The Satanic Verses: 30 years on - in conversation with Mobeen Azhar

Priyanka Mehta Wednesday 29th May 2019 15:26 EDT

Thirty years ago in 1989, Valentine's Day was marred by hatred after Ayatollah Khomeini, the then supreme leader of Iran, issued a fatwa against the British-Indian journalist Salman Rushdie for his novel “The Satanic Verses”. The book sparked global unrest where if Iran was the epicentre of the protest then its seismic waves choked Bradford with the book buring demonstration. This incited a new debate of drawing the line between the freedom of speech, secularism and respecting religious views. While, 30 years on, Rushdie is himself no longer in hiding and the protests seem to have died down, the controversy surrounding 'The Satanic Verses' continues to play a major part in the projection of the anti-Muslim sentiment dominant in pockets of the UK even today. In his BBC Two documentary, journalist Mobeen Azhar undertakes a journey to Yorkshire to discover why the novel had such a devastating effect on the community.

“I have a personal link to The Satanic Verses in the way that I was eight years old growing up in an area [Huddersfield] that was pre-dominantly Pakistani and Muslim.

“It is important for me to re-visit what happened 30 years ago for the contemporary discussion and argument that is taking place in Britain and across Europe regarding the rise of the right, rights of individual and religion. The book-burning in Bradford happened in January of 1989, and by February the National Front were marching and saying, "There's going to be a war in Britain because of Muslims. It is important to understand these events as they were to be able to move on,” says Azhar.

The annecdotal documentary begins with Azhar actually reading the novel, recalling the game- "How would you kill Salman Rushdie?" that they played in school without having any understanding of politics either. Many in the society even today believe that the fundamental portrayal of the Muslim community is a consequence of the events as they unfolded. Therefore, to understand how the novel became the centre-point for accusations of blasphemy – the laws against which protected only Christians and not Muslims in Britain (they were abolished in 2008), Azhar is able to track Mohammed Siddique, the person who was responsible for burning the book.

“My personal opinnion is that blasphemy cannot be subjected to legislation in a pluralistic society and is quite an outdated concept today,” he says.

But beyond the archival footages, the documentary encompasses candid discussions with other faith leaders, community voices, journalists and those working with government today to understand if they have any regrets in accordance to the events. While a lot of the community members still “don't take responsibility”, Azhar interviews Shahid Butt who admits that The Satanic Verses is offensive but longer feels like punching him. Shahid was once associated with Abu Hamza and joined the Bosnian army, where he fought on the frontline against the Serbs but now works with the UK government to deradicalise extremists.

Sean O'Grady of 'The Independent' in his attempt at a satirical column over ' The Satanic Verses' recently wrote, “Rushdie's silly childhood book should be banned under today's anti-hate legislation. It’s no better than racist graffiti on a bus stop”. But Azhar, doesn't support or believe this view.

“I don't think the book is to be blamed for the anti-Muslim sentiment but it is the reaction to the book that is to be blamed. If you read the novel, you will understand the text in the book is anti-racist and it speaks about the immigrant experience. I think that the publication of the book rather became the catalyst for all other issues,” he believes.

However, the book provokes visceral reactions from the interviewees even today, particularly that scene in Bradford in a public space, where someone grabs the book from Azhar's hand, and run away with it, rips it and tries to set it on fire. And Mobeen continues to say that the "ghost of The Satanic Verses hasn’t been put to bed". At the end of the day, Mobeen thinks that as a community it is about engaging into debates, having that conversation and answering some difficult questions.

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