The Manchester speech on the Rushdie affair (October 21, 1989)

A major element of the Rushdie affair was the demand from many of Rushdie’s supporters that Dr Kalim Siddiqui be prosecuted for incitement to murder. The calls came after a speech by Dr Kalim in Manchester on October 21, 1989, which was filmed by the BBC and reported in the BBC news that evening. The speech came the day after a BBC program had run a poll that concluded that only 35 percent of Muslims in Britain agreed with Imam Khomeini’s fatwa. During the question and answer session, Dr Siddiqui asked for a show of hands on the same question. It was this that the BBC reported as a call for Rushdie’s murder. This context is usually omitted from accounts of the episode.

By this time, after months of controversy, Dr Kalim was already a hate figure in the British establishment. There followed an intense media campaign in support of the call for prosecution, in which his guilt was treated as self-evident. After months of this hype, the Director of Public Prosecutions announced in late January 1990 that the Crown Prosecution Service had concluded that no prosecution was possible because of ‘lack of evidence’ that a crime had been committed. This episode is often presented in accounts of the Rushdie Affair as a perverse decision that proves that the authorities were unwilling to take on a firm stand against Muslims.  

As the campaign intensified, Dr Siddiqui attempted to have the text of his speech published as an advertisement in major newspapers, so that people would know what he had actually said, as opposed to what the BBC and other media had reported that he had said. In what appeared to be a co-ordinated response, every paper refused to accept the advertisement. (The draft sent to the papers is available here.) This was despite the fact that the BBC had filmed the entire event, so the accuracy of the text was not in question.

In November 1989, the text of the speech was included in a reprint of Dr Kalim’s speech at the Muslim Institute conference on the Rushdie affair in April 1989. In the introduction to this reprint, Dr Kalim wrote:

At the end of my speech in Manchester I referred to this BBC programme and invited the audience to raise their hands if they disagreed with the BBC opinion poll. Practically all those present, perhaps as many as 500, raised their hands. The BBC television news that evening ignored the fact that I had challenged the finding of their opinion poll and reported, in sensationalized form, that I had called for the death of Rushdie. The BBC kept up this hype for 24 hours, including on its overseas broadcasts in over 50 languages. The BBC television report was also screened in many countries throughout the world. On Monday, October 23, no fewer than five national daily newspapers in Britain carried editorial comments demanding that I be put on trial for incitement to murder. My ‘crime’ was that I had put to a live audience the same question that the BBC had put to a ‘sample’. Perhaps they were more angered by the fact that I had demonstrated, in the most dramatic fashion possible, the total unity and consensus that existed on this issue among Muslims in Britain.

A few weeks later a High Court judge ordered the BBC to hand over to the Director of Public Prosecutions the film of the Manchester meeting. In the House of Lords, Lord Stoddart has described Islam as ‘naked, brute and primitive fascism’. Lord Jenkins, a former Home Secretary, has called for my speedy prosecution. This, then, is a story that will run and run whether or not I am put on trial. I confess that I am quite looking forward to it. In any case, we are all on trial at the bar of history but this time the Muslims do not propose to be defeated, insha’Allah.

The text of the Manchester speech on the Rushdie affair, October 21, 1989.

The first thing that needs to be said is that there now exists an uneasy stalemate between the publishers and supporters of Mr Rushdie on the one hand and the Muslim community on the other. This state of deadlock and confrontation is unsatisfactory and dangerous for all who live in Britain today. In the long term, the existence of an unhappy and resentful minority can lead to grave social conflict, the precise consequences of which are difficult to predict. Even if leaders of the Muslim community in Britain were to succeed in preventing this stalemate boiling over into violent conflict, which is by no means certain, the continued publication and distribution of The Satanic Verses will represent a timebomb set to explode at some time in the future.

