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Let ‘Satanic Verses’ be read!

Article paru dans Workers Hammer, No 104, February 1989, p. 1-9

Muslims praying on Westminster Bridge, London, UK 1989. Near the Houses of Parliament during an anti-Salmon Rushdie demonstration after the publication of The Satanic Verses.

On 14 January, 1500 Muslim fanatics gathered in front of the town hall in Bradford, West Yorkshire and burnt copies of Salman Rushdie’s Satanic Verses. It grotesquely recalled the medieval Christian inquisition and book-burning orgies of Hitler’s stormtroopers. Confirming the controversial novel’s characterisation of the fundamentalist motto “Burn the books and trust the Book”, the protesters accused Rushdie’s latest book of blasphemy. Leading them all was an unholy alliance of Bradford’s Council of Mosques and prominent Labour Party councillors, including ex-mayor Mohammed Ajeeb. One book-burner vowed, “Our next move will be to ensure the book is banned in the whole world. If he [Rushdie] comes here, I tell you he will be dead” (Independent, 21 January). Another demonstration in London two weeks later brought out large numbers of Muslims – reportedly overwhelmingly male – to protest the book. This frenzy of Islamic fundamentalism could provoke a wider racist backlash engulfing fundamentalist and secular minorities alike. Down with religious obscurantism! Let Satanic Verses be read!

Published last September, Satanic Verses is largely a novel about
the Asian immigrant’s experience in “Mrs Torture’s” Britain. It strongly indicts all forms of bigotry – racial, sexual, religious – across the world. When it was first published the British tabloid press fulminated against Rushdie’s attack on racism in Britain. Rushdie’s unsparing attacks on religious fanaticism and fundamentalism targets the Islamic variety – particularly the harsh religious and social sanctions for the oppression of women under the Sharia (laws). Born into an Indian Muslim family, Rushdie made a special study of Islamic history while at Cambridge University in the sixties. He won the 1981 Booker Prize with his widely acclaimed Midnight’s Children and the 1988 Whitbread Fiction Prize with Satanic Verses. The latter novel was also nominated for the 1988 Booker Prize and was the eleven-to-eight favourite to win the £20,000 overall Whitbread Literary Prize for 1989 until a last-minute swing by the judges (who numbered among them Home Secretary Douglas Hurd) ensured the “public peace” and voted for someone less controversial.

Rushdie and his publishers Penguin/Viking have been deluged with threatening letters and phone calls. Several well-known “left” Labour MPs noted for their “constituency demagoguery” including Tottenham’s Bernie Grant and Bradford’s Max Madden – are stoking this dangerous fire; piling in behind Lancashire Tory Ken Hargreave’s early day motion deploring the publication of Satanic Verses, these Labourite censors are calling for the extension of the Victorian blasphemy laws to all religions. These laws were last resurrected in 1977 when the notorious Mary Whitehouse prosecuted Gay News for publishing James Kirkup’s poem about Christ, “The Love that Dares to Speak Its Name”. Meanwhile, the Koran-thumping crusaders talk of prosecuting Rushdie under the Public Order and Race Relations Acts. As the disgusted Rushdie bitterly observed, “Any old Act will do”.

The anti-civilisation jihad by these Khomeiniites of the second mobilisation has already managed to cow quite a few nominally secularist establishments. Following threats of violence, Britain’s largest bookstore chain WH Smith dived for cover, sweeping Satanic Verses off their Bradford shelves and in the process hinting at a “similar” purification of their other 400-odd outlets. However, the divine power of mammon prevailed and the devilish offender will stay on the shelves. British sales of the hardback alone, currently being reprinted, already exceed 42,000 copies; 50,000 are due to hit the US market – despite bomb and assassination threats; and the paperback will not be out until later this year.

Rushdie’s book is already banned in Pakistan, Malaysia, Egypt, Saudi Arabia, Gulf States, India and South Africa. The Islamic fanatics have vowed to get all Penguin books banned from Muslim countries if Satanic Verses is not withdrawn. When the Indian government banned the book in October Rushdie noted “This is about votes, not literature” (India Today, 31 October 1988). Indeed the Congress government of Rajiv Gandhi, threatened by even more communalist rivals, hopes to pick up the Muslim vote. At the same time the Congress vies with its communalist rivals by fomenting anti-Muslim and anti-Sikh Hindu communalism. The Gandhi family and Congress took the opportunity to get back at Rushdie for his irreverent and scathing allegorical reference to the Gandhi dynasty in his book, the 1981 Booker Prize winner, Midnight’s Children. Similarly in Pakistan Islamic fundamentalists denounced his book, Shame, which dished out unkindly treatment to General Zia and the Bhuttos. The Congress of South African Writers was forced to withdraw its invitation to Rushdie to speak against apartheid, with sections of the Muslim population suicidally lining up with the butcher Botha to threaten Rushdie. The title of Rushdie’s aborted lecture echoed the 19th-century German Jewish radical poet Heinrich Heine’s apt warning, now poignantly displayed at the memorial to the victims of Hitler’s Dachau concentration camp: “Once they burn books, they will end up burning people.”

Rushdie admirably remains defiant: “They are not going to stop in a
hurry, and so the struggle against them has to be continued. I am girding my loins for the fray” (Sunday Times, 22 January). The fundamentalists Charge that Rushdie’s book is pornographic and racist and insults their holy book, the Koran, as well as their prophet/founder Mohammed. The frequently Rabelaisian Satanic Verses derives its title from two verses said to have been originally accepted by Mohammed as god-given truth and later excised from the Koran by him, on the grounds that they were in fact inspired by the devil masquerading as the archangel Gabriel. To the mullahs’ charges, Rushdie responds: “Intellectual dissent is neither pornographic nor racist. I have tried to give a secular, humanist vision of the birth of a great world religion.”

