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.
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.
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.