JANUARY 4, 1989, was one of the darkest days of recent British history. It saw book-burning on the streets of Yorkshire as a result of a murderous religious edict (fatwa) from Iran’s Ayatollah Khomeini against a British-Indian author. That edict resulted in the author, Salman Rushdie, being targeted for assassination, going into hiding and receiving round-the-clock police protection. People associated with publishing the book were attacked and even killed. People died in riots around the world. And latent extremism within the UK’s Muslim population became overt, with consequences that have echoed down the subsequent decades.
Astonishingly, Friday night’s BBC One News at Ten reported the anniversary without mentioning the fatwa or the deaths that followed it.
And, even more astonishingly, Will Gompertz’s piece proved to be nothing less than a celebration of the event, marking the wonderful moment when British Muslims got their voice.
Here’s a transcript of this truly jaw-dropping, appalling BBC report:
Newsreader: It’s 30 years since the publication of the book The Satanic Verses sparked protests right around the world. Some Muslims believed its author, Salman Rushdie, blasphemed the Prophet Muhammad. The controversy prompted a vigorous debate about freedom of speech and respect for religious sensitivities that resonates today. They are themes that will be explored at the Bradford Literature Festival, which opened tonight – in a city where a copy of The Satanic Verses was burned in public in 1989. Our arts editor, Will Gompertz, has more:
Syima Aslam, Director, Bradford Literary Festival: This is the centre of Bradford, the heart of Bradford. Thirty years ago, this was also where some rather momentous events took place. This is where The Satanic Verses was burnt. It’s the image that became seared in the national consciousness and became associated with this city. For Muslims collectively, it was a moment of crystallisation of identity. Prior to that, you know, everybody was Asian, there wasn’t really the religious nuance. What you see at that moment is people saying, actually I live here, this is my country, I belong here, I’m going to spend the rest of my life here and my children are going to grow up here, so if I don’t like something I’m going to raise my voice.
Will Gompertz: The festival is hosting a series of events, with contemporary authors reflecting on the politics of writing three decades on from Salman Rushdie’s controversial novel.
Gompertz (to Ayisha Malik, author): Would your books – which are about Muslims dating and putting a mosque in a British village – would those have been published, 30 years ago, and would they have created a reaction if they were?
Ayisha Malik: No, I don’t think they would have been published and certainly not a book about a mosque in a village, because that conversation wasn’t even happening and I don’t think we were part of things in that way. I think a writer should be allowed to write whatever they want to write about, that is just categorical. What I do think, though, is that you have a responsibility. I don’t believe in censorship when it comes to writing, but I do think that you have to bear the consequences of what you write.
Gompertz: A new play, Imam Imran, is part of the festival programme. It explores issues of identity, perception, protest and faith.
Gompertz (to Iqbal Khan, director): So if you go back 30 years to the burning of The Satanic Verses and that moment and everything that happened since, where does this play bring us to?
Iqbal Khan: OK, so I think it brings us to a place where I think the confidence to protest is more present now I think than it was then. I think the protest now is more articulate, more subtle and more nuanced. I think also particularly in the way the play deals with these issues, there’s the confidence to use satire, to use humour, to use other ways of addressing the issues other than naked anger and frustration.
Gompertz: The subject of protest is extended to the festival itself. Some authors have pulled out of events after discovering a government counter-extremism scheme had provided funding, proving once again that art and politics are not strange bedfellows, but are intimately connected. Will Gompertz, BBC News, Bradford.
This was first published in Is The BBC Biased? on June 29, 2019, and is republished by kind permission.