Thirty years ago this week publishers released a new novel by one of the most talented contemporary fiction writers to come out of the English-speaking world.
Salman Rushdie’s eagerly anticipated book The Satanic Verses hit the bookshops on 26 September 1988. It was widely praised by critics and immediately nominated for the prestigious Booker Prize.
Rushdie, who had grown up in India and then moved to Britain, was well known for his criticism of colonialism, western imperialism and for siding with black and Asian people who faced racism in this country.
Yet within weeks he found himself at the centre of a storm of outrage from Muslims in Britain and internationally, with demonstrations on the streets, calls for The Satanic Verses to be banned and for the author to be punished for blasphemy.
Then in February 1989 Rushdie was forced into hiding after a call by the Iranian leader Ayatollah Khomeini for Rushdie and all those associated with the book to be put to death for blaspheming the Prophet Mohammed. For the next decade Rushdie lived in fear, while what became known as the “Rushdie affair” continued to play out nationally and internationally.
Rushdie was known for his “magical realist” style of writing fiction, which mixed events and characters that we recognise as being “real” with “extraordinary” flights of fantasy and magical happenings.
The Satanic Verses contains a dream sequence that involves a Prophet Muhammad-like figure (named Mahound) and the early history of Islam.
It is the portrayal of the Muhammad/Mahound character, who was depicted as lecherous, unscrupulous and a false prophet, which was seen by those who called for the book to be banned, as a deliberate trashing of Islam.
Rushdie and his supporters argued this was not his intention, and in any case was a work of fiction. Unfortunately, this was not accepted by growing numbers of Muslims.
There was the immediate anger against Rushdie and The Satanic Verses—and what they saw as the British establishment’s dismissal of calls for the book to be withdrawn or banned. This in turn fed a racist backlash against Muslims.
There was also an international context. Episodes such as the oil embargo by the Gulf states in retaliation for western governments’ support for Israel during the 1973 Arab-Israeli War rattled Western powers.
Their worries grew after the overthrowing in 1979 of the western-backed Shah of Iran and the rise of the Ayatollah Khomeini. Western commentators began to stoke old anti-Muslim prejudices.
These factors combined to lead to the growth of what we now call Islamophobia—constant scaremongering and racist justifications for western military interventions abroad, coupled with hostile attitudes, policies and laws targeting Muslim minorities at home.
As the anti-racist thinker Ambalvananer Sivanandan described, the result was that “all the bits and pieces of racist belief have become telescoped into each other, and every stereotype reinforces another.
“The Arab gets telescoped into the Muslim, Iranians become Arabs, Khomeini and Islamic fundamentalism gets mixed up with oil sheikhs holding the West to ransom, the Turks who clean the streets of Western Europe and provide domestic help to its middle classes are suddenly become part of an invading army.
“All Asians are ‘Pakis’, and ‘Paki’ passes as a synonym for mad Muslim”.
The Rushdie affair made this growing strand of racism suddenly overt.
Muslim resentments were also fuelled by anger and despair in South Asian working-class communities that they had been abandoned by those in power—pushed to the bottom of British society by decades of blatant racism.
Low paid manual industries that Muslim communities were almost wholly dependent on, such as textiles, had been in long term decline.
In what has now become a familiar scenario in our post 9/11 world, British Muslims were then baited by powerful figures
The Thatcher Tory government’s offensive against the strongest sections of the working class, culminating in the defeat of the Miners’ Strike in 1985, had a crushing effect.
For example, by 1988 what remained of the Lancashire and Yorkshire mills were completely wiped out by a wave of closures that demoralised trade unions were unable to fight. Male unemployment levels among Asians hit 50 percent levels in some northern towns.
By the time the Rushdie affair erupted a new generation of British-born Muslims were already drawing the conclusion that they were isolated, and those in power cared very little for them, their concerns or beliefs.
As the opposing sides became more entrenched, other elements of the book, for example its damning portrayal of British racism and society, were completely forgotten.
Although the Tory government had defended Rushdie’s right to freedom of expression, ministers and MPs did not hide their distaste for someone they clearly regarded as a brown-skinned nuisance.
The foreign secretary Geoffrey Howe told the BBC that the book was not only offensive to Muslims. “The British government, the British people have no affection for the book,” he said.
It was, Howe went onto complain, “extremely critical, rude about us. It compares Britain with Hitler’s Germany. We do not like that”.
In what has now become a familiar scenario in our post 9/11 world, British Muslims were then baited by powerful figures, who believed the Rushdie affair gave them free rein to brand Islam’s followers as backward, irrational, and dangerous.
Far-right forces then rushed in to capitalise on the space opened up for them.
In December 1988 Muslims in Bolton, Lancashire, organised a demonstration during which a copy of The Satanic Verses was burnt. This received little media coverage. And then in January 1989 another copy of the book was burnt during a demonstration in Bradford. This time the national media were on hand to record it.
What followed was a torrent of condemnation. Muslims were “barbarians”, “fanatics” and directly compared to Nazi book-burners.
In the aftermath, the Daily Mail raged “Who asked Muslims to run our lives?” It went on to claim that “Muslims are taking Bradford back to the Middle Ages…they think they have the right to turn the place into Tehran, Iran...It’s intolerable for them to set up separate foreign countries here”.
But it was the turning against Muslims by large sections of the liberal intelligentsia that proved most shocking.
Public figures who Muslims might have thought would have at least acknowledged their grievances, instead lined up to abuse them. For example, the feminist author Fay Weldon wrote a pamphlet called Sacred Cows which heaped insult upon insult on Muslims and Islam.
Any middle ground for those who wanted to support Rushdie’s right to freedom of expression, but who also refused to line up with the growing racist onslaught against Muslims, faced an uphill struggle.
There were some principled attempts, however, and Socialist Worker’s coverage was among them. But any hope of dialogue evaporated in February 1989 as Iran’s Ayatollah Khomeini called for the death of Rushdie “along with all editors and publishers aware of the book’s contents”.
This poured petrol on the fire, feeding already alarming levels of Islamophobic hostility and increasing the danger to Rushdie.
Before he was forced into hiding Socialist Worker had carried the headline “No to censorship. No to racism” and later ran what was to be one of Rushdie’s last public interviews for many years.
He told the paper that he had not expected the book to cause such controversy and was clearly uncomfortable with some of those who had come to his defence.
“It’s no pleasure to me to be supported by the Sun when it’s referring to Asians as rats”, he said. “I’m not on the Sun’s side in that. I’d sooner be with the rats”.
The immediate effect of the Rushdie affair was a revival in the authority of conservative Muslim religious leaders. But the rapidly forming “British Muslim” identity proved to be more than just a return to the past or an exercise in curbing freedoms.
Amongst younger people this new way of describing themselves would prove to be a source of self-confidence, and to open up the possibilities of Muslims joining with others to oppose not only Islamophobia, but also war and wider injustices.