Betraying British Muslims

A rally in Trafalgar Square in memory of the July 7 bombing victims (AP) I suppose one has to start with the usual disclaimer. I totally condemn
the attacks in London of July 7. Apart from anything else, my brother,
my sister-in-law, my nieces, and any of a good number of people I care
for could have been aboard those trains or that bus. It is not easy to
find words to express the sympathy for those families and friends who
were not so lucky as I was.

Also, I can claim honestly to have been opposed to weapons aimed at
indiscriminate killing, even though the use of atom bombs at Hiroshima
and Nagasaki may well have shortened the Second World War and given my
own father a much better chance of surviving to beget me and my

But though all that is true, two wrongs don’t make a right: and the
appalling crime of the terrorists in London does not justify the
betrayal of British Muslims by successive British governments and
British organs of opinion, over years.

One can start most easily with Conservatives (large C or small c). It
is perhaps natural for conservatives to resist change, and to that
extent to resist having new neighbours of quite a different culture.
Conservatism goes with a degree of xenophobia, even when it does not go
with the far worse crime of real racism. It was thus natural for
conservatives to resent the arrival and settlement in Britain of
numbers of immigrants from southern Asia – Pakistan, India, Bangladesh,
Sri Lanka – together with their culture, including their differing
religious cultures – Muslim, Hindu, Sikh.

But there was at least a lost opportunity for conservatives there. Very
many south Asian immigrants to Britain are of a strongly
entrepreneurial spirit – much more anxious to have their own business
than to work for someone else. One can see this any day in Britain just
by going into a corner shop, just as one can see it in America by going
into a gas station or small hotel. The numbers of south Asians who run
these businesses is out of all proportion to their numbers in society
at large.

And it is precisely people of this sort – people anxious to make a go
of their own businesses, with the support of their families, for the
sake of their families – who ought to provide and traditionally have
provided the backbone of conservative opinion in Britain. Nevertheless
the Conservative party and the conservative media never seem to have
recognised the importance of this new group within society who should
have been their natural allies. (One should perhaps give credit where
credit is due, much as it goes against the grain for me to do so, and
recognise that Margaret Thatcher did realise the importance of this
group and did her best to make the Conservative Party attractive to
them. But she failed.) There was some kind of a betrayal of principle
by the conservatives here, in that they preferred to hold on to their
xenophobia instead of welcoming their own kind.

The religious views of the Left

Salman Rushie with The Satanic Verses (BBC) But what of the Left? The attitudes here are more difficult to
disentangle, and I spend more time dealing with them both because of my
own greater natural sympathy with the Left, and because of what seems
to me their greater intrinsic interest. Though of course the “working
people and their families” of whom the constitution of the Labour party
speaks, can on occasion be as xenophobic as any suburban middles-class
conservative, the explicit ideology of the Left is internationalist,
anti-racist, anti-discrimination, and pro-underdog. One has a right to
demand from the Left a certain degree of genuine support for and
understanding of the concerns of British people of south Asian origin
or descent. There is little evidence that there is any such support or

One cause of misunderstanding, of course, is precisely the fact
mentioned above, or the entrepreneurial spirit of many people in the
south Asian communities in Britain. As small businessmen, they dislike
big government, regulations, and taxes. And of  course the Left is
identified with big government, regulations, and taxes.

But the point on which the British Left and the British Muslim
community definitively parted company, was religion. The Rushdie
incident was the crux. Salman Rushdie, the Indian-born British writer
of Muslim background, published in September 1988 The Satanic Verses, a
novel which was held by many Muslims to be blasphemous. It certainly
put (to say the least) invented words in the mouth of Muhammad. Even
this is held by Muslims to be a blasphemy against the prophet and
against the true prophecy of God, the Qu’ran. We have recently seen, in
the controversy surrounding Newsweek’s false report of desecration of
copies of the Qu’ran in Guantanamo, just how important even the
physical integrity of a copy of the holy book is to Muslims. How much
more importance would Muslims give to Rushdie’s novel, which seemed to
affect the textual integrity of the Book.

The book was banned in a number of Muslim states, and there the matter
appeared to rest. But in January 1989 there were demonstrations in a
number of British towns protesting against Rushdie’s blasphemy. On
January 14th a copy of the work was publicly burned in Bradford, a town
with a large Muslim population.

