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Page last updated at 12:33 GMT, Friday, 13 February 2009

What happened to the book burners?

Burning copy of The Satanic Verses
British protesters say they burned the book out of frustration
Twenty years ago Muslims were called on to kill the author Salman Rushdie as a wave of protest grew about one of his books. But do those who demonstrated against Rushdie have any regrets?

When Iran's late ruler, the Ayatollah Khomeini, issued a fatwa of death on Salman Rushdie, it sent the award-winning author into hiding for almost a decade.

In the weeks before the pronouncement there had been growing unrest among many British Muslims about his book, The Satanic Verses, for its blaspheming of the Prophet Muhammad.

The pictures of Rushdie's book being burned on British streets outraged liberals while stirring strong sentiments among Muslims.

This was also a watershed in the history of Britain's Muslims - a moment when, for the first time, many united over what they saw as an attack on their faith. But looking back, do the protesters still think they were right?


Ishtiaq Ahmed, of the Bradford Council of Mosques, was at the centre of UK calls to have The Satanic Verses banned and took part in the first book-burning protest in Britain in January 1989.

He remembers the moment members of the mosques' council read a copy of the book and concluded parts of it were "grossly insulting to Islam".

Burning copy of The Satanic Verses

First published in September 1988
Won Whitbread novel of the year
Title refers to disputed story of the Prophet adding Koran verses which he later revoked saying he had been deceived by Satan
Banned in 11 countries, including India
Sparked protests and book-burnings across the UK and abroad

They went on to write to the book's publishers, Penguin, MPs and the government to voice their concerns. But, having received little support for their cause, members felt they had no alternative but to take matters into their own hands, recalls Mr Ahmed, now in his 50s.

The "anger and emotion" within the community at the lack of understanding of their position finally led to calls to "burn the damn thing" in a protest in front of Bradford's key public buildings, he says.

"A spot was selected - it had a symbolic meaning... a faith community demonstrating and saying, 'We matter, we exist, we are here, our presence matters'. This police station, town hall, Magistrates' Court - they are ours as much as anyone else's."

After a number of speeches, the protesters burned their one-and-only copy of The Satanic Verses, but not before overcoming a technical glitch.

"It was a very thick book - particularly the hard copies - and it was very difficult to actually set fire to it. So we had to actually find a can of petrol to pour on the book," Mr Ahmed laughs, acknowledging the bizarre nature of events.

But he remembers the strength of the collective "sigh of relief" from those present who he believes felt "a burden had been lifted off their shoulders".

"Finally they had made a statement. Finally that had found a way to express their anger and their frustration, their disgust, their emotions about this book," he says.

Other demonstrations in the UK and abroad followed, including one in the Pakistani capital Islamabad in which five people died. Then came the Ayatollah Khomeini's fatwa, which Mr Ahmed believes "hijacked" the British Muslims' battle for recognition and did them a "great disservice".

In the end, the protesters did not achieve any of their three demands - the extension of blasphemy law, an apology from the author or the banning of the book - but Mr Ahmed believes the Muslim community in Britain has benefitted indirectly from The Satanic Verses affair.

"People became more aware about the presence of Muslims, more aware of their sensibilities regarding their faith," he says.


Aki Nawaz
Mr Nawaz is now a musician with rap group Fun-Da-Mental

Aki Nawaz, of rap group Fun-Da-Mental, confesses to being in "rebellious mode" in 1989 when he took part in the protests in Bradford.

He admits he was initially confused about the whole issue surrounding The Satanic Verses, but, as he saw senior members of his community get increasingly angry about the book, he decided to take more interest.

"In Bradford, here was a whole contingent of nice, happy-clappy, peaceful, kind of hippy Muslims - elders - all in pain about what was going on and it made me want to look into the whole issue deeper than it was being portrayed in the media," he recalls.

Mr Nawaz attended his first demonstration outside Bradford Magistrates' Court where he joined just 20 people. But over the next few months protests grew and several British bookstores were firebombed.

"All I could hear was 'They keep shutting the doors' - they meaning the publishers, the government, the departments, they keep shutting the doors, they won't have any dialogue.

Sir Salman Rushdie
Salman Rushdie, who has now been knighted, was in hiding for nine years

"So when people shut off discussion and debate on an equal level, then at some point the bubble's going to burst and it's going to become chaos - and that's exactly what happened."

Although he has no regrets about the protests themselves, he believes the fatwa was damaging to the aims of British Muslims.

"For me it was just a tragic step in a tragic long episode and I think this caused the biggest division - it was the beginning of the division of Muslims and everybody else, including inside our communities," he says.

However, looking back on the events of 1989, Mr Nawaz still believes the community was right to do what it did.

"Whatever this tragic episode, however it turned out, wherever it ended, I personally think - and I don't really care what non-Muslims think - I think what the Muslims did had to be done."


Inayat Bunglawala
Mr Bunglawala regrets the message the protests sent to non-Muslims

Inayat Bunglawala was a 19-year-old student at Queen Mary College, London, when he attended a large protest against The Satanic Verses in Hyde Park.

"I just remember it being a very glorious summer's day and I'd never seen those kinds of numbers, and we're talking 20 or 30,000 Muslims - British Muslims who had come together," he recalls.

But, some months after the demonstration, Mr Bunglawala found himself questioning its achievements. As a student who read a great deal of books, he was particularly troubled by the message some of the protests had sent to others.

"The whole book-burning thing conjured up very horrible images, you know of Nazi Germany, and clearly most people find that a lot more disturbing," says Mr Bunglawala, of Luton.

"It just played into this stereotype of Muslims being opposed to modernity or incapable of adapting to modernity, of being narrow minded, not willing to listen to the arguments of others, being intent on enforcing their views upon others, regardless of what others may think.

Protests in Slough
Protests also took place elsewhere, including Slough in Berkshire

"So it just created a whole batch of some very unfortunate stereotypes which we are still battling now 20 years on."

Somewhat ironically, reading Salman Rushdie's Imaginary Homelands - the collection of essays the author wrote in hiding - also persuaded Mr Bunglawala the tactics of the UK protesters had been wrong.

"To use offence as the reason to call for a book to be withdrawn has all sorts of repercussions - far wider repercussions - because who is to decide what is offensive?" he asks.

Finally, on reflection, Mr Bunglawala believes the book-burnings and protests were damaging and misguided.

"Looking back on it, there was the realisation that we may have done ourselves a great deal more harm than good."

Archive On 4: The Book Burners was broadcast on Saturday, 7 February, 2009 at 2000 GMT on BBC Radio 4.

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