suffa tul mosque, bradford

A Dutch TV company, VPRO, is making a documentary about the Rushdie affair, partly using my book From Fatwa to Jihad as a template. And as part of the documentary it wanted a ‘renunion’ between myself and Sher Azam, the president of the Bradford Council of Mosques in the 1980s and the man who organized the torching of The Satanic Verses at the end of the famous demonstration in January 1989. I was not at the demonstration, but shortly afterwards went to Bradford to interview Azam, an interview that I later republished in From Fatwa to Jihad.

And so, on Saturday, I was back to Bradford to meet Sher Azam, whom I had not seen since that interview in 1989. He did not remember me, of course. He was as I remembered him from 26 years ago (yes, I know, that makes me feel very old). Tall, stiff-backed and with a patriarch-style beard, he was gentle in manner, very charming and courteous, even in the midst of heated debate. And heated debate we did have – and on much the same lines as back in 1989.

Does he feel the same way about The Satanic Verses today as he did quarter of a century ago, I asked him. The passage of time had not reduced the obvious pain he felt at the very thought of Rushdie’s novel. ‘I do not think of it too often’, he said, ‘but when I do it brings back old wounds.’ He mentioned again and again seeing grown men with tears running down the cheeks at the thought of what Rushdie had been written. All I want, he insisted, was to practice his faith without being offended or insulted or being hurt. He did not mind criticism of Islam, what he objected to was offence or insult or abuse.

Who decides what is criticism and what is abuse, I asked him. The people who feel offended or abused, he responded.

I reminded Azam of a controversy in 2006 when Iqbal Sacranie, then the head of the Muslim Council of Britain, made some derogatory comments about homosexuality on BBC Radio 4’s Today programme, insisting that it was ‘harmful’ and a ‘sin’. Sacranie saw it as expressing the Islamic view. Many gay groups saw it as deeply offensive. The Metropolitan Police launched an investigation into Sacranie’s supposed ‘hate speech’. In response 22 Muslim leaders wrote a letter to the Times demanding the right to be able to ‘freely express their views without intimidation’.

Why, I asked Sher Azam, should Muslims be allowed to offend others, but others barred from expressing views that Muslims find offensive? Muslims are not setting out to offend anyone, he responded, simply to live their lives as demanded by God.

Satanic Verses burning

But if gays do not have the right to censor Muslims, why should Muslims have the right to censor Salman Rushdie? Are you saying that gays should have the right to censor Muslim, asked Azam. No, I said, Muslims should be able to express their beliefs, even if gays are offended. But, equally, Rushdie should be able to write a novel that some Muslims might find insulting. What I find troubling, I told Azam, is the demand that Muslims should be able to offend others, but others cannot offend Muslims; that books or cartoons should be banned or censored because some Muslims deem them offensive.

But we never tried to ban The Satanic Verses, he responded; we just called for the book to be withdrawn. Is there a difference, I asked. Yes, said Azam, if an author knows that a book causes hurt or is insulting, the moral act would be for him or her voluntarily to withdraw that book.

Many people find the Qur’an offensive, I observed. In the Netherlands, the populist politician Geert Wilders has campaigned to ban the Qur’an on the grounds that it is hateful and offensive. Should the Qur’an be withdrawn because others find it offensive? No, Azam responded,  because the Qur’an is the work of God, not of humans. Only God could withdraw it.

That’s very convenient, I pointed out. But what about all the books on Muslim faith written by humans that express views that others find offensive. Should they be withdrawn? Should imams refrain from giving sermons that condemn homosexuality a sin, or that refer to other claims, that non-Muslims (and, indeed, many Muslims) may find offensive? No, Azam replied. All that Muslims are trying to do is live by God’s word; and that they should be allowed to do.

