An unhappy anniversary


I’m building myself up to a gargantuan post on the British left and multiculturalism but don’t have the time just at the mo, so here instead are some quick thoughts on related matters.

I hope all our readers remembered that Valentine’s Day 2009 marked the twentieth anniversary of Ayatolla Khomeini’s fatwa calling for the death of author Salman Rushdie and the publishers of The Satanic Verses. If Rushdie had known what his 500 pages of magical realism were going to lead to – him needing bodyguards for years, riots taking place around the world, assassination attempts successful and otherwise – I wonder whether he would have bothered writing them in the first place.

Of course now he is Sir Satan Rushdy [sic]

Of course now he is ‘Sir’ Satan Rushdy [sic]

The BBC talked to some British Muslims who participated in the anti-Rushdie protests of twenty years ago. Whilst we cannot be sure how representative they are of Muslim opinion, I find it incredible that two out of the three interviewed here seem to be standing by the book burnings. 

I think I once saw Aki Nawaz – the one who charmingly proclaims “I don’t really care what non-Muslims think” – speak incoherently at an event about politics in music. Much of the incoherence was probably due to him not being sure whether he wants to portray himself as a ‘right on’ leftie hippy or a reactionary religious fart. He seems to be veering towards the latter.

But at least interviewee No.3, Inayat Bunglawala, regrets what happened and now thinks that the burning of books and the issuing of death threats did not portray his religion in the best possible light. However, Inayat Bunglawala is the media secretary of the Muslim Council of Britain. He has spoken of how he was been a long-term supporter of the MCB’s disgusting boycotts of Holocaust Memorial Day but decided to advocate ending them because ““it became apparent to me that the MCB was doing itself more harm than good by staying away”. Perhaps not a genuine change of heart so much as a newly acquired taste for the art of ‘spin doctoring’? Although he may have shifted his views yet again since the MCB stayed away from this year’s Holocaust Memorial Day!

It would appear that the researchers for that BBC piece simply got on the phone to people who are known today for being ‘angry Muslims’ rather than putting any effort into finding ordinary Muslim Brits and seeing what their take on it now is.

The anti-Rushdie protests did not mark the finest hour of a number of prominent Labourites. Roy Hattersley, then Labour’s Deputy Leader, called for the paperback edition of The Satanic Verses to be withdrawn. Whilst I fully appreciate the contribution that Hattersley has made to the party (i.e. not abandoning ship when the going got tough, unlike some other figures on the Labour right in the early 80s) and actually agree with him on quite a few issues, he does have a habit of periodically churning out gibberish in attempts to justify giving succor to the book burners.  

Hattersley’s argument was that those of us who are more inclined – as he is – to support values such as secularism, free speech, not issuing death threats to beardie authors, etc, cannot understand how angry Muslims will get when somebody is apparently offensive about their religion and so we need to give them space.

The problem with this line of thinking, incase it needs spelling out, is that 1) It unfairly assumes that those values are culturally exclusive and cannot be appreciated by British Muslims 2) It inaccurately portrays Muslims as a homogeneous block of opinion, thereby empowering the hardliners as ‘representatives of the community’ and pressurising moderate Muslims to choose between different identities and value systems and 3) It inadvertently encourages all political and religious crazies to wreak havock when they decide they have been offended in the knowledge that they will be able to secure special privileges for their views if they shout loud enough.

Keith Vaz MP is another one who did not excel himself back in 1989. He addressed an anti-Rushdie protest and apparently said “today we celebrate one of the great days in the history of Islam and Great Britain” before going on to condemn Labour – his own party for Christ’s sake! – as a “godless party”. For shame.

Vaz is still managing to embarrass himself when it comes to free speech issues. Although I did not have an especially strong opinion on the question of whether preventing Geert Wilders (crazy name, crazy hair, crazy guy!) from entering the UK was the appropriate course of action, I think if I had been invited onto Newsnight to discuss Wilders’ film I would have made the effort to watch it before my opinions were to be broadcast to the nation. Watch the Newsnight discussion here

A few weeks ago Johann Hari wrote an article in the Independent about the universality of human rights. An Indian newspaper thought its readers would be interested in Hari’s argument and reprinted it. This sparked riots and the arrest of the editor.

The problem of how to successfully accommodate free speech together with a myriad of religious, cultural and ideological sensibilities cannot be ignored.

Captain Jako


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