FUNDAMENTALIST MOSLEM VIOLENCE IN BRITAIN
President of the National
Secular Society in London
Fundamentalist Moslems in Britain are carrying out acts of violence and inciting one another to murder in pursuit of their demands for "blasphemy" protection, for the banning of a work of fiction that refers disrespectfully to Moslem history, for the public funding of separate Moslem schools, and for the legal recognition of the Islamic personal law.
Whereas the American immigration ideal has historically been the metaphorical "melting-pot" - immigrant families to the United States being only too anxious that their children should learn the English language and integrate with their neighbours - the immigration ideal in Britain is that of "pluralism," multi-culture, and multi-lingualism. It is this misguided, mythic ideal that, in response to the most vociferous of the immigration community leaders, is the one generally promulgated by many "progressive" British people, including politicians of every party. Most of them fail to realize that what they are advocating is appeasement of the patriarchal fundamentalists of these communities, leaving those under their thumbs to their oppression - the effect being to deny to their young people brought up in Britain the chance to become truly British and to deny to their women the normal civil rights enjoyed by British women.
Britain, with a total population of some 56 million, now has over a million Moslems, mostly from immigration within the last quarter of a century. Some were refugee families from former British colonies in East Africa in the 1960s, more came from the Middle East, and many more from the Indian subcontinent. Their British homes are largely concentrated in a few localities, including the Brick Lane area of London's East End and Southall in Middlesex, to the west of London - these two names being telescoped in
Salman Rushdie's fictional Brickhall. There are also large pockets of Moslem concentration in the industrial cities of the Midlands (especially Birmingham and Leicester) and the North (especially Bradford).
Resistance to change Upwards of a thousand years ago, Islam was far less objectionable and more civilized than Christianity; but whereas Christianity has, on the whole, gradually become more humane, Islam has tended to stand still, and has thus been left behind. This is partly because Mohammed (570-632) laid it down that, to avoid the sort of corruption that had beset Judaism and
Christianity, his new religion must never accept any change of any kind. And to this day, the true Moslem continues to obey this injunction and resist anything new in social mores.
This intransigent attitude has, according to the Indian writer K. K. Joshi (in an article reprinted by the International Humanist and Ethical Union in their Humanist Outlook, February 1989), been reinforced in India during the past two centuries: Unfortunately, the Moslem community kept itself aloof from the main currents of the nineteenth-century Indian renaissance. From the very beginning they were distrustful of the "new learning" that came to India in the wake of British conquest. Instead of opting for western liberal education, which the Hindus accepted with enthusiasm, the Moslems preferred to stick to their old traditional learning that was imparted in "madrasas" and "makhtabs." The result was an all-round stagnation of the Moslem community.
Today the situation has become even worse. Moslem India has built a cordon sanitaire of Islamic fundamentalism which has made it difficult even for the educated Moslem middle class, what to say of Moslem masses, to imbibe modern ideas of liberalism, secularism, socialism and science, which incidentally form the basis of Indian polity.
There are many extreme fundamentalists among the Moslems now living in Britain. Of those who were already fundamentalist Moslems when they left their homelands, many have responded to this upheaval by clinging even more tenaciously to their religious traditions than the people they have left behind. Then, of the thousands who are now in their late teens and early twenties - most of whom have been brought up in Britain, often as moderate Moslems - many have espoused increasingly fanatical Islamic fundamentalism as a means of asserting their ancestral identity. There is also a surprising number of fundamentalist Moslem converts.
Imbued with all the fervour of fundamentalist religion, this extremism is a component of a sort of tribalism - rather like the gang loyalty of football hooligans to their particular football club - its function being that of a cohesive tribal force against the wider community. So it appeals particularly to those who feel marginalized by society at large and psychologically alienated from it.
Islam & Koran
Blasphemy is Enlightenment
Cowardice of the West
Frankfurt Book Fair
Lessons from The Satanic Verses
Moslem Violence In Britain
Red Herring Rushdie Pt. I
Red Herring Rushdie Pt. II
Theopolitics of the Rushdie Case
They were therefore ready to respond fervently to the call of the late Ayatollah Khomeini in Iran for the assassination of the secularist author, Salman Rushdie - a British citizen of Indian Moslem origin living in Britain - for daring to write a novel, The Satanic Verses, based partly on a critical view of Islam. The author and his American wife (novelist Marianne Wiggins) had to go into hiding as a result of Khomeini's transcontinental death sentence in February. Six months later, his wife emerged to say that after moving with him from place to place every few days (fifty-six moves in five months), she had now left Salman, and no longer knew where he was hiding. He himself may never dare to be seen again in public.