And so it went on, a debate impossible to resolve. At one level it was a confrontation between a man of faith, implacably attached to what he regards as the literal word of God, and a secularist with liberal views of rights, freedoms and speech. But while there is something indelibly old fashioned about Sher Azam’s views, and something ineradicably and illiberally rooted in faith, there is also something very contemporary about his notion as to what constitutes acceptable and unacceptable speech, and about where the red lines (his phrase) should be drawn.

In the past, for instance, blasphemy referred to an expression of incorrect belief. What concerns Sher Azam is less the issue of false doctrine than of hurt feelings. This shift is very much a product of our age, and not confined to religious believers.

There is also something very contemporary in Azam’s argument about the kinds of speech that should be protected. The idea that the Qur’an should be protected because it constitutes the word of God may seem a very old-fashioned, traditional claim. And yet, ironically, many contemporary liberals use a similar kind of argument about speech that should be protected, turning not God’s word but human rights into that which is sacred.

sher azam

I was recently involved in a Twitter debate about the legal verdict on Ashers bakery in Northern Ireland. In May, the Belfast High Court found the bakery guilty of discrimination for refusing to bake a cake with the message ‘Support gay marriage’. According to the judge, Ashers had, as a business, ‘to provide service to all’.

I took issue with the judgment. Ashers had not discriminated against gays – it was willing to serve gays. What it was unwilling to do was to bake a cake with a specific message with which the owners fundamentally disagreed; they would have refused whether the customer had been gay or straight because they did not wish to express a belief contrary to their conscience. That seemed to me reasonable. Would, I wondered, a gay (or, indeed, any) baker be compelled to bake a cake for a Christian with the slogan ‘Homosexuality is a sin’?

I received a host of responses to my tweets, nearly all critical. To say ‘Homosexuality is a sin’, the critics argued, is a form of hate speech, whereas to say ‘Support gay marriage’ is to express a fundamental human right. The former should therefore be a banned expression, the latter a protected one.

I profoundly disagree with Sher Azam’s (and Ashers’) religious views, and I am a supporter of same-sex marriage. But the idea that someone should not be able to express the sentiment that homosexuality is a sin, or that an expression in defence of equal rights should receive special protection, seems to me to follow the same logic as Azam’s own: that certain forms of expression are ‘sacred’ and therefore should be protected, while other forms of expression attack beliefs taken to sacred (whether in a religious or secular sense) and therefore should be banned.

I liked Sher Azam, now as I did then. While there is no meeting point in our views about gay rights or freedom or speech or Islam, I took to his gentleness and courtesy. He is old fashioned, in good ways as well as bad. But he is, perhaps, not quite as old fashioned as many would like to imagine.


The top photo is of Suffa Tul Islam Central Mosque, Horton Park Avenue, Bradford by Tim Green. The photo of the torching of the Satanic Verses is © Garry Clarkson. My thanks to Garry for giving me permission to publish it on Pandaemonium.


  1. Right now, Pastor Pastor James McConnell faces prosecution for describing Islam as pagan and satanic. I consider these comments totally ill-informed; Islam is rigidly monotheistic, worshipping the same God as the Pastor, and the reference to Satan is nonsense.

    The Pastor belongs to a Church that proclaims the utter depravity of man, and threatens the godless (by now about half the population of the UK) with the Lake of Fire. These doctrines are thoroughly evil and sadistic.

    The Pastor now faces prosecution for expressing his views. He should not be. If he is not free to express his opinions, then neither, in the last resort, am I.

  2. “There is also something very contemporary in Azam’s argument about the kinds of speech that should be protected. The idea that the Qur’an should be protected because it constitutes the word of God may seem a very old-fashioned, traditional claim. And yet, ironically, many contemporary liberals use a similar kind of argument about speech that should be protected, turning not God’s word but human rights into that which is sacred.”

    The problem I have with this argument is that I have pretty good evidence that humans exist, gods not so much.

    Human rights do not include the right not to be offended. The attitude of this old man demonstrates the difficulty of reaching any accommodation between theists and non-theists. It seems to me to be contemporary only in the sense we see the same intransigence all too often.