When book-burning becomes blasphemy

The Satanic Verses in flames My own reaction at the time was to applaud this expression of free
speech on the part of an oppressed minority, reacting against the
forces of an overbearing and alien culture. By “overbearing and alien
culture” I mean not the surrounding British culture as a whole – who
hardly cared unless they were held up in their journeys though Bradford
by the demonstration – but the British intelligentsia. Its reaction
might, I suppose, have been foreseen, but it surprised me in its
swiftness and violence. In the mainstream journals of the Left – I
might mention especially the Guardian and the New Statesman -- the few
small businessmen, clerks, bus conductors and the like who had been
driven to action – or at least to demonstration – by the perceived
insult to their religion and the perceived support for that insult
among opinion-makers in Britain were depicted as fanatics, dangerous
men, next to Nazis. These perfectly harmless people who were exercising
their right to free speech were portrayed as tyrannous over-dogs,
instead of the underdogs goaded beyond endurance.

There is a complication here. Jews, like Muslims, regard the burning of
any holy book – which means, in practice, any with any of the names of
God in it – as blasphemous. It was presumably to pick up on this
ancient attitude that the Nazis held huge public book-burnings of
Jewish books in the 1930s. This attitude is to my mind perfectly
natural and indeed admirable. But because of the great book-burnings by
the Nazis, left-wing people tend to have a knees-jerk reaction to the
burning of any book which they think valuable. The attitude has been
extended from holy books to all books whatsoever. There is not very
much consistency here. No left-wing person would object to the burning
of The Protocols of the Learned Elders of Zion, an anti-Semitic work of
extreme unpleasantness which has nevertheless done a lot of harm by
encouraging those who were already inclined to believe in Jewish
conspiracies for world domination to believe in them more strongly.

Perhaps, to do the left intelligentsia justice, there is also another
consideration. The Satanic Verses was held by many to have literary
merit, while no one, I think, has ever claimed this for the Protocols.
Perhaps the claim is that no work of literary or artistic merit should
be destroyed. But artistic or literary merit is notoriously a matter of
individual taste. If one were to claim that no work which has ever been
claimed to have merit should be destroyed or desecrated, that would
lead to the conclusion that no writing should ever be destroyed.

What we have seen, in the Rushdie case, and in other cases of allegedly
blasphemous art (such as that of the homoerotic photographer Robert
Mapplethorpe) is that left-wing unbelievers regard the destruction of a
work of art as a blasphemy. Muslims think Rushdie has blasphemed
against Allah and his Prophet, and burn a copy of his book to show
their opposition. Left-wing opinion thinks that Muslims have thereby
blasphemed against Art, or Free Speech, or have tried to introduce
Censorship: the capitals here are essential to show that there is a
genuine quasi-religious attitude at stake.

It is worth remembering other cases of blasphemy to help us out here.
American conservatives are filled with fury by the sight of the burning
of an American flag. Catholics regard the Sacred Host as the most holy
thing to be found on earth: but gay activists desecrated the Host in an
anti-Catholic demonstration at St Patrick’s Cathedral in New York.
Randy Shilts, another gay activist, but one with more sense, said that
if he didn’t, unfortunately, know to the contrary, he would have
thought that the whole thing had been staged by militant anti-gay
activists in order to discredit the movement.

Perhaps the Bradford demonstrators were ignorant of the quasi-religious
fury the burning of a book would arouse in the breasts of British
left-wing intellectuals. But Rushdie himself must have known the fury
his words would arouse in ordinary Muslims. Mapplethorpe created his
blasphemous and obscene works of art in order to cause offence, and the
gay activists at St Patrick’s were seeking out the action which would
be most offensive to Catholics. There is a warning for all of us here:
don’t seek to offend people unless you are willing to put up with the
consequences of people’s being offended.

For of course terrible consequences fell on Rushdie shortly afterwards.
The Ayatollah Khomeini issued a fatwa declaring Rushdie to be an
apostate from Islam, and thus to be guilty of a capital crime. This
meant that anyone who put Rushdie to death would perform a meritorious
act. The decree was confirmed by the offer of a considerable reward.

