London: Hours before the then supreme leader of the Iran’s Islamic Revolution, Ayatollah Khomeini, pronounced a fatwa calling for the death of Salman Rushdie, whose novel The Satanic Verses he hadn’t read but which he assumed he wouldn’t like, Rushdie gave one of his last public interviews about the novel to a television documentary, before his enforced disappearance.

Explaining what he was doing with his novel—a magnificent saga as much about migration as about hybridity, as much about faith as about reason, and as much about Britain as about India—Rushdie urged his critics to read the novel, or argue with it, rather than call for its ban or burn its copies.

Salman Rushdie, author of The Satanic Verses, in London in 1988.
Salman Rushdie, author of The Satanic Verses, in London in 1988.

But few who protested against the novel had bothered to read it. I worked in Mumbai at the magazine India Today at that time, and recall interviewing several Muslim leaders and intellectuals, including Maharashtra politician Rafiq Zakaria, critic Iqbal Masud, professor Zeenat Shaukat Ali, and religious leaders at mosques on Mohammed Ali Road, and few among them had read the entire book.

Some called it ‘filthy’ or ‘mischievous’, blaming the novelist for causing offence. They supported then prime minister Rajiv Gandhi, who had banned the import of the novel in October 1988, soon after its publication in the UK. Penguin, which was to have published it in India, didn’t, at the urging of Khushwant Singh, who was among its editorial advisers.

Back in London, where the book was available in bookstores, angry Muslims were burning its copies in some cities. The film, Hullabaloo Over The Satanic Verses, shown the night of the fatwa on 14 February 1989 on Channel 4, revealed the sharp lines getting drawn in London that year, between those who wanted Britain’s law on blasphemy (which applied only to Christianity) to be applied to The Satanic Verses, ban the novel, and to prosecute Rushdie, and those who championed freedom of expression and a writer’s unfettered right to imagine.

Among the unlikely allies of those who criticized the novel were writers like Germaine Greer, Edward de Bono, and John LeCarre. Among those who supported Rushdie were writers James Fenton, Ian McEwan, and the late Christopher Hitchens, but just as importantly, a group of spirited and feisty women, some of them Muslim, who saw the danger that fundamentalists represented, not only for writers, but also for everyone, including women, moderates, and unbelievers.

An evening of remembrance

On 14 February, the night of the fatwa’s 30th anniversary, several women activists at the forefront of that campaign spoke at Conway Hall, the central London venue which has a long tradition of progressive activism. They reminded the audience that the challenge of fundamentalism remained real. There was security outside the hall, and a stall displayed badges and literature defending apostasy, atheism, and secularism.

Other younger activists had come, some among them fighting for sexual and religious minority rights. (I also spoke at the event, drawing attention on the literary merit of The Satanic Verses, which gets clouded by the broader debate on freedom of expression. In 1988, I had written Satanic Reverses, the editorial in India Today which criticized the ban in India).

In the years since, the situation has only worsened for writers and artists whose work provokes fundamentalists. In 1991, Hitoshi Igarashi, who translated The Satanic Verses in Japanese, was killed; in 1993, The Satanic Verses’s Norwegian publisher William Nygaard survived an assassination attempt; in 2004, filmmaker Theo Van Gogh was killed in Amsterdam; in 2005, cartoonists who responded to Danish newspaper Jyllands-Posten’s challenge and drew cartoons that many Muslims found objectionable, were threatened with violence.

In 2008, the London office of the publisher of Sherry Jones’s novel, The Jewel of Medina, was firebombed, and the Dutch parliamentarian Geert Wilders was threatened with prosecution for making a forgettable film, Fitna (2008). And in 2015, cartoonists at Charlie Hebdo were murdered. The problem wasn’t only with Muslim fundamentalism. In Britain, Sikh activists threatened and stopped performance of Behzti, and its author Gurpreet Kaur Bhatti had to go in hiding in 2004. Hindu fundamentalist groups stopped an exhibition of the renowned artist M.F. Husain, at Asia House in London, in 2006.

The sisterhood of opposition

Conway Hall was an appropriate venue. It has rooms named after the anti-war activist Fenner Brockway and philosopher Bertrand Russell, and it is here in August 1989 that British women came together to raise funds for Women Against Fundamentalism (WAF). WAF, as the group came to be known, diligently and consistently campaigned over the years to compel the British state to respect women’s rights and human rights, and not to acquiesce with leaders—usually men—who claimed to speak on behalf of religion, and whose primary interest lay in subjugating women.

Pragna Patel, one of the stalwarts of feminist, anti-racist campaigns in the UK, says: “WAF defined fundamentalism as modern political movements that manipulate religion for political goals. We recognized that at its centre lies support of the patriarchal family; the control of women’s minds and bodies and the desire to silence dissent and to de-legitimize and oust secular, liberal and syncretic cultural traditions from within."

Together with Southall Black Sisters (SBS), WAF campaigned to support women subjected to acid attacks or forced into marriage. They challenged the British government to discard its deep-rooted paternalism, under which it allowed the keepers of various faith (usually men) to decide how women should be controlled. SBS has defended black and minority women from all religious and ethnic backgrounds in the face of racism, fundamentalism, and inequality. SBS was founded by remarkable women who had experienced racism and wanted to take it head-on.