On August 3, a young Arab who had booked into a London hotel was apparently handling a bomb in his room when the bomb exploded, killing him and doing extensive damage to the hotel. Claims were made, simultaneously on Iran radio and by a Lebanese Moslem group to a Beirut newspaper, that the bomb had been intended for Salman Rushdie; but it seems unlikely that Rushdie's
whereabouts are known to would-be assassins or, if so, that a bomb would be the method of assassination chosen. Investigators regard these claims as disinformation, and enquiries suggest that the man was working for a radical faction with the intention of frustrating international moves towards a negotiated settlement of the Lebanese hostage crisis.
It was one thing for the English newspapers to report on Rushdie riots in faraway lands, but then the headlines moved closer to home.
The publisher of The Satanic Verses, Penguin Books - which, ironically enough, is also the main publisher in Britain of the Koran - has also received death threats, the book has been publicly burned by Moslem mobs in Britain, many booksellers and libraries have responded to threats of arson and personal attack by withdrawing the book, and some of these threats have now been put into practice. Thus, several bookshops have been seriously damaged by Moslem fire-raisers - including one shop in central London, Collet's, that was burnt out in spite of the fact that it had already, under pressure from its intimidated staff, withdrawn the book.
At the beginning of September, a bomb was thrown from a car at the famous West End store Liberty's, and four passers-by were injured. At that moment, a telephone message claiming responsibility for the incident was received by the police from an obscure Moslem group calling itself "Islamic Concern for Banning the Satanic Verses." Moslem leaders, while expressing regret that
people have been injured, say it is the fault not of the Moslems but of Rushdie and his publishers and booksellers and the British government - though Liberty's book department does not even stock the book!
The publisher, Penguin Books, owns nine retail bookshops in city centers around the country, and time bombs were planted outside four of these shops during the evening of September 13. A passerby, seeing a man lurking suspiciously in the dark doorway of the shop in York, alerted the local police, who were just in time to clear people from the vicinity, so that when the bomb exploded, causing damage to the building, there were no casualties. Meanwhile, the York police warned their colleagues in the localities of the other eight Penguin bookshops, thus enabling the other three bombs (in Nottingham, Peterborough, and Guildford) to be defused
before they exploded.
The National Secular Society's bookshop in north London has – despite threats, broken windows, police warnings, and (just before the Liberty's incident) industrial oil poured through the letter-box and over the shopfront - continued to display the dust jacket in its window; though, having residents above the shop, it has compromised by removing the display at night to safeguard life.
Imagine: getting it on with J.C.
In September 1989, another artistic work was caught in a blasphemous edict - this time Britain's blasphemy law. A film, "Visions of Ecstasy" produced by the independent British film company, Axel Ltd., was refused a certificate for broadcasting by the British Board of Film Classification because it depicts "the erotic imaginings" of Saint Theresa of Avila. Theresa, a sixteenth-century Spanish Carmelite nun, at age thirty-nine began to have visions of J.C. and to enjoy vivid experiences of "mystical marriage" with him and experiences of "His presence within her." The eighteen-minute film depicts St. Theresa caressing and kissing J.C. A female character depicting her psyche erotically touches her. The film has no dialogue, and the music score was written by a punk band, Siouxsie and the Banshees.
The case came up for a two-day hearing during the first week of December 1989. The hearing was apparently stormy. Comparing it to "The Last Temptation of Christ" and "Monty Python's Life of Brian," the Board of Film Classification found that those two films presented "alternative realities of Christ," whereas "Vision of Ecstasy" was "an object of overt sexual passion to which He responds" and thus was a "contemptuous treatment of the divinity of Christ." The British Board of Film Classification, accordingly,
banned it from the airways. In its initial ruling before the trial, it had held: . . . the wounded body of a crucified Christ is presented solely as the focus of, and at certain moments a participant in, the erotic desire of St. Theresa, with no attempt to explore the meaning of imagery beyond engaging the viewer in an erotic experience.