We Marxist secular humanists welcome such visions. It is neither supposed pornography nor racism that really got the zealots’ goats. As Rushdie pointed out:

“Nowadays… a powerful tribe of clerics has taken over Islam. These are the contemporary Thought Police… One may not discuss the growth of Islam as a historical phenomenon, as an ideology born out of its time. These are the taboos against which ‘The Satanic Verses’ has transgressed (these and one other; I also tried to write about the place of women in Islamic society, and in the Koran).” (Observer, 22 January)

Epitomised by the horrible conditions under Khomeini’s Islamic regime in Iran and those which the CIA-backed Afghan “freedom fighters” wish to impose, Islamic fundamentalism reserves special horrors for women. From the stifling and de-humanising chador (veil) to the pervasive and humiliating segregation in society (purdah) advocated by Islamic fundamentalists, a key question dividing communists and the elders of the mosques is the liberation of women from such barbaric subjugation.

Ominously the white racists and anti-immigrant fascists in Britain might well see a chance to peddle genocidal poison against all Asians in the aftermath of the ‘Muslim fanatics’ drive. In a letter to the Guardian (22 January) one Dipak Nandy writes:

“The reaction of the Muslim community to Satanic Verses is a profound strategic error. Britain in 1989 is an intolerant, illiberal society anyway. By joining forces with those who have made it so, Muslims in Britain seem to be, with unbelievable naivety, forging the conditions in which their own right to exist and practise their faith will be extinguished.

“I write as one who grew up as a boy amidst the communal massacres which accompanied the partition of India and for whom the ugly, unacceptable face of religion – and particularly of religious fundamentalism – is etched in memories of dead, disfigured bodies littering the streets – and of screams in the night.”

The bourgeois mouthpieces have already waxed mealy-mouthed about the glorious “British traditions” of “tolerance” and “democracy”, trying to bury the long history of state censorship, Oscar Wilde was jailed for openly defying official bourgeois sexual hypocrisy, D. H. Lawrence’s Lady Chatterley’s Lover was banned for decades. Recently the frenzied attempts to ban Spycatcher have been joined by the blanket ban on Sinn Fein and even the musical group Pogues’ song about the demonstrably innocent Birmingham Six. Fortunately, the reactionary Christian clericals in this country couldn’t deprive people of the right to see the movie. The Last Temptation of Christ. But fascists linked with Catholic fundamentalism were able to terrorise theatres throughout France from screening the movie in various areas outside Paris. The ruling class in this country has a long tradition of class-biased hypocrisy backed up with state sanctions. Imitating the worst characteristics of the bourgeois rulers are the weepy liberals and “leftists” who think that Paul Simon’s Graceland album ought to be banned and his concerts picketed because he worked with South African black musicians or that Jim Allen’s anti-Zionist Perdition should not be allowed to play.

Less sanctimonious are the rightwing forces busying themselves on
the ground, preparing the way for a racist backlash. Anthony Murphy, chairman of Bradford South Conservative Club, is distributing leaflets calling for an end to all immigration: “I don’t think you could impose sterilisation, but we must educate them. The indigenous population see the take-over as a recipe for disaster” (Independent, 21 January).

The sheer disproportion in the relationship of forces between the white Christian majority and the Muslims would suggest that Islamic fundamentalist frenzy is contrary to the objective interests of the Muslim communities as well as other minorities. The fundamentalists are centred in the mosques of the most deprived inner-city areas such as Bradford and East London. In this vile racist society the mosque offers some pie-in-the-sky solace to the community’s most oppressed. faced with unemployment or toiling in the satanic mills of Bradford – not to mention the sweatshops run by the petty capitalists who are the mullahs’ closest supporters – some of the oppressed Asian Muslims are driven back into the arms of the most reactionary elements of their traditional society.

There is an established church in this country and ominous moves to further erode secular education threaten everyone. The Tories’ Education Reform attacks the educational rights of all working people and is a particular affront to minorities. The government is insisting that religious education in schools be implemented and that it be essentially Christian. This has fuelled the Islamic fundamentalists’ drive to establish single-sex schools for girls and force young women into purdah. The growing pressure for separate (and single-sex) schools coming from a small but loud bunch of Muslim fanatics only plays into the hands of white segregationist outfits like the Parental Alliance for Choice in Education in Dewsbury. These people do not seem to know what country they, and their followers, live in. We demand free secular education for all, including the teaching of minority languages such as Bengali and Urdu. Keep the mullahs, nuns, priests and above all the reverends of the established Anglican church out of the schools!

Of the party that presided over the the British-engineered partition bloodbath in India, the racist Labour Party that brought you virginity tests for Asian women seeking immigration to Britain, Rushdie notes “the true conservatives of Britain are now the Labour party” and that “It is very sad to see this alliance of the left and the mullahs, for heaven’s sake” (Sunday Times, 22 January). Indeed, Labour’s “party of the people” talk is a pro-capitalist fraud – from its longstanding bloc with the Catholic church in places like Glasgow based on protecting religious schools. to the Gypsy bans in Islington to Bernie Grant’s appeal to the Victorian values of the blasphemy laws. Britain needs a revolutionary Bolshevik party, a true tribune of the oppressed, built by splitting the Labour Party in the struggle for socialist revolution. Having thus gotten rid of all the old crap, we can then enjoy Satanic Verses in peace.

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