One of them was Patel, who spoke last week at Conway Hall. Kenyan-born Patel who came to the UK as a child, recalls racism in schoolyards and in casual remarks from a teacher who suggested she’d make a fine ground stewardess at Heathrow airport. She found a kindred spirit among many women, including Hannana Siddiqui, Meena Patel, and Gita Sahgal, and Shakila Taranum Maan.

Indian-born Sahgal (who made Hullaballoo Over The Satanic Verses) had worked with women’s groups in India and was active in student politics in London. She was part of the second wave of Indian feminists, active after the Emergency. “We wanted to bring a feminist analysis and activism to the issue (of fundamentalism). I was quite critical of black identity politics and wanted to develop a feminist organization which brought together women on a common basis of opposing all religious fundamentalism," says Sahgal.

On 9 March 1989, SBS passed a resolution, saying: “As a group of women of many religions and none, we would like to express our solidarity with Salman Rushdie. Women’s Voices have been largely silent in the debate where battle lines have been drawn between liberalism and fundamentalism. Often it has been assumed that the views of local community leaders are our views, and their demands are our demands. We reject this absolutely....We will take up our right to determine our own destinies, not limited by religion, culture, or nationality. We call upon the government to abolish the outdated blasphemy law and to defend without reservation, freedom of speech."

Day of competing protests

On 27 May 1989, there was a massive march of orthodox Muslims demanding a ban on The Satanic Verses near the Parliament, and some 40 women stood at Parliament Square opposing the marchers as well as the right-wing National Front, which was out there making racist attacks on Muslims in Britain. The Muslim marchers were calling for the blasphemy law to be extended to protect Islam too. As the long queue of angry Muslim men marched, the women countered them, shouting slogans. Fariborz Pooya, who was distributing leaflets defending Rushdie, recalled that the march was reminiscent of Teheran in 1979. Others who supported them included the cultural activist and poet John La Rose and the humanist Barbara Smoker. (Now 95, she spoke at the Conway Hall event last week).

The women defended Rushdie, standing under the banner, ‘Our Tradition, Struggle Not Submission’. “We were defending secular traditions and for our own right to read and dissent," Sahgal said. The protesting women drew a connection between Rushdie’s right to dissent and their own right to dissent. “We believe that doubting and dissenting lie at the heart of the feminist movement and that freedom of speech is necessary to secure private as well as public liberty," Patel said. “This is why our placards of support for Salman Rushdie consisted of slogans such as: ‘Here to Stay, Here to Doubt’, ‘Fear is your Weapon, Courage is ours’, ‘Our tradition, Struggle not Submission’. At that moment, I think we understood that these words were the only real weapons we have in our struggle against illiberal identity politics and the patriarchal power of religious absolutism that is on display everywhere around the world."

Campaigning for Rushdie was extremely important, Sahgal says. “He was immensely important as a writer. I devoured his work. He told the story of India, Pakistan, Bangladesh and Britain in a new way which we understood immediately. He was rooted in local struggles around anti-racism and engaged in some scathing debates with some of the more pretentious young black filmmakers. Everything he said spoke to me in a very direct way. He is the great literary figure and public intellectual of our generation."

In conclusion

For SBS, the Rushdie affair became a remarkable turning point. Until the fatwa, SBS had taken its black, secular, and feminist identity for granted. Patel says, “It enabled us to forge connections and solidarity that transcended divisions of class, ethnicity, caste, and religion." When the media wanted to understand authentic voices from the minorities, journalists inevitably spoke to self-appointed leaders, who were often the more fundamentalist among them, Patel says. The establishment liked working with them.

Iqbal Sacranie, who had said at the time of the fatwa that “death, perhaps, is a bit too easy for him (Rushdie), his mind must be tormented for the rest of his life unless he asks for forgiveness to Almighty Allah", would later head the Muslim Council of Britain, and was even knighted by the British Government in 2005. (He claims his remarks were misinterpreted). Rushdie too was knighted, but only a full three years later, in 2008.

Patel and Sahgal see the issue as far more subtle: among the whites there were paternalistic writers who were critical of Rushdie for causing offence, and among the Muslims there were defenders of Rushdie. Secular activist Maryam Namazie, who founded One Law For All, an organization committed to non-discriminatory laws, is the spokesperson for The Council of Ex-Muslims in Britain. While she was not at the demonstrations in 1989, she has been active since, bravely confronting fundamentalists. She led the opposition to the bounty placed on Rushdie and regularly organizes conferences that support those who defy faith.

“No one took Khomeini to court for issuing a death fatwa against Salman Rushdie; notwithstanding that inciting to murder is a crime in all countries of the world," she told me. At the Conway Hall meeting where she spoke, she said she was committed to fighting for Rushdie’s right to express himself without fear and freely because those are her freedoms too.

Patel is cautious about the future. The British government readily complies with demands for more faith-based schools. Gender-based segregation is becoming the norm in some instances. “Fundamentalism causes multiple harms," Patel says. “It uses threats, violence and vigilante activity as well as existing cultural, legal, educational and political spaces to clamp down on dissent and to subvert laws and policies so that they align with fundamentalist norms. In this way, ‘soft’ and ‘hard’ tactics are utilized—sometimes simultaneously—to establish a culture of intolerance, fear and censorship."

WAF doesn’t exist in the form it did, but the women at its core continue to campaign against fundamentalism’s impact on the rights of women and sexual minorities, and against blasphemy laws, to uphold the core principles of dignity, equality, and human rights.

Salil Tripathi is a writer based in London.

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