One excuse made for Islamic violence on the streets of England is the fact that, whereas Christianity is protected in England and Wales by the blasphemy law (which is a common-law offence - i.e., a criminal offence based on centuries-old case law, made by judges, not on statute law, made by Parliament), Moslems have no such recourse to the law courts when their religious susceptibilities are hurt; and a number of British public figures, including religious leaders and members of Parliament, have therefore been calling for an extension of the blasphemy law to every "major" religion.
The British government was for extraneous reasons (including such good ones as negotiating for the release of hostages in Lebanon), slow and halfhearted in its condemnation of the notorious Iranian death sentence on Salman Rushdie. Many members of the major political parties, together with spokesmen of all the major religions and the usual "race-relationites," grovelled with apologies for the hurt feelings of Moslems in this country.
Foremost among the religious spokesmen was the archbishop of Canterbury (head of the international Anglican communion) whose proposed solution to the crisis was the extension of the criminal law of blasphemy to protect Islam (and other religions) against verbal offence, rather than renounce this special protection for his own creed.
The legal justification for the existing blasphemy law is to prevent possible "breaches of the peace" caused by the abuse or ridicule of people's strongly-held beliefs. Needless to say, we Atheists have always had to put up with abuse and ridicule from Christians, but have not breached the peace on that account, nor demanded protection from such abuse and ridicule. On the contrary, we have always favoured the robust exchange of ideas. British public figures who are now calling for an extension of the blasphemy law to
Islam (and other religions) include some of the most liberal-minded churchmen and politicians. This is in line with a pervading idea that seems to have sprung up among many liberal-minded people in Britain, that to be "progressive" it is necessary to make any special privileges - such as the protection of the blasphemy law - universal. The secular humanist movement, on the other hand, together with a handful of enlightened politicians, is opposing this - on the principle, as the old adage puts it, that "two wrongs
cannot make a right" - and is pressing instead for the archaic criminal offence of blasphemy to be abolished altogether.
The general survey of blasphemy law, written by Jon G. Murray, which appeared in the March 1989 issue of American Atheist, did not bring it quite up to date for Britain. The last successful blasphemy prosecution here occurred as recently as 1977, when a homosexual paper, Gay News, and its editor, Denis Lemon, were both convicted of blasphemy for publishing a poem about the crucifixion, and had to pay heavy fines and even heavier costs. The editor was also given a suspended prison sentence, forcing him to give up his editorial job. The legal costs would have bankrupted the paper - which was, presumably, the intention - had not donations poured in to reimburse it. These convictions and sentences, apart from the prison sentence, were upheld in the Appeal Court (1978) and the House of Lords (1979). Later the European Court of Justice ruled that it could not overturn this decision since the blasphemy law is outside its jurisdiction.
The argument of the misguided "progressives" in favor of according blasphemy protection to Islam on the ground of a right to parity with the Church of England is closely paralleled by their support for campaigns for the public funding of Moslem (and other non-Christian) denominational schools on a par with existing denominational schools (mostly Christian, plus a handful of Jewish schools).
Because some religions are, under the existing education laws in Britain, allowed public subsidies amounting to 85 percent of the capital cost and 100 percent of the running costs of their own denominational schools (whether or not that in itself is morally justified), it is argued that all religions (or, at least, all "major" religions) must be given the same privilege. Needless to say, the secular humanist movement would prefer to have the public subsidies of all denominational schools phased out - and, indeed, has
consistently campaigned for this. But even if it is politically impossible to remove the subsidies on all church schools in the foreseeable future – as both justice and sound educational principles really demand - the resulting inequity does not represent a valid argument for extending the same privilege to schools run by other religious groups. Again, "two wrongs cannot make a right."
Parity between one cultural group and another is certainly an important principle, but it cannot be an overriding principle when it means sacrificing even more important things - in the case of sectarian schools, sacrificing one of the basic rights of children. For surely it is a basic right of every child to come into contact with a wide range of people and with a wide range of views. A denial of any experience beyond a school that merely reinforces the prejudices of the home background is a denial of that right.
