Exploring the Legacy of 'The Satanic Verses' 30 Years On

We spoke to journalist Mobeen Azhar about his new VICE Studios documentary for BBC Two.

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27 February 2019, 2:54pm

Mobeen Azhar (left) in 'The Satanic Verses: 30 Years On'. Photo: VICE Studios / BBC Two

In 1989, the publication of Salman Rushdie's The Satanic Verses sparked global unrest. Many Muslims accused Rushdie of blasphemy, and a fatwa was famously issued calling for the author's death. Protests were held, the book was banned in numerous countries, fire-bombs were hurled through stockists' windows and the novel's Japanese translator was stabbed to death.

Thirty years on, what's become of those at the centre of the protests? Do any of the demonstrators have any regrets? And, with hindsight, how large of a role did the controversy play in the anti-Muslim sentiment still unfortunately so rife throughout certain parts of Britain?

It's all this that BAFTA-winning filmmaker and journalist Mobeen Azhar sets out to uncover with his VICE Studios-produced documentary for BBC Two, The Satanic Verses: 30 Years On. Heading to his native Yorkshire, Mobeen meets the people behind the demonstrations and those whose lives were irrevocably changed by the book, from a former far-right activist to a Muslim journalist and an ex-jihadist. Unsurprisingly, he faces some resistance; at one point, a man in Bradford rips the book from his hands and attempts to set it on fire, a scene reminiscent of what went on in 1989.

I had a chat with Mobeen ahead of the documentary airing tonight on BBC Two.

This interview has been edited for length and clarity

VICE: What do you remember about the controversy surrounding The Satanic Verses while you were growing up?
Mobeen Azhar: I was eight in 1989. It was the first time I saw brown people on the news. Back then, there used to be an Asian slot that'd talk about Asian issues on Network East in the morning that my parents would watch. We saw Asian people on TV in that context, but I remember seeing them on the news, demonstrating, and thinking it was a bit embarrassing. Everyone just looked really pissed off.

In the documentary, we go back to my primary school, which was predominantly Pakistani. There was a game – it sounds really odd, but it was quite innocently played. The game was called, "How would you kill Salman Rushdie?" We'd come up with the most grotesque ways of killing someone. We didn't understand what it meant. We just thought Salman Rushdie was like a bogeyman; we didn't understand the politics. We just thought he was the bad guy. So we’d come up with fantastical, odd ways of killing him.

There was also a Lollywood film released in 1990, International Gorillay. The VHS tape was passed around in school, and in it the baddie is called Salman Rushdie. He corrupts Pakistani youth by opening discos across the country, and the grand finale of the film is that he's struck by lightning by a flying Quran. I remember watching that and we all thought it was hilarious. At that time the whole controversy was quite cartoon-like, it didn't really feel very real.

Do you feel there's a need to revisit it all 30 years on?
A lot of what we’re dealing with in post-modern 2019 Britain is absolutely linked to what happened 30 years ago. If you want to understand things like the rise of the right, and understand how that became mainstream, you've got to understand our history. And a big part of our history, particularly when it comes to how immigrant communities and how Muslims are perceived in Britain, a lot of that goes back to what happened 30 years ago.

Pre-Rushdie, there was no concept in mainstream [discourse] of Muslims being "othered". There was no concept in mainstream Britain of the idea of the failure of multiculturalism being specifically linked to the Muslim community: we were all just Asians. And more broadly, we were just black. If you listen to Matthew Collins in the film, a former youth organiser for the National Front, he told me pre-The Satanic Verses, their main campaign at the time was against what they called "the Chinese invasion". They thought that was the biggest issue facing Britain when it came to race relations.

In his words, the reaction to the book was the greatest gift ever to the far-right. 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."

The book provokes visceral reactions from your interviewees even today, particularly that scene in Bradford – were you prepared for that?
I didn't expect what happened in Bradford to happen, I really didn't. I certainly didn't expect, in this day and age, in a public space, for someone to grab the book in my hand, run away with it, rip it and try to set it on fire, which is what happened. I also think a lot of the community is kind of reactive, and that's completely understandable. There's been decades of events – including 9/11, 7/7, the Bradford riots and grooming scandals – that have made the Muslim community feel that they've been picked on and put under a microscope.

mobeen azhar satanic verses
Photo: VICE Studios / BBC Two

There are so many memorable interviewees – who was your favourite?
We tracked down Mohammed Siddique, the original book burner. I was struck by how he was just like a bumbling uncle. He was lovely and very hospitable. He still didn’t quite understand to this day the gravity of what he’d done. Even when I spoke to him about the images of him setting fire to the book being beamed around the world and the Iranian [religious figures] watching that on the news, he kind of smiled and was like, "Oh, that’s crazy." When I asked him about the effects of it, there was a genuine moment where he was crushed. I don’t think he'd fully engaged what that did to the community and to Britain. It left me with a strange taste in my mouth.

[Former jihadist] Shahid Butt wasn't particularly religious, but when he was arrested he said the police said to him: "You're a part-time Muslim, you're not even a Muslim." He later ends up in prison in Yemen on terrorism charges, spending five years there after fighting jihad [abroad]. It's amazing that this one book set him on this path. Those two were just really fascinating to me.

A lot of the anti-Muslim sentiment in Britain is credited to 9/11, but your documentary makes a different case. How much do you think The Satanic Verses is to blame for lingering anti-Muslim sentiment in Britain today?
There was a choice. We as a community could have just written letters and chosen to ignore it. But that was never going to happen, because the book became symbolic of other injustices. It became symbolic of the racism we’d suffered, the pain of the immigrant experience, being second-class citizens, of being beaten up on the way home from school and being called Pakis. And so a lot of the community who I spoke to from that time, it felt like the one thing that was sacred to them was being targeted. The reaction to The Satanic Verses set the context for what we’ve seen in terms of the othering of the Muslim community today. What it did was set the stage for the narrative of "there's a fundamental clash between what is Islamic values and what is 'British values'". Once that stage was set, as a society, we never hit the reset button. We've just run with it and we’re seeing that play out even today.

You mention that the "ghost of The Satanic Verses hasn’t been put to bed". What do you think it’ll take for that to happen?
I think we're so used to reacting, we've become in some ways worse at engaging in debate because all we do is just react. If there's another bombing, we can’t keep saying "but Islam Is the religion of peace". We have to fully roll up our sleeves and engage. Sometimes that means engaging in really difficult questions. So it means if there’s debates around misogyny or what it says in the Quran, we should be able to stomach those debates. I don't think it's healthy to say anything is off bounds. It's not realistic. I think if we as a community are able to stomach these debates – and that means around things that we hold sacred – then we'll truly put the whole thing to bed.

Thanks, Mobeen

Satanic Verses: 30 Years On is a VICE Studios production airing on BBC Two tonight at 9PM.

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