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burning the book

programme notes for the black album, national theatre, july 2008

On 14 January 1989, a thousand Muslim protestors marched through the centre of Bradford, parading a copy of Salman Rushdie’s The Satanic Verses tied to a stake. Stopping in front of a police station, they set the book alight. It was an act calculated to shock and offend. It did more than that. Sent around the world by a multitude of photographers and TV cameras, the image of that burning book became an icon of the rage of Islam, a portent of a new kind of conflict.

From the 1958 Notting Hill riots, to the Grunwick dispute in 1977 to the inner city disturbances of the 1980s, blacks and Asians had, of course, often been involved in bitter clashes on the streets of Britain. But these were in the main political conflicts, or issues of law and order.

The Rushdie affair was different. Muslim fury seemed to be driven not by questions of harassment or discrimination or poverty, but by a sense of hurt that Rushdie’s words had offended their deepest beliefs. Where did such hurt come from? Could Muslim anguish be assuaged, and should it be? How did the anger on the streets of Bradford relate to traditional political questions about rights, duties and entitlements? Britain had never asked itself such questions before.

When The Satanic Verses was published in September 1988, it had been expected to set the world alight, though not quite in the way that it did. Salman Rushdie was then perhaps the most celebrated British novelist of his generation, his reputation established by Midnight’s Children, the sprawling, humorous mock-epic of post-independence India that won the Booker Prize in 1981 and helped announce the arrival not just of a new literary voice, but also of a new kind of novel.

The Satanic Verses was, Rushdie said in an interview before publication, a novel about ‘migration, metamorphosis, divided selves, love, death’. It was also a satire on Islam, ‘a serious attempt’, as he put it, ‘to write about religion and revelation from the point of view of a secular person’. For some that was unacceptable, turning the novel, in the words of the British Muslim philosopher Shabbir Akhtar, into a piece of ‘hate literature’.

Yet, given the importance that the book burning has since acquired as a symbol of Muslim fury and hurt, what is striking is the indifference of most Muslims to The Satanic Verses when it was first published. Exactly a month after the Bradford book burning, on Valentine’s Day 1989, the Ayatollah Khomeini issued his infamous fatwa that forced Rushdie into hiding for a decade, led to the murders of publishers and translators and transformed the controversy into a global conflict with historical repercussions.

Until the fatwa, however, the campaign against The Satanic Verses had been relatively low-key. The novel first became an issue in India thanks to a campaign organized by the Jamaat-e-Islami, a hardline Islamist group against which Rushdie had taken aim in his previous novel Shame. The Jamaat denounced The Satanic Verses as blasphemous. With an election due in November 1988, no politician wanted to alienate any section of India’s 150-million strong Muslim community. The novel was quickly banned.

The controversy then spilled over into Britain, where the Jamaat had a network of front organizations, funded by the Saudi authorities. From the 1970s onwards Saudi Arabia had used oil money to fund Salafi organisation worldwide to cement its position as spokesman for the Muslim umma.  It now seized upon the controversy over The Satanic Verses to reinforce that position. The Saudis set up the UK Action Committee on Islamic Affairs, the principal anti-Rushdie group in Britain. Riyadh provided the funding for the organization and its co-chairman was a Saudi diplomat.

Despite Saudi money, the anti-Rushdie campaign had little popular purchase.  When Riyadh tried to get all Muslim countries to ban the novel, few responded. Arabs and Turks seemed unmoved by Rushdie’s blasphemies. There were no protests in Muslim communities in France or Germany. Even Iran seemed relaxed. Tehran did not ban the book, which was openly available and discussed. A review in Kayhan Farangi, a leading Iranian literary journal, was highly critical of The Satanic Verses but never suggested that it was blasphemous.

In December 1988 – almost three months after the publication of the novel – came the first major street protest in Britain. Some seven thousand Muslims marched through Bolton, a demonstration organized not by the Jamaat but by a rival Islamic faction, the Deobandis. The Jamaat possessed money and political influence, thanks to the Saudi connection, but little support on the ground. The majority of British Muslims were Barelwis, a Sufi-influenced tradition. Most mosques were run by the Deobandis, a movement founded in nineteenth-century British India with the aim of returning Islam to its roots. Conflict between Jamaatis, Barelwis and Deobandis was a feature of British Islam, and helped fuel the Rushdie controversy.

The Bolton protest was an impressive call to arms. Yet almost no one took any notice. The Bradford protest the following month was different, partly because Bradford itself was different. Muslim leaders in the town had forged a close relationship with the local council and a decade of campaigning had made them politically astute and media savvy. They knew that an image of a burning book would catch attention, so they videoed the protest and dispatched the pictures to media outlets across the world.

Yet even now Muslim fury remained confined to Britain and the Indian subcontinent. Here, too, many Muslims were unmoved by the protests. The Muslim Institute, a radical London-based organization that was a mouthpiece for Tehran, suggested that ‘campaigning for a ban on The Satanic Verses would be major and pointless distraction’.

And then came the fatwa. Like much else about the Rushdie affair, the fatwa was more the result of political calculation than religious outrage.  The 1979 Iranian Revolution, which had overthrown the Shah and established an Islamic republic, had made Tehran the capital of Muslim radicalism, and Ayatollah Khomeini its spiritual leader. But Tehran’s attempts, in the following decade, to broaden the Islamic revolution had made little headway. It had failed to destabilize the deeply conservative Saudi regime or to loosen the Saudi grip on the direction of Islam worldwide. It had also been forced, in 1988, humiliatingly to abandon its bloody eight-year war against Iraq. Khomeini was facing increased opposition from reformers pushing for improved relations with the West.

The fatwa turned the tables on Khomeini’s Islamic enemies, at home and abroad. His bold action seemed to contrast with Saudi impotence, while reformers at home were forced to stoke up the anti-Western rhetoric. Inayat Bunglawala, now a spokesman for the Muslim Council of Britain, was a student in 1989. ‘I felt a thrill’, he remembers. ‘It was incredibly uplifting. After the fatwa we could say, “If we are not treated with respect, then we have friends capable of forcing you to respect us.”’

The morning after the fatwa Rushdie was moved to a safe house by Special Branch. For a decade he was compelled to live like a fugitive. In July 1991, Hitoshi Igarashi, a Japanese professor of literature and translator of The Satanic Verses, was knifed to death. That same month another translator of Rushdie’s novel, the Italian Ettore Capriolo, was stabbed and killed in his Milan apartment. Two years later the William Nygaard, Rushdie’s publisher in Norway, was shot outside his home. The greatest tragedy of the Rushdie affair happened in Turkey. In July 1993, thirty-seven people were killed when an anti-Rushdie mob set fire to a hotel in the town of Sivas in which Aziz Nesin, the Turkish translator of The Satanic Verses, was staying.

The fatwa helped transform the very geography of Islam. The Ayatollah transcended the traditional frontiers of Islam and brought the whole world under his jurisdiction. He helped relocate the confrontation between Islam and the West, which until then had been played out largely in the Middle East and south Asia, into the heart of Western Europe. For the West, Islam was now a domestic issue.