The Satanic Verses 30 Years On review: A balanced look at a traumatic affair suddenly becomes heated

The discussions about the affair’s impact are measured – until the presenter shoves the book under the nose of young Muslims

Sean O'Grady
Wednesday 27 February 2019 18:43
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The Satanic Verses 30 Years On clip: 'People were feeling very inflamed again'

A documentary by a young journalist of Pakistani Muslim heritage about the Rushdie affair must have sounded like a good idea at the commissioning stage.

Mobeen Azhar, a lively presenter on the BBC Asian Network, with a modish Mr Whippy-style quiff, was a mere toddler in 1988 when Salman Rushdie’s novel The Satanic Verses was published, and was blissfully unaware of the subsequent fatwa – death sentence – levelled on the author’s head by the Ayatollah Khomeini, Supreme Leader of Iran, no less.

As The Satanic Verses: 30 Years On (BBC2) amply demonstrates, with plenty of eyewitness accounts and contemporary news video footage, this was an ugly and traumatic affair for all concerned. By the time the waves of global rioting had subsided, some 59 people, according to this documentary, had lost their lives.

Azhar and his producers track down many of those involved, and ask them what they make of it all – with the benefit of hindsight. The ayatollah is no longer with us, of course, and Salman Rushdie is still keeping his head down, but there are plenty of grassroots protagonists up for an e-interview.

Take Matthew Collins, for example. He was then a teenage National Front activist; now he has grown up, in every sense, to be a racial equality campaigner. Strolling round Parliament Square with Azhar, like any pair of casual tourists, he relives the events of three decades ago, and the bloody confrontations between white “nationalists”, the police and the Muslim protestors. For the NF, he explains, it was a tricky business, because both Rushdie and the protesters were the wrong colour as far as the NF were concerned. Plus, the National Front weren’t all that keen on free speech (except when it suited them). So they weren’t quite sure which, if any, side to take.

Had he or his mates ever read The Satanic Verses? “I was in the National Front. We didn’t read books.”

Azhar also tracks down the man who had, literally, sparked the trouble. On 14 January 1989, Ishtiaq Ahmed went to the big demo in Centenary Square, Bradford, with a copy of The Satanic Verses soaked in kerosene, and nailed to a stake – “crucified” as Azhar points out. Then a flame was put to it and a worldwide conflagration began.

In Britain, it was a protest by a Muslim community that felt especially aggrieved about widespread racism – specifically over Britain’s archaic blasphemy laws, which only applied to Christianity. Ahmed is unrepentant about the events of 1988-89, which caused such trouble in Britain. But it was only when two British Muslims travelled to Tehran to recruit the ayatollah’s assistance in persecuting Rushdie that things went global. They got what they wanted, a fatwa, an execution order on Rushdie that, nominally, applied to every Muslim on earth.

All of the discussions led by Azhar about the affair’s impact are balanced and measured – except at the end of the film, when things get a bit heated.

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There is some deep irony in the obviously peaceable Azhar turning up in Bradford in 2019 and approaching random Muslim people with a copy of The Satanic Verses. That is certainly a provocative act, intentionally or not. The younger folk he meets have either never heard of it, or are only vaguely aware of its contents – that is until Azhar shoves it under their nose and points out some of the more insulting bits. There are plenty of them too, seeing as it’s a crude satire on the life of the prophet Mohammed. Then they grow appalled, and it feels like a nasty sort of trick. We all know it is going to hurt feelings. It is no great shock, then, when one man, an original protester, takes it upon himself to re-enact the original event, grabs the book and starts to rip it up. A few charred pages are soon found a short distance away.

The conclusion Azhar comes to is conventional – that there is no case for banning, or burning, the book. Yet I am more persuaded by a former jihadi named Shahid Butt, who now spends his time deradicalising misguided souls in Birmingham. To him, another rioter from 1989, Rushdie is simply “a dickhead”. He says: “What kind of literary writer, academic, are you that the only way that you can get any fame is by being derogatory and by insulting billions of people. Is that the best you can do?”

Rushdie’s silly, childish book should be banned under today’s anti-hate legislation. It’s no better than racist graffiti on a bus stop. I wouldn’t have it in my house, out of respect to Muslim people and contempt for Rushdie, and because it sounds quite boring. I’d be quite inclined to burn it, in fact. It’s a free country, after all.

The Satanic Verses: 30 Years On aired on BBC2 at 9pm on 27 February

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