    • The fact that humans exist and God does not, does not alter the fact that we should regard neither religious doctrine nor human rights claims as speech to be ‘protected’ in any sense, and neither as beyond criticism or ridicule or even abuse.

        • I wrote that I liked Sher Azam’s courtesy and civility. I’m not sure, though, how it is possible to read that exchange and imagine that I was sympathetic to his views on free speech or offence.

  3. Kenan, you have hit the nail on the head with your reference to “hurt feelings. This shift is very much a product of our age…”
    The issue that drives so much hate in our age is expressed in the culture of our age, the Cult of Dis. This statement being uttered, “I believe you have dissed me, therefore I have the permission of our culture to shoot you”, is the poor man’s perverted version of a fatwah. Hearing this, we react in the same way as people did during the Inquisition – despite the sense that something is deeply troubling, we turn away to the inevitability that the man of Dis will get his way. He will point his shiny weapon sideways, growling a demand for abject apology. This is reflected in the rap-rant arising out of disadvantaged neighbourhoods around the world.
    In too much of the world, at the local level and at the national level, the Cult of Dis has replaced respectful discussion, consensus, and good government.

  4. steve roberts

    Azam may genuinely feel offended and harmed by someones else’s expression, he may also not have any other ulterior motive i.e. a political position deliberately posited that will limit the freedom of speech. But it matters not, harm is extremely subjective and whilst on occasions most would accept that some harm is gratuitous and unwarranted it cannot under any circumstances be used as a reason to justify limiting ,in any form, our freedom of speech we should be absolute in this for many reasons outlined in previous articles.

  5. steve roberts

    Kenan, regarding the “cake” issue, i take your point differentiating between been prepared to serve but not promoting the message, however this does not address the more fundamental issue of the right to discriminate. I admit now i have been unable to work this one through myself. Should individuals or collectives have the right to discriminate ? Always? In a limited area? Is there a distinction between the private and public sphere and what determines that distinction ? Should the state be able to enforce anti discriminatory laws or indeed discriminatory laws ?

    • My view is that in the public sphere people have a reasonable expectation of equal treatment, and that it is right to outlaw discrimination on the basis of race, gender, sexuality etc. As a society we should tolerate as far as is possible the desire of people to live according to their conscience, and the state should interfere as little as possible. But that toleration ends when someone acting upon his or her conscience causes harm to another without consent, or infringes another’s genuine rights. I discuss some of the issues and dilemmas in my
      ‘Notes on Religious Freedom’

      • Kenan, I think your position is entirely clear. The bakers rejected the order, not because they were discriminating against individuals, but because they did not approve of the message. This puts them morally, and perhaps legally, in the same position as a left-leaning printer who rejects an order to print Conservative election leaflets.

        I hope we all agree that there would be no grounds for legal action in the second case. If we agree (as I do) that the two cases are morally analogous, then the law is bad or the case was wrongly decided.

        It is up to those who support the judgement to explain why the two situations are different. Some people will feel hurt or insulted by the bakers’ actions, but, crucially, that should be irrelevant.

  6. nannus

    For hurt feelings to occur, it takes two people, one who is saying something offending and another one who swallows it. I think you cannot really hurt another person’s feelings but the person hurts his or her own feelings (or pretends to do so because of group pressure). They decide to be hurt, to swallow the offence, and they could just as well leave it. To feel hurt is not something that happens to you, it is an activity. I think children must be protected since their ability to controll their feelings might still be underdeveloped, but an adult should be able to live with offending statements.

  7. John Dickinson

    “the idea that someone should not be able to express the sentiment that homosexuality is a sin…” That is not what the law is enforcing. The bakers can saw what they like. People make a business in a market. That market is limited. It is also regulated for everyone’s benefit. The bakers can try to make a living providing a service in a market, and the rule of law makes it possible. The limited services that exist in that market have to be available to everyone.