The stifling effect of their own single-sex denominational schools on Moslem (and orthodox Jewish) girls - especially those from fundamentalist families - is greater than for girls attending, say, the average single-sex Roman Catholic school of the present day, who are unlikely to be totally segregated socially from boys and men, both in and out of school, to be totally deprived of any exposure to ideas at variance with those of the home background, or to be narrowly educated only for the roles of submissive wife
Moslem girls attending traditional single-sex religious schools may miss many of the educational opportunities which are taken for granted by other young English-women The public funding of ghetto schools - and therefore their proliferation - would, however, be harmful not only to the girls and women of the ghetto but to the whole fabric of our society, as is made clear in a letter from the
National Secular Society, which, bearing the signatures of twenty-three public figures in Britain, appeared in a national newspaper, the Guardian, on July 9, 1986:
We the under-signed are very concerned about a dangerously divisive factor in our educational system - that is, the large number of voluntary-aided denominational schools that segregate children according to their religious background. The social divisiveness this causes is seen at its worst in Northern Ireland.
Voluntary-aided denominational schools have so far been confined almost entirely to Anglican, Roman Catholic, and a few Jewish schools, but we are now seeing the beginning of a proliferation to include other religions.
In April this year, a recommendation from a local authority (Brent) that a fundamentalist Islamic primary school in its area be allowed public funding, in line with denominational schools in the Judaeo-Christian tradition, was sent to the Minister of State for Education. Whatever the decision in this particular case, it cannot be long, in the name of racial and creedal equality, before a separate Moslem (or Sikh or Hindu or other religious) school is granted voluntary-aided status, thereby encouraging a general
upsurge of immigrant denominational schools.
This may seem superficially, a progressive step ... ; but in fact it would mean for many children (especially the girls) of immigrant families almost total isolation from the host community and from ideas at variance with those of the home background. This would not only be a disaster for these youngsters personally, it would also inevitably build up for future generations a greater degree of animosity and violence than we have seen even in Northern Ireland. There, children are segregated on grounds of religious background only; in this case there would be the additional divisive factors of race, skin colour and sex. And besides driving a wedge between immigrant families and the host community, separate religious schools would import to Britain some of the religion-based bitterness and strife that exist on the Indian subcontinent.
In the name of equity, however, it is manifestly impossible for the state to refuse Moslems and Sikhs the same right as Christians and Jews to state-subsidised schools of their own.
How, then, can this looming social tragedy be averted, without blatant discrimination? Only by Parliament legislating without delay for steps to be taken gradually to phase out subsidies to denominational schools of every kind. ...
We cannot deny, however, that a parliamentary decision to phase out subsidies to denominational schools will need considerable political courage, since it will inevitably lose votes. It therefore demands an all-party determination to grasp the nettle.
Principle of tolerance
What the British race-relationites are, in effect, blindly proposing, is to hand over the moderates in each ethnic community to the tyranny of its fundamentalists. And limits must surely be placed on the tolerance of intolerance.
Though I am as concerned as anybody about the right of minority groups to pursue their own chosen life-style - and, indeed, see this as a positive contribution to the varied general culture - I am also concerned about the rights of minorities within those minority groups, and of the smallest minority of all: the individual. Moreover, the individual is not only the smallest, but also often the most oppressed, of all minorities - especially, in patriarchal groups, the women and girls.
If families settle permanently in Britain, surely they should be willing for their children to grow up as part of it? The demand of their religious leaders for their own religious schools to be subsidized out of the public purse and for education to be conducted in their home languages is designed to prevent their children from integrating with the wider community.
Fundamentalist Moslems are fond of quoting the principle of tolerance in their own favor - but in countries where they themselves are in power, Moslems do not accept that principle. Nor, though vociferous in its demands for parity with Christianity in Britain, does fundamentalist Islam accord parity of rights to non-Moslems in Moslem countries. Even foreigners visiting those countries may be judicially flogged if caught with a glass of wine. Indeed, Moslems declare that any compromise is impossible for them, since the Islamic laws were laid down by Allah himself, not by men.
They also declare that Islam is not merely a religion; like communism, it pervades the whole of life. This means that their political and economic, as well as their religious, demands must share the sanction of religious liberty as they see it - and this bestows on them the god-given right to demand that the English law should assimilate the Islamic personal law (on legal polygamy, easy divorce for men but not women, inheritance, and so on), and uphold it in English law courts for Moslem citizens. In India, where
this Moslem personal law prevails, the law courts have to administer a special code of justice for Moslems and even have to take account of differences in law between one Islamic sect and another. The result is not only chaos in the courts; more importantly, the civil rights of individuals are handed over to fundamentalist religious leaders and social compartmentalization is crystallized. This means a permanent denial of common citizenship and leads to inter-group strife.