Salman Rushdie’s fatwa

Well, we must all condemn such an action, particularly, perhaps, as the
same judgement would lie against anyone in a Muslim country who found
that he could not in conscience continue believing in Islam, or who
sincerely converted to Christianity. But there is  a little twist
to be added. Someone who converts to Christianity in a Muslim country
does not aim at offending Islam, though that is no doubt a foreseen and
unintended side effect. Rushdie did aim at offending. And, if he
didn’t, he didn’t feel obliged to reject the praises that were heaped
on him (well before the Ayatollah’s fatwa) for being “daring”,
“courageous”, “outspoken”, and the like. Now, we have seen innumerable
authors praised for these reasons over the past 150 years or so. In
each case they are being praised for offending people, for attacking
traditional values, often religious values. Now, at last, in this case,
it looked as if a “daring” author actually required some real daring.
(Whatever one thinks of Rushdie, one has to admire the dignity with
which he has borne the subsequent danger and the restrictions on his

A point of chronology needs to be added here. The Bradford
demonstration took place on January 14, 1989; the Ayatollah’s fatwa was
issued on February 14, 1989. If you read accounts given now (or even
accounts given shortly afterwards) by the left-wing press in Britain,
you will find it said that the Guardian and the New Statesman only
turned against the Muslim population of Britain after the fatwa, when a
crime was being threatened. This is not true. The true story is
outlined above: the left-wing press turned against British Muslims
immediately after the Bradford demonstrations. Muslims had responded to
an attack on their faith in a way that the secular press deemed
blasphemous: they burnt a book. Anyone with access to files of these
journals can check this.

Rushdie defended himself by saying that the words which were alleged to
be blasphemous were not words which he wrote in propria persona, but
through fictional characters. This defence will not do. A blasphemous
expression resembles an obscene expression, or a racist expression, in
that it does not stop being blasphemous just because it is within
quotation marks. If I tell someone, “He called you a c***” or “He said
you’re a stupid n*****” the words I have quoted are still obscene or
racist even when I quote them. Likewise, a blasphemous expression
remains blasphemous even when quoted. Quotation marks are not a moral
disinfectant. Rushdie’s expressions are still more blasphemous, since
he is only pretending to be quoting. In fact he has made up both the
speaker and what he says. In a similar way we can attribute to Dan
Brown the views and even the remarkable factual mistakes of his rather
ridiculous characters in The Da Vinci Code: unless he explicitly
disavows them, which he doesn’t.

A betrayal of principle

Thus the British Left deserted British Muslims by refusing to
understand that their religion was important to them and focusing on
blasphemous acts against the Left’s own belief in unfettered freedom of
speech. This was certainly a betrayal of the Muslims but was it also a
betrayal of the Left’s own principle? I would say yes. There are two
pieces of evidence for this. The first is the appearance of the
Pakistani movie International Guerrillas in 1990. This is a film of
very little merit, though I have always wanted to see it. In it two
brave Pakistani secret agents are battling against Rushdie, who is
portrayed as an evil Blofeld-like figure in league with Israel and bent
on the destruction of Islam. Pure hokum, as far as I can make out. The
point is this: as soon as it appeared in Britain, the very same people
who had raised the cry against book-burning British Muslims – “No
Censorship! Free Speech! Art!” – demanded that this silly video should
be banned. It was a betrayal of principle.

The other betrayal of principle in regard to British Muslims which I
wish to refer to (and I am sure there have been many more) has to do
with agitation to have halal slaughtering banned in Britain. Muslims,
like Jews, think that meat is not “clean” for human consumption unless
the beast has been killed by having its throat slit. This is considered
by many British people inhumane. The Guardian and the New Statesman have preferred animal welfare to the welfare of British working people
their families – at least when the British people concerned are
Muslims. It is worth remembering that one of the Nazi anti-Semitic
propaganda films, Der Ewige Jude, made great play of the contrast
between scenes of animal-loving Aryan Germans (like Hitler himself) and
scenes in a Jewish slaughterhouse. Surely the British Left should be
able to recognise this betrayal of their own principles which they
committed when they betrayed their Muslim fellow-countrymen. How is it
that the British Left cannot recognise that this, too, is a betrayal of
the freedom of belief which they so arrogantly trumpet when one of
their own is threatened?

The intellectual left betrayed the concerns of a group of ordinary
British working people, just because those working people held to the
religion of Islam, instead of to the religion of Art espoused by the
intellectual Left. (One wonders, by the way, just how many left-wing
intellectuals there are in Britain compared with Muslims. I have no
figures for the time of the Rushdie affair, but the current circulation
of the Guardian is about 300,000 per day, while that of the New
Statesman is about 24,000 per week. There are over 1.75 million Muslims
in Britain.)

British left wing intellectuals seem to have forgotten what George
Orwell -- whose real name, by a nice irony, was "Blair" -- thought
about censorship: “it should be possible to say, 'This is a good book
or a good picture, and it ought to be burned by the public hangman.'
Unless one can say that, at least in imagination, one is shirking the
implications of the fact that an artist is also a citizen and a human

Christopher Martin teaches philosophy at the University of St Thomas in Houston, Texas.


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