Bradford rises above the ashes

Angry with secular Britain, Muslims burnt The Satanic Verses. Ten years later, both sides have learnt respect.

Paul Vallely
Thursday 14 January 1999 00:02 GMT

Ten years ago today, a group of angry Muslims took a copy of Salman Rushdie's novel, The Satanic Verses, and burned it in front of Bradford City Hall. Hardly anyone noticed at the time. But two weeks afterwards, in Iran, the Ayatollah Khomeini declared a fatwa to the effect that Rushdie's blasphemy warranted the death penalty.

Suddenly the Bradford book burning became a symbol of a new, oppressive, obscurantist threat to Western values of tolerance and freedom of speech. So much so that when Iran lifted the death threat last year, Rushdie was asked at the ensuing press conference whether he felt free to visit Bradford. In the intervening years there have been considerable changes in the Muslim community, and in society's attitude to it, as I found when I went back to the city to see those who had put the match to the offending pages. Bradford's Muslims, it transpires, have changed. But for better or worse?

The most impressive of Rushdie's opponents a decade ago was an angry young man named Shabbir Akhtar. He had arrived in Bradford from Pakistan at the age of eight but had gone on to study philosophy at Cambridge and had wrong-footed many in the liberal camp by using their own language and methodology to argue in defence of fundamentalist certainties.

The received wisdom was that Muslims had no idea what they were unleashing when they lit the pages of Rushdie's novel. "The people involved were almost certainly ignorant of the tremendously emotive effect this would have on those brought up in the dominant Western culture, with its memories of Nazi Germany, and a deeply held belief in free speech." So said the report written after the 1995 Manningham riots, which brought Muslim indignation to a new pitch in Bradford six years after the Rushdie affair broke. In India and Pakistan, it said, the burning of flags, books and effigies are common forms of protest. "There is little understanding, within large sections of the Muslim communities, of the effect this incident had on white opinion," it said.

It was not entirely true. "I thought there would be outrage," says Shabbir Akhtar, sitting in the front room of his small terraced home in Manningham, "but we were impotent and needed a dramatic ritual protest. The comparisons with Hitler were inappropriate: he was in power and burned many books; we were powerless and burned one copy."

The media portrayal of the burning as a dark and medieval act was ill- judged too: in England, as recently as the end of the 19th century, literature judged to be seditious or blasphemous was burned in lieu of the author, by the public hangman.

"The real resentment was not against the act but at these `foreigners' taking liberties in someone else's country."

Far from being an assault on the values of liberal democracy, he insists, Muslims were appealing to them. "Freedom of speech is not absolute; society is happy to constrain it to prevent racial violence. But many secular liberals suspended their values because they were dealing with a culture of which they had an instinctive dislike," he says. "They betrayed their own commitment to trying to understand the other point of view. They became liberal fundamentalists."

Ten years on, he feels there would be no need to burn the book now. "The whole Rushdie affair was about exclusion," he says. "Today we would have other ways of protesting. The English intelligentsia is much more open now - inter-faith groups, academics, TV producers, newspaper editors and others are more open to listening. Then people thought the Muslim protest was mad, now they just think it was mistaken; in a culture where religion is taken so lightly, that's a big step forward."

Not that Rushdie should expect a welcome. But the issue has ceased to be a live one, says one of the others prominent on the Bradford Council of Mosques in the book-burning days. "The Rushdie affair surfaced two issues," says Ishtiaq Ahmed, now director of the city's Racial Equality Council. "One was the right of minorities to live according to their faith without being ridiculed. The other was that writers and publishers must have a sense of responsibility in exercising their freedom of speech. Both these have been acknowledged, by and large. The rest of society is showing a much greater sensitivity."

This, coupled with the rise of a new generation of professionals in business, education and the civic life of the city, is making Muslims more frank and open about dealing with issues such as the role of women in Islam. "A recent series of articles in the Telegraph and Argus [the local paper] on forced marriages was written in terms we can live with," Ishtiaq says. "We know we have to face these issues in the long-term relationship between the Muslim community and the rest of society.

"There is an increased willingness to talk about all this openly," he says, "and to acknowledge diversity instead of trying to affect an artificial unity. Diversity is now seen as healthy and to be cherished, not hidden or condemned."

There are signs that this is a two-way process, with the rest of society responding. Locally Muslims have more influence in the main political parties. Nationally the Government has conceded the principle that Muslim schools merit state funding just as Catholic or Jewish ones do. No one is saying the problems are over. But ask Khadim Hussain, a Bradford bus driver, what is the biggest difficulty facing Bradford Muslims and he replies: "The city centre is dying, businesses moving out, whole streets are empty of shoppers now."

This - like unemployment, poor housing, overcrowding and underachievement in schools - may hit the Pakistani and Bangladeshi communities disproportionately hard. But these are problems shared with the rest of society. There may be a culture of desperation, says Shabbir Akhtar, but it's not restricted to Muslims.

One of the things which has struck him most on his return to Bradford after 10 years is the divisions which have developed in that younger generation which speaks with a Yorkshire accent.

"Before there was one group, all struggling with the tensions between two worlds. Now there are three groups: one very religious and introspective, another that has become completely secular and pleasure-seeking, while the third drifts in the middle."

The same division is apparent to Ishtiaq Ahmed. "About 10 to 15 per cent have become very devout and more militant," he estimates. "They are vocal and uncompromising and have difficulties with their own community."

At the other extreme, he estimates there are another 15 per cent who have dropped their faith and bought the Western materialist package. In the middle are the 70 per cent who have weak links with the faith - who profess but don't practice, who might fast but don't pray and who only really feel Muslim in response to the foreign policy of the West in Bosnia, Afghanistan or the Gulf.

Currently, they are indignant over the Government's response to the detention of five British Muslims in Yemen - which they compare unfavourably with its reaction at the trial of the two British nurses in Saudi Arabia.

The older generation is uncertain what to do with children who are not just growing away from them, but doing so in such fragmenting ways. But there is a new confidence among the Bradford Muslims which cannot be denied. It would be foolish to predict that there will be no more burning of books, but the odds on it must be much reduced.

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