Apart from the courageous Muslim Truthseekers Group (supported by the Indian Secular Society in western India), moderate Moslems on the Indian subcontinent have rarely put up any fight against their fundamentalists, so most of the Moslems who are now settled in Britain have no tradition of standing up to them and simply allow the fundamentalists to speak on their
One of the leading fundamentalist Moslem spokesmen in Britain has said that it is inconsistent to allow people to follow different religions whilst forcing them to accept British values enshrined in the laws of the country. But the laws of a country, while designed to facilitate as far as possible the peaceful coexistence of different cultures within that country, must surely, in the name of justice, apply to all - even if some groups would prefer them to be otherwise.
For that very reason, it is important that the National Secular Society is seen to be campaigning constantly against the Christian blasphemy law and Christian voluntary-aided schools at the same time as campaigning against the extension of these privileges to non-Christians.
Barbara Smoker, president of the National secular Society, was in the thick of the riot that made English headlines in May 1989.
It is heartening that the ruling Conservative Party has
begun to warn the Moselems against extremist demands - for instance, on July 4,
Mr. John Patten (the minister of state at the Home Office responsible for race
relations) stated that the government felt it would be unwise to extend the
blasphemy law to Islam ("to rule otherwise would be to chip away at the
fundamental freedom on which our democracy is built").
A few Conservative back-benchers have gone against the Party line and backed the Moslem demands - but as they themselves tend to expound Christian fundamentalism, maintaining that everyone who disagrees with their theology is in error, their motive in wishing to sponsor the perpetuation of such error through their taxes is obviously more like that of the South African
National Party's aim of ethnic "separate development" than genuine fellow feeling with the Moslem community or respect for their creed.
The Labour Party, though generally the more progressive of the two major parties in Britain, is split right down the middle on the issue of separate Moslem schools. On the one hand are those to whom sound educational principles and equal opportunities for girls are the most important factors in this debate; on the other hand are those (unfortunately including the Party's national spokesmen on education - who could well be in office in another two years) to whom the overriding factor is "race relations" -
which, in practice, inevitably means good relations with the most vociferous extremists in an ethnic group.
The Moslem vote has hitherto been almost entirely Labour and, in several marginal constituencies, Labour MPs would have lost their seats in the last general election without the Moslem vote. But one or two of those most likely to lose their seats in that eventuality have nevertheless been brave enough to come out in favour of principle rather than expediency. The remainder, however, have taken the opposite view - and have unfortunately secured the support of the national Labour Party.
Even so, it does not satisfy the Moslem fundamentalists. Early this year, Moslem leaders announced that steps would be taken to set up a separate Moslem political party. This threat was implemented in mid-September, when the Islamic Party of Britain was founded - its agenda to include state-funded Moslem schools and extension of the blasphemy law, with the legalisation of Moslem personal law a longer-term aim. Some Moslems, however, are opposed to having their own separate political party, since it
cannot possibly gain parliamentary power in the foreseeable future and, by diverting Moslem votes from the Labour Party, will only weaken Moslem influence within that party.
Giving in to fundamentalist demands is like giving in to
blackmail or terrorism: the next demand is even bolder. So the more legal
concessions that fundamentalist Moslems obtain, the more they demand. Thus,
Moslem demands in Britain at the present time - the demand for blasphemy
protection, for publicly funded separate Moslem schools, for the banning of a
work of fiction that refers disrespectfully to Moslem history, and for the
assimilation of Moslem personal law into the law of the country - would most
likely have been less extreme and persistent had not their fundamentalist
religious leaders got away with demands, in the past two decades, for exemption
from various laws. For instance, the animal slaughter laws, which demand the
pre-stunning of animals killed for meat, are not only waived in favor of both
orthodox Jewish and Moslem religious methods of slaughter, both of which forbid
pre-stunning (each of these religions denying that their particular slaughter
method is cruel, but agreeing that the other one is!), but our legislators and
civil servants have acceded to the demand to have halal meat served daily in
all state schools that have a substantial number of Moslem children - as though
there were no acceptable alternatives, such as vegetarian dishes, packed
lunches, and meat meals at home.
