When Salman Rushdie’s book The Satanic Verses was published in Britain, there were demonstrations and book-burnings in the ‘mosque-and-mill’ towns of Yorkshire and Lancashire in northern England. Britain hadn’t seen such religiously fuelled fury in recent times. The liberal media had been settling down to a complacent, friendly ‘multiculturalism’ and a mutual exchange of theological and social niceties with our million-strong Muslim population of immigrant origin. Book burnings were a dreaded memory of another country’s doings. They were Nazi and not British in character.
This startling and violent manifestation of multiculturalism prompted a lot of curiosity from TV. I worked at the time as a TV executive, a Commissioning Editor for Channel 4, and those who wished to enquire would know that I knew Salman personally. I was invited onto a TV programme, a sort of discussion between several parties who could throw light on the rights and wrongs of this turmoil in the country’s cultural life. There was a fatwa on a writer’s life. Despite being a severe critic and habitual mocker of the British government, Salman was a citizen and was given round the clock police protection and taken into hiding for his own safety. Some politicians and even some writers thought that the sentiments of the objecting Muslims were more important than the exercise of free speech in novels. It was a genuinely new situation.
The programme was to be recorded one late evening in Manchester where we were to be the producers’ guests. I lived in London and took the train up for the night. The participants were booked into a good hotel in the centre of town. The recording commenced with Geoffrey Robertson, a barrister by trade acting as Presenter. On the panel with me were, among others, a bearded man with a gaunt face and deep eyes wearing a Muslim skullcap and the white uniform that we now associate with Osama Bin Laden and his followers. This was Yusuf Islam, a convert and pop singer formerly known as Cat Stevens. There was also a man called Kalim Siddiqui who was a paid advocate of the Iranian Ayatollic regime which had passed the sentence of death on Salman. Siddiqui had, some months before, initiated what he called The Muslim Parliament of Britain. The grandiose title is pure fantasy. It was set up as a PR outfit for a particular faction of British Muslims and remains to this day unelected, unrepresentative and unrecognised by other Muslim factions in the country.
The Presenter put several hypothetical questions to the panellists. He turned to me to ask if I would, in my capacity as a commissioner of TV drama, ever make a series or film of The Satanic Verses. I said I had read the book, found it engaging, but wondered how a book with fantastical time shifts could be adapted to screen. I said if the right adaptation of the engaging bits came my way I would certainly commission it. I had no objection to the substance of the book. My reply elicited a cry from Yusuf Islam and an interruption from Siddiqui to the effect that anyone who perpetrated that book in any form should be killed. Yusuf Islam agreed. Death was what such a judgement deserved.
After the programme they spoke to each other in a conspiratorial huddle. Or so it seemed to me. One of the producers asked me if I would like to change hotels. I said I wouldn’t, that barking dogs etc.. but that night I stuck a chair under the doorknob before I slept.
I felt mildly threatened, and foolish about feeling threatened. It was clear that Kalim and Yusuf weren’t going to carry out any death sentence, but their pronouncements were wishfully calculated to instigate others. It gave me a feeling of being on a secondary or tertiary hit-list. The feeling was no more than unease and I didn't lose any sleep that night or subsequently.
I got a sort of revenge several months later when I read that Kalim Siddiqui had a heart condition and had to have a heart transplant. The report said he was waiting for a donor. I was, I think, brought up fairly well and was certainly discouraged from making fun of the ill and the infirm, but the possibilities of an ironic tease were too tempting. Purely out of capricious malice towards this man who so readily pronounced death sentences on others, I wrote an item in a column for the Indian newspapers saying that American doctors had been experimenting with pigs’ hearts as suitable organs for transplant and that Kalim Siddiqui was to end up with one of these.
My feeble jest went some way to satirising the cause that had made him pronounce his mini-fatwa on my head. Like Richard the Lionheart, he could now be called Kalim the Swineheart.
However close to the bone, my intention to injure was not, I insist, as provocative or deliberately hostile as that of the Russian military and State when they buried the Chechen rebels, who were killed in the battle of the Bolshoi in October, in pig skins. These rebels had randomly killed a couple of hostages. They were poised to kill 700 more. Their terror escapade led to the death of over a hundred people. The hatred of the Russians for these killers is natural and understandable.
Individuals can indulge in ironies; states and governments should be ruthlessly strategic and public-minded at every turn. The State should have no emotions, because a State with them can’t be relied on to be impartially just. Vindictive insult to a religion which is still practised by millions of Russian citizens can only be a provocation to them to fight back or fight on.
Perhaps this is what Russia wants. The provocation is not offered to dissident Chechens alone. The insult is a way of smoking out the militantly faithful. When they break cover they can be tackled and eliminated.
And yet there’s ample evidence to demonstrate that those who are fighting the present jehad of terror are not motivated by theological certainties such as going to paradise or by the unlikely prospect of imposing Sharia law on the whole world. Neither are they the wretched of the earth rising up against the oppressive orders of our global polity as hard-boiled left liberals assert. They are people who are motivated by the drive to dignity. They feel they and theirs, their religion and their countries, their tradition, their history are being humiliated. Such humiliation may be well deserved and they may have, like the Taliban, have brought the world’s opprobrium on themselves. But it still hurts. And it hurts and infuriates more when the victors use pigskins as your winding sheet.
The thousands who joined Kalim Siddiqui in the burning of books in Bradford hadn’t read the book. They weren’t objecting to its literary quality. They had been told that the book and its writing were an affront to the dignity of Islam. By characterising their leader as Kalim the Swinehearted, I was puncturing that precise dignity, but I was writing as an individual, the times hadn’t yet brought terror, killings and mass murder. The Muslim reaction was then still about the burning of books and I remember feeling that I wouldn’t object if they burnt thousands of the ones I’d authored – providing they bought them first.
Farrukh Dhondy is a writer and columnist living in England. He is the author of C.L.R. James: A Life.