    • The line ‘the idea that someone should not be able to express the sentiment that homosexuality is a sin…’ was directed not at the Ashers judgment but at critics of my view who declared it hate speech to insist that homosexuality was a sin, and hence an expression that should be banned. My argument about Ashers is different. The bakery did not discriminate against gays – it was happy to serve gays. What it was not happy to do was to provide a specific service, which it felt would run contrary to the owners’ conscience. It would have refused that particular service to everyone, gay or straight. That seems to me a reasonable stance, and not one that is discriminatory. You write: ‘The limited services that exist in that market have to be available to everyone.’ In this case it was. It seems to me bizarre if the law requires not just that business do not discriminate, but also that a business must provide any service demanded of it.

  8. The extreme selfishness of this man, the inability to have empathy for anyone else while demanding empathy for himself is too much to bear. Is this what Islam teaches? Such selfishness?

  9. friendlypig

    I was at that protest on the day in question as a Police officer. When we arrived at the staring point there were already substntial numbers present and coaches were arriving every couple of minutes from every town in West Yorkshire and not a few from across the border in Lancashire. As the passengers disambarked they were handed placards; strictly speaking they were brush handles with a piece of plywood nailed to the top displaying on one side a notice bearing the legend -DEATH TO RUSHDIE, on the other usually a photograph. My job and that of my officers was to move amongst the crowd explaining that they would not be allowed to leave unless the comments related to Rushdie were removed, If they did attempt to leave the venue they would be arrested. There were no arrests at this point. Interestingly enough speaking to many of those there none of them had never heard of Rushdie or his book, and not one single person had even seen it. They had simply been told that a book had been written criticising the Prophet.
    It was a fun day.

  10. In the Christian past, punishment of blasphemy was usually somewhat separate from punishment for heresy – heresy being the wrong doctrine charge, and blasphemy charges more a matter of protecting the social order (though there was also the idea in both categories that the Church had a mandate to step in to spiritually try and save a blasphemer from himself – likelihood of eternal damnation, even at the cost of his earthly life). Expressions of atheism, for example, were generally considered a threat to social order…as this was held by many to be guaranteed only by religious belief…which was sometimes reflected in reverse with people considered to be behaving in a way that threatened social order defined as atheists, even though they were not so by our standards…
    I agree that the “hurt feelings” aspect so often brought up today, primarily but not exclusively by Muslims, is part of a larger change in social attitudes, but that is not quite an adequate diagnosis in the case of Islam. Despite all the similarities there are some strong dissimilarities between Christian and Muslim religious and social culture, one being the much more intense, widespread notion of honour, meaning that insult/ridicule is differently experienced. Christians and post-Christians are generally somewhat bewildered not only by the aggression of Islamic responses to insult to Mohammed (and it’s Mo, curiously, rather than Allah himself, that seems to require defence of this kind) but also its mawkishness…the tears and lamentations…the apparent feeling that many Muslims have that they are being smitten in their very individual and social existence…that words are a “killing” attack, a public “stain” that something just has to be done about in order to restore peace of mind (prestige, integrity of individual and communal personality). These are symptoms of a lack of robust distinction between interior state of the soul and exterior reputation that is typical of honour/shame thinking…(remember, by the way, that a major Islamic argument against Christ’s death on the cross is that a Prophet (as Muslims regard Jesus) simply could not have been allowed by God (or society) to perish in this shameful, disgraceful way…)

  11. “Old fashioned” and similar terms are common “arguments” in public debates, but, of course, no help for answering questions concerning plausibility or truth: You are entirely right, that the strategies on both sides may be the same, when we consider that claiming instead of arguing produces a kind of winner.

    In the case of human rights we perhaps have a special problem: These are fundamental values of some societies, for which you could argue to a certain point (e.g. in regard to reason), but you won’t find an argument which counts for all, because our predispositions may be different. In the end we probably have to say: These are the values of our societies, (please) respect them (which is not much different from postulating sacredness or holiness). — I think we should argue for our values (as for any other thing) as long as possible, but there may be a point at which we could no longer do so.

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