So where is it all going to end? We could eventually have Moslem religious leaders in Britain demanding the freedom to follow the Koranic penal code within their own community. In the name of freedom of religion, they must surely be allowed to chop off the hands of any members of their community caught stealing, to flog those caught drinking alcohol, and publicly to stone to death any of their women caught in adultery?
Violence on the streets
A large Moslem demonstration took place in central London on
May 27, mainly to demand the extension to Islam of such protection under the
blasphemy law and to demand the withdrawal of The Satanic Verses.
Though disagreeing with these demands, secular humanists would naturally uphold the right of anyone to demonstrate peaceably in support of them: however, not only was the Moslem demonstration far from peaceful; the blasphemy issue was largely lost in violent incitement to murder. No attempt was made by the Moslem leaders themselves or by the agencies of law and order in this country to prevent the parade from setting off from Hyde Park with model gallows from which swung effigies of Salman Rushdie, with
placards and banners calling (in obedience to the late Khomeini and other overseas religious leaders) for Rushdie's murder, with such homespun slogans as "DEVIL RUSHDIE WANTED DEAD OR ALIVE," "RUSHDIE MUST BE CHOPPED UP," "WE'RE GONNA GET YOU - THAT'S A PROMISE," and with thousands of demonstrators raising clenched fists and yelling "kill, kill, kill!"
Those guilty of this incitement to murder were apparently not told, either by the organizers or by the police, that this was prohibited on the demonstration, nor were any arrests made on a charge of incitement. Even the 101 demonstrators arrested later for physical violence against the police were released without charge - presumably on Home Office orders designed to prevent further violence. Nevertheless, having thus flouted with impunity British laws and customs and sensibilities, Moslem fanatics have proceeded to carry out further acts of violence (such as arson), and have continued their monstrous demands for the banning of The Satanic Verses and death to its author.
Many Moslems in this country are, of course, appalled and ashamed by all this, and realize that nothing is more likely to cause real racist hostility against their whole community; but their voices are hardly heard above those of the religious leaders and the rabble behind them. The race-relationites have therefore started saying that Salman Rushdie should have known better than to write such an "offensive" book and that the publishers ought to withdraw it. To be consistent, they would also have to decry the original
publication of Paine's Age of Reason, Shelley's Queen Mab, Ibsen's Ghosts, and Darwin's Descent of Man, which were no less offensive to the fundamentalists of their day. (see sidebar on "Other Rushdies in other times")
The organizers of the demonstration later tried to disclaim responsibility for the violence, blaming it on a few hotheaded youngsters; but the organizers had done nothing to ensure that it would be a peaceful demonstration, and the "few" hotheads could be numbered by the thousand.
Since the Moslem leaders are apparently either unable or unwilling to control their fanatical supporters, they should surely be refused any public open-air demonstrations in the future; while archbishops and politicians should be willing to allow the same robustness of debate on religion as on any other controversy - that is, short of incitement to violence.
Women Against Fundamentalism picketed the Moslem demonstrations in London on May 27, 1989. In the background are the Houses of Parliament.
At secular humanist meetings during the few weeks before the
demonstration, I had asked for volunteers to mount a counter-demonstration; but
response was negligible. I therefore arranged to join in with a new protest
group, set up mainly by some brave Asian women calling themselves Women Against
Fundamentalism. In the event, I happened to miss them, but met by chance
secularist friends Nicolas Walter and his wife Christine, standing on the route of the so-called march (which proved to be more of a stampede), opposite Hyde Park Corner.