At the Conservative Party conference in Blackpool Mrs Thatcher claimed that her philosophy of free enterprise had brought freedom to Eastern Europe and reform to the Soviet Union. Clearly, the British government is aware that we no longer inhabit an island. What we do here has implications throughout the world now and into the distant future. Mrs Thatcher and the British government obviously acknowledge the power of great ideas and value systems that are universally held and deeply cherished. These ideas and values cannot be contained within national boundaries. The British government ought now to acknowledge that Islam in Britain and the Muslim community here are not their own ‘internal affair’. What happens to Islam and the Muslim Community in Britain is the concern of the global Muslim community comprising one billion souls, or one-fifth of the world’s population. It is true that for the moment most of these one billion Muslims live under political systems that are largely secular and subservient to the west. This, however, is a temporary phase. A time will undoubtedly come when, like Iran, most Muslim countries will shake off their secular and subservient regimes. Just as the west’s firm commitment to ‘freedom’ and ‘free enterprise’ has helped bring change in Eastern Europe, the current wave of Islamic awakening in all parts of the world is bound to bring freedom from western domination to Muslims everywhere. When that happens, Muslims of the world and their new leaders and States are likely to treat Britain and British interests abroad in the light of the conduct of the British government in the Rushdie affair. Even if it were possible for the British government to silence the small Muslim minority today, in the long term the cost of such a victory is certain to be of Pyrrhic proportions. The British government would do well not to forget that Muslims are part of a global culture and civilization which is bound to exercise great influence on world affairs in the future as it has done in the past.

Let me remind those now baying for Muslim blood that our campaign against Mr Rushdie and The Satanic Verses has already achieved major goals. First of all, we have shown that our commitment to Islam takes precedence over all other secular commitments. The Muslim community has overwhelmingly endorsed the death sentence passed on Rushdie by the late Imam Khomeini. The fatwa, which is according to the Divine Law of Islam, will remain valid until executed. To hold that position is no different from the majority view in Britain in favour of bringing back the death penalty. But Mr Rushdie knows the Muslim feeling in such matters only too well to risk coming out of hiding. He is already serving it well-deserved life-sentence.

The public protest mounted by Muslims in Britain has also established the fact that being ‘British’ does not isolate us from the world community to which we belong. Our duty to Islam and solidarity with the world body of Muslims are not negotiable. Other communities in Britain, notably zionist Jews, Roman Catholics and Sikhs, also have extraterritorial loyalties which are recognized and protected by the British government. Thus we are asking for no exceptional treatment.

The Muslim campaign has also established that the principle that ‘freedom of speech’ is not, and cannot be, an absolute value in British law and custom. Words, written or spoken, must take into account their likely impact on the society at large. Those who insult and abuse have their just desserts coming to them. We are not prepared to be insulted and abused now or at any time in the future. All accomplices in the present controversy – publishers, booksellers, libraries and their staffs – should re-examine their roles and risks in handling this worthless piece of trash called The Satanic Verses.

The accusation of intolerance levelled at us is puerile. Muslims have throughout history accepted the right of non-Muslim scholars to write works critical of Islam and the Prophet of lslam. Western scholars have been doing so for many hundreds of years. Muslim scholars have answered such criticism at the academic level. The charge of intolerance against us is unfair and designed to mislead public opinion. The Satanic Verses is not a work of scholarship. It does not argue a thesis or contribute to our knowledge. It is not even a novel; it is not fiction but faction. The characters are not fictional. Unlike fiction, the characters in it are easily identifiable as real people who have lived or are still living. Neither has Rushdie’s tirade of abuse and insult, among others, any literary value. This book has no place in a civilized society, indeed in a civilized world. I have said this before and I’ll say it again: this author and his book have got to go. We Muslims are ready to do all that it takes to see that they do. There is but one solution to this problem, and that is the total and unconditional withdrawal of The Satanic Verses. Rushdie’s bloated profits and those of his publishers should be donated to a Muslim charity established to compensate those affected by death and injury caused in the course of protest against The Satanic Verses.

The present situation in the Muslim community in Britain is that every time a Muslim sees The Satanic Verses displayed in a bookshop or library, he feels personally insulted and humiliated. He is also reminded of his duty to bring to book those guilty of this capital offence against Islam. It is a tribute to the self-restraint exercised by Muslims so far that this provocation has not yet caused a breach of the peace leading to damage to property and personal injury. But while this provocation endures, and the publishers have plans to extend it, leaders of the Muslim community in Britain cannot give an undertaking that Muslims will always exercise such restraint; indeed, there already exist pressures within the Muslim community for some form of direct action against publishers, booksellers and libraries handling The Satanic Verses.

Muslims living in Britain cannot ignore the fact that the British government has taken up a position of extreme hostility towards Islam and the Muslim community here. We are now an oppressed minority and like all oppressed minorities, entitled to organize ourselves for self-defence. The conduct of the British police at recent marches, especially during the march in London on May 27, has been flagrantly hostile to Muslims.  In this controversy the law has been used to oppress the Muslims, and to defend the alleged right of Rushdie, his publishers and supporters to attack, insult and abuse us. This situation is intolerable.

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