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Censorship, Salman Rushdie and Me
The Satanic Verses
When Salman Rushdie's "The Satanic Verses" became a hot issue, I was a Councillor in Bradford. The ward I represented was about 35% Muslim, and approaching 80% of the Muslims had voted for me because I was the Labour candidate and because I was a well known Immigration specialist solicitor. The other 20% had not voted. It had been the third safest Conservative ward in Bradford until I was elected with a majority of only 81. At that time my law office was on Lumb Lane. In the 1960s people would arrive at Heathrow Airport from Pakistan with a piece of paper on which was written "Lumb Lane, Bradford, Yorkshire". They would arrive at Lumb Lane and walk along until they met someone they knew. A good place to have an immigration lawyer office, even in the 1980s.
What To Do?
At the time Labour had control of the Council, and Mrs Thatcher was Prime Minister. The Conservatives were working hard in Bradford to persuade the Muslims to vote Conservative, but so far the Muslims had been pretty solid Labour voters. There had been a few issues across Bradford. "Bussing" of Asian children to White schools had just been abolished, the unofficial bar on Asians becoming promoted to Inspector grade on the buses had been ended, and halal meat was now an option for school lunches.
Labour was in a tricky situation. Most of us believed in free speech, and we recognised that free speech might sometimes involve upsetting people. None of us wanted to ban the book. We were reluctant to say anything in public because whatever we said would probably upset some voters. We did not discuss it in private either, because no-one, not even the Muslim Labour Councillors, wanted to raise the issue in party meetings. I am not sure that any of us had read the book.
The book was burned at a demonstration, and then things went quiet for a while.
A Letter Comes
Although I lived in my ward, and I met many Muslims every day, no-one ever raised the book as an issue. Labour was concerned the Conservatives would use the book in their dirty politics, but there was no sign they were doing so. Of course they could be saving it up until an election period. The thought that the Conservatives might be as purely principled as us was discounted, because we had to deal with them on a daily basis and we knew what they were like.
And then a letter arrived. It asked me to arrange for the Council libraries to ban the book.
It is not my practice to ignore these letters. I thought about it, and then I wrote back explaining that I was philosophically opposed to banning books. I had not read the book myself. Even if I did get round to reading it, not being a Muslim I would not know which parts were offensive.
The Book Arrives!
A Muslim man in his 30s arrived at my office one day. Delving deep into a bag he brought out a copy of The Satanic Verses. It seems that he had gone into a bookshop. Looking round to make sure there were no other Muslims in the shop he had bought a copy of the book. Then he had taken it home. He had gone through the book line by line, highlighting the offensive passages. He presented me with the book to read, in hopes that I would now agree to ban it.
I am glad he had done this. It was a statement of his confidence that I was a fair man. I would at least look at the argument. I personally find Rushdie's style of writing difficult to read, and I would not have persevered to read the whole book had the offensive parts not been highlighted. I then wrote a nice letter back thanking him for the book. I could see why as a Muslim he found it offensive, but that was part of living in a free society. I was not prepared to support a ban.He and I are still on good terms. He raised an issue and I considered it and I gave a straight answer.
Had Rushdie appeared in Bradford he would have been lynched, but he had more sense. The vast majority of the population had never read The Satanic Verses, and just got on with their lives. In a large population there are always underemployed folk who take comfort in religion. Eventually a message was emerging on the street "Why Won't Labour Explain Why They Won't Ban The Satanic Verses?"
Interestingly it wasn't "Why Won't the Conservative Government explain?"
It seemed to me that it was the Tories pulling the fundamentalist strings. The Conservatives had put out an anti Labour leaflet in Urdu during my election stating that Labour encouraged teaching homosexuality in the schools, so this was another appeal to the same ultra conservative constituency, trying to detach them from Labour.
My fellow Labour councillors were choosing to remain silent. I thought this was unwise. Once something like this gets started it has to be confronted. Otherwise it will grow,
I Write An Article
I wrote an article explaining why Labour would not ban the book. I discussed the fact that we had had religious struggle in England, not just Catholics against Protestants, but various struggles against the Church of England. I mentioned the plaque in Bradford commemorating the imprisonment in Bradford of John Wesley himself for preaching illegally.
Bradford was one of the strongholds of socialism and trade unions, and was the city where the Labour Party was founded. The first book burned on the streets of Bradford was "The Rights of Man" by Thomas Paine.
I accepted the book was offensive to Muslims, but given the struggles of our society to establish freedom of religion and freedom of speech, we all had to accept that sometimes things would be said that were offensive. Given our history of struggle for freedom, Labour could not support banning the book.
The article was intended for the local Bradford daily paper. They refused to print it because there was no "current event" to tie it to. I slightly amended it and I sent it to the Daily Jang, a London based newspaper but the largest selling newspaper in Bradford's Pakistani community. They had the integrity to publish it.
The comments I received from the Muslim community were along the lines of "OK - now we have an explanation of why Labour will not ban the book. Thank you for the courtesy of giving an explanation."
A Small Riot
There was another march against the book from a park in my ward to the traditional meetings square in the city centre. Some young thugs behaved badly, breaking shop windows, and there was a significant disturbance. This was very embarassing for the Muslim elders in Bradford, because many of them felt the Muslim community had been tainted by the disturbance. It more or less killed off the Rushdie issue in Bradford because the fundamentalists had damaged the community. The fundamentalists stayed quiet for a few years.
The Bradford paper published my original article because the riot made it "current". The reaction I received from the white community was "At least someone has told them (the Muslims)". There were also some letters to the paper from whites attacking me for being a typical hypocritical politician trying to save my seat at the next election.
The 1990 Election
1990 was a good year for Labour. Again I out performed the Labour Party generally, increasing my vote from 2.400 to over 3,500 -the highest vote for any candidate of any party in a Council election since the seat was formed in 1948. As the boundaries were changed recently. I will hold that record for ever.
I had defused the Rushdie problem as an issue against Labour. The riot badly dameged the credibility of the fundamentalists for a few years.
The Wider Issues
The struggle for free speech is so important that any attempts at censorship need to be looked at extremely hard. Yes of course there are some images that should not be published, and "hate" publications need to be stopped. This can become a slippery slope, and we must be careful not to go down it.
The publicity for the book meant that many people bought the book who would not normally buy a book of the kind Rushdie writes. And some people involved as translators or involved in publishing the book were murdered. Rushdie's personal security is still an issue more than 20 years later.
Had the fundamentalists not reacted the way they did, the book would have had relatively modest sales and by now would be forgotten.
I felt at the time that the Bradford fundamentalists were desperate for an issue. They had enjoyed the support of the community over halal school meals, but they never found an issue afterwards that resonated in the Muslim community. They felt the community moving away from them. As people became better educated and more secular, the respect these men received as being religious or super religious faded. Even the Iraq and Afghanistan issues have not worked for them as well as halal meals did. There is a strong Muslim dislike for these extremists, but most people just try to ignore them. Deprived of the oxygen of publicity they just chunter to each other. And they have lost the community.
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