider, not just because he was lurking on the edges of the gathering. Nawaz was an honest to goodness, no future, anarchy in the UK punk. But he was also a Muslim, brought up in a household that was not only staunchly religious but also at the heart of the activism that had led to the book burning.

The most famous shot of the book burning shows a stern-faced man in a hat standing by the blazing copy of The Satanic Verses. This is Sayed Abdul Quddus, a close friend of Nawaz’s father. Both men were hugely active with the Pakistan People’s Party in Bradford.

The politics of the sub-continent were endlessly discussed in the Nawaz household, and the young Aki was immersed in politics, both from the land of his fathers and here in the UK, through his involvement with the music-led anti-fascist movement Rock Against Racism.

Nawaz had already been one of the founder members, on drums, of the band Southern Death Cult, a forerunner of The Cult, and in 1991 he would form the often controversial hip-hop fusion outfit Fun-Da-Mental. But despite his outsider punk attitude, he could easily see why The Satanic Verses had upset the Muslim community.

“I wasn’t brought up in an English household,” he says. “I got up, went to school, then went to the mosque. I was brought up to have a massive amount of respect for the prophets. There was never meant to be any critical debate around the issues of the goodness of the prophets or anything like that. We valued Mohammed so highly that we couldn’t understand why they didn’t understand that insulting him was such an attack on us.”

Back in 1989, it was perhaps more unusual than it is today to see widespread activism from the Muslim community. Nawaz says: “This was possibly the first major protest by Muslims. People weren’t used to seeing it. The template had always been that the white working class had a right to protest, and we were simply picking up that right.”

As Nawaz watched from the edge of the crowd, there were speeches about the insult caused by Rushdie and his book, and then the moment arrived. The 546-page hardcover of the first edition, with its distinctive red title on a blue background, was placed on a stand in the centre of the gathering. Ahmed says the city centre location was crucial.

“It was in front of what used to be the police station, and on the right was the magistrates court. Facing us was the City Hall. All these were symbols of authority, the authority we had appealed to and who had failed to listen to our concerns.”

Inflammatory though Rushdie’s book was, things did not immediately go to plan. “It was drizzling, it was windy,” says Ahmed with a small laugh. “It was
a hardback – it was a thick book! It proved difficult to light straight away so someone suggested they go and get some petrol, which they did. Then a local imam lit the match.”

Although a copy of the book had been burned in Bolton a few weeks earlier, it was the Bradford burning that was beamed around the world and made the global media. Ahmed says: “I think it got the job done. The message went international. The issue became a bigger one that was opened up into a massive public debate.”

The ripples from the Bradford book burning went far wider than anyone could have expected. What had previously been a story that had little greater interest than to the Muslim community and the publishing industry suddenly blew up into something considerably different.

The Satanic Verses was published in the United States in February 1989, a month after the Bradford burning, and a 10,000-strong rally against the book took place in Islamabad on 12 February. The protest turned into a riot and six people died. Two days later, Iran’s Ayatollah Khomeini issued a fatwa against Rushdie, an edict calling for death to him and his publishers. Rushdie went into hiding.

The fact that The Satanic Verses was now an international issue shocked people at the heart of the Bradford protest as much as anyone. Ahmed says: “The fatwa was absolutely nothing to do with what we were trying to achieve. In fact, it completely hijacked our campaign and what we were trying to do.

“The original issue of the insult caused by the book and our attempts to try to come to some kind of resolution was completely swept away. We had to keep repeatedly explaining that it was never our wish to have anyone have any risk to their life.”

Even the politically-aware Nawaz had never even heard the term fatwa before. “The first time I heard it said on the news, I thought someone was calling Rushdie a fat twat,” he laughs. “I thought, whoah, that’s pretty hardcore.”

Joolz Denby, the performance poet, author and New Model Army associate, was living on Rushton Terrace in Bradford at the time. Overnight, someone took a marker pen and changed the street sign to read “Kill Rushtie Terrace”. It stayed that way for a long time.

She says: “Suddenly this thing had happened and Bradford was all over the news and then it took on a much bigger importance. There were a lot of kids running around the streets getting excited about it, even if they didn’t really understand what it was about. They were just bored and they’d heard their parents discussing it and here was something to get worked up about.”

As a writer, Denby has experienced death threats herself – “mainly from men who don’t like what you’re writing” – and while she appreciates the need for the freedom of art and expression she does mull over the motivation of Rushdie, born into a Kashmiri Muslim family, for writing The Satanic Verses with passages about Mohammed that were bound to offend.

“I have to think that he knew what he was doing,” she says. “He’s not a stupid man. It’s possible he thought that the imams in places like Bradford would never read his book, that he had just written it for his metropolitan literary elite friends, so it would never have been an issue.”

“We had appealed to the government, to the publishers, to the author. Nobody was interested.”

However, at the heart of this story is a book burning. And that is something loaded with historical weight. We talk of book burnings, we think of Nazis. The Bradford incident and the death threats against Rushdie were debated in the House of Lords in March 1990. Lord Stoddart of Swindon said: “These fanatics – they are a minority within the Muslim religion and let us make that point absolutely clear – must be told firmly and clearly by the government that in this country we do not intend to give up freedom of speech, which has been fought for over the centuries by men of courage who were prepared to endure martyrdom for the right of free men to speak their minds without fear or favour.

“We have cause to remember in this country – and indeed in Europe and throughout the world – that book burning is usually followed by people burning. Do not forget that it was the book burners in Nazi Germany who were the predecessors of the horror camps of Auschwitz and Belsen. We should remember that when we appear to take a lenient view of what is happening at the present time.”

“We just can’t be burning books,” says Denby. “It’s the thin end of the wedge and there’s a swift descent from that once we start doing it. By all means say to your community that this book has transgressed our boundaries, that we should turn our backs on it – that’s fine. But not book burnings.”

The protesters had, before burning the book, called on Rushdie and his publishers to remove the novel from sale, or excise the offending passages, and then wanted a government ban on its sale. Nawaz tries to contextualise it with another 1980s book banning, the memoir of former MI5 boss Peter Wright, Spycatcher. He says: “Thatcher managed to ban that, so people thought, why
can’t the government do the same for The Satanic Verses?”

He also points out that many of the older Muslims involved in the decision to burn The Satanic Verses had lived in colonial India. “The British burned down publishing houses in India,” he says. “People say we should not burn books, we should respect them. But that would mean we should have to respect Hitler’s Mein Kampf as well. It’s more important that people respect people, and yet here we still are, burning people, blowing people to bits.”

Thirty years on, Nawaz feels that the whole situation got out of hand on both sides. “On reflection, it was a sad affair that caused unnecessary divisions and bars to progress,” he says.

Rushdie ended up living with a $6 million price on his head and had to have police protection for nine years. The fatwa was never formally rescinded, and in 2007 Rushdie said he receives a “sort of Valentine’s card” from Iran every 14 February, reminding him it’s still in place. But, he says, he considers it more rhetoric than serious these days.

Even though three decades have passed, neither side has really backed down. Book burnings are still beyond the pale. Protesters still feel the book should have been censored, or withdrawn.

Did Ahmed ever read the book? “I did. I found it extremely hard going. The thing is, the passages that caused offence could have been removed and it would still have been pretty much the same book. Rushdie should have known better than to write what he did, he could have taken steps towards conciliation, but he was just too arrogant.”

And given his time again, would he still burn the book? “It’s really up to the establishment to make sure all its citizens are listened to and their concerns acknowledged. If you push a group of people into a cul-de-sac, then you cannot be surprised if they react. And that might mean they have to take drastic action.”

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