Although there were only the three of us, we represented, in our memberships, the whole of the British Atheist movement - primarily, however, the National Secular Society, the Rationalist Press Association, the Free Speech Movement, and the Campaign against Blasphemy Law (set up jointly by the National Secular Society and the Rationalist Press Association at the time of the Gay News blasphemy trial in 1977). We had brought homemade banners - mine proclaiming "FREE SPEECH," and the Walters' "FREE SPEECH FOR ALL"
We had deliberately rejected the idea of more provocative slogans, such as "Religion Breeds Intolerance" - but our studied moderation made no difference. As soon as they caught sight of our banners, demonstrators rushed at us, grabbed and ripped up the banners, and proceeded to push, punch, and kick us. Nicolas was knocked to the ground, but by backing up the steps of the Wellington monument I managed to remain standing. Fortunately, a few people (including some middle-aged Moslems) came to our rescue. The press also helped, by coming up for statements - whereupon our attackers began grabbing and tearing the reporters' notebooks; and someone with a radio mike began interviewing me. One of the men still jostling me, having previously kicked me on the leg, now added insult to injury by pinching my buttock. I turned on him with a trenchant "Don't do that!" - which, I learnt later, was heard by thousands of listeners to the London Broadcasting Company's news report. The picket of the Women Against Fundamentalism had taken the precaution of obtaining special police protection and so avoided a similar physical assault.
Some humanists have since told me that counter-demonstrations are not the way to deal with the situation: they seem to think it is enough to preach to the converted in urbane humanist meetings. But if we can no longer go on the streets of our capital city to defend freedom of expression, Britain is back in the eighteenth century - the cross merely replaced by the equally bloody crescent.
Among the messages of support for the demonstration read out
on a public-address system in Hyde Park while the faithful were gathering there
was one that purported to come from Dr. Runcie, the Archbishop of Canterbury.
Afterwards I wrote to him, asking why he had said nothing since to dissociate
himself from the violent nature of the demonstration, and his secretary for
public affairs (John Lyttle) replied, denying that the archbishop had sent the
organizers any such message. However, with this reply (which, incidentally,
accused me of being "extraordinarily bigoted") was enclosed a copy of
a statement made by the archbishop three months earlier, in which he had tried
to appease the Moslem would-be murderers by saying,
Only the utterly insensitive can fail to see that the publication of Salman Rushdie's book has deeply offended Moslems both here and throughout the world.
It was apparently this statement that was read out in Hyde Park - but in the context of the demonstration it sounded like a new message written for the occasion. As far as I know, however, there has been no public retraction of the archbishop's seeming support for the demonstration.
In any case, the Moslem demand for the extension of blasphemy law to Islam, which was the chief aim of the demonstration, was really based on the Archbishop of Canterbury's refusal to volunteer to give up the protection of this archaic law for his own church (the only church protected by it at present - the Sectarian tenets of other Christian denominations having been excluded in cases that predated Catholic emancipation). Rather than give it up, he urged its extension to other Christian sects and to Islam and other
In this he was joined by a number of misguided members of Parliament, of both the major political parties. There are two reasons for this: first, the usual reluctance of British politicians to vote against the demands of any religious or ethnic group, particularly if that group has a substantial number of voters in their local constituencies; and secondly, the high-principled (but equally misguided) desire for good race relations based on multi-cultural and multi-lingual equality, at all costs.
True, the present situation, in which the Church of England alone is protected by the blasphemy law, is unjust; but the argument behind the proposal to extend it to other religions is, again, basically the argument that two (or more) wrongs somehow make a right. Other civilized countries manage without a criminal offence of blasphemy, so why not Britain? Public order needs protection; religious sentiment does not. The obvious commonsense solution is to abolish the blasphemy law altogether (as, indeed, was recommended in 1985 by a majority of the Law Commission) - not to extend it. Anyway, to which religions would it be extended? If, as has been suggested, it were to apply to all monotheistic religions only, this classification would presumably exclude Hinduism but include the Mormons and Moonies!
Present attempts in Parliament to extend the blasphemy
protection to Islam are backed up by the argument that the hurt feelings of
Moslems could then be assuaged through the law courts instead of through
violence on the streets. However, even if they were able to prosecute
"blasphemers," any prosecution thrown out of court (and, inevitably,
many such prosecutions must fail) would undoubtedly still lead to zealots
taking the law into their own hands, in exactly the same hotheaded, violent way
as they have done, in the absence of the blasphemy law, over Rushdie's Satanic
Verses. At the same time, to present Moslem fundamentalists with this legal
weapon, however weak in practical litigation, would result in unofficial
censorship, since any writer who dared to mention Islam except in the most
respectful terms would have difficulty in finding a publisher for fear of heavy
legal costs – if nothing worse.
When a pro-Rushdie one-act play, Iranian Nights, was hastily put on for a short run at the Royal Court Theatre, one or two actors engaged for it withdrew out of fear; but a cast was found and the show went on, with heavy security precautions. Then, on July 2, a number of celebrities (of show business, literature and politics) participated in a public reading at Conway Hall Humanist Centre of selected excerpts from The Satanic Verses.
On July 31, the British Broadcasting Corporation presented a television verse-drama, The Blasphemers' Banquet, in which Omar Khayyam, Voltaire, Moliere, and Byron ("blasphemers" all) meet in an Indian tandoori restaurant in Bradford together with the play's author - a controversial poet, Tony Harrison - and toast an absent friend: Salman Rushdie. It also included real-life scenes from the Khomeini funeral, with hysterical mourners, including children, deliberately wounding themselves in an orgy of religious fervor.
Some days before the play was due to be shown, the archbishop of Canterbury's secretary for public affairs (he who had called me
"extraordinarily bigoted") wrote to the director-general of the BBC, asking him to "postpone" its transmission, so as to avoid giving any offence to Moslems at a sensitive time. Behind this demand was the bishop of Bradford (whose diocese, one of the most Moslem in the country, has been the scene of the worst Moslem riots), who feared that the programme would make the Moslems in this country "feel that they are not welcome"! The more fanatically fundamentalist of them are certainly not, and it would only make
matters worse for the general hostility against them to simmer underground and not be allowed public expression.
Full marks to the BBC, then, for going ahead with the transmission. And, as with the sales of Salman Rushdie's book, the attempt at censorship only multiplied the audience for it.
Women against Fundamentalism
I have become quite accustomed, over the past few years, to
the charge of being "racist" whenever I have opposed the provision of
halal and kosher meat, the waiving of conservation and planning regulations for
the building of mosques, the demands for publicly-funded schools for Moslem and
orthodox Jewish girls, and other such special provisions. The same charge was
made when I was instrumental in allowing the anti-Zionist play Perdition to be
put on last year at Conway Hall Humanist Centre after it had been denied access
to theatres and halls all over the country. In vain have I protested that it
can hardly be racist to take a stand against policies that are put forward by
fundamentalist co-religionists of different races and are opposed by some other
people of the same races.
However, I feel that I am vindicated by the very existence of the promising new organization mentioned above, Women Against Fundamentalism, especially as its activists are mainly Asian women. They too are castigating the British race-relations industry for its promotion of separate schools, of an extension of blasphemy law to cover all major religions, and of third-world fundamentalist demands in general.
From the perspective of their own third-world background, the Asian members of Women Against Fundamentalism see the demands of fundamentalist religious leaders (especially the Islamic leaders) as basically a denial of freethought, individuality, and sex equality; not as legitimate cultural aspirations. Their first draft leaflet explains: "At the heart of all fundamentalist agendas is the control of the minds and bodies of women, and the maintenance of 'the family'." And it calls for "A high standard of secular, state-funded comprehensive education which fulfils the needs and aspirations of all children from all communities," and for "The right of all
women to make their own choices and make their own destinies not limited by static definitions of religion, culture and tradition."
It is true that many Moslem women cling to the symbolic veil and their
traditional submissive role - but that is just what brain-washing does to people. In the days of slavery, many slaves were similarly opposed to the abolitionist campaign, fearful that they would never manage to support themselves. Does that mean that the abolitionists were wrong to liberate them?
The founding members of Women Against Fundamentalism oppose the creation of special laws to accommodate Islam.
Other Rushdies in other times
François Rabelais (ca 1483-1553), French satirist. Was the repeated substitution of an n for an m in âme - making "ass" out of "soul" – a printer's error? Not hardly. Miguel Servedo (1511-1553), Spanish scientist, whose observation that Judea was barren - hardly "flowing with milk and honey" - "necessarily inculpated Moses and grievously outraged the Holy Spirit," according to Calvin, who promptly had him burnt alive.
Malchos (A.D. 232-304), known as Porphyry, a Syrian and one of the last defenders of classical paganism against Christianity. "Men of pure heart need no formulas, cults, or incantations" brought the wrath of Christian apologists. Aspasia (ca 470-410 B.C.) Greek companion of Pericles and philosopher. Prosecuted on the "holy" charge of "impiety" and acquitted, she influenced Anaxagoras, Euripides, Hippocrates, and Socrates. (back)
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