‘Satanic Verses’ Revives Debate on Diversity : Multicultural Concept Takes Beating in Britain

Times Staff Writer

The guiding principle behind Britain’s minorities policy was defined in 1966 by then-Home Secretary Roy Jenkins as “not a flattening process of assimilation but as equal opportunity accompanied by cultural diversity, in an atmosphere of mutual tolerance.”

Those comments, the Independent newspaper recalled the other day, “marked the point at which the authorities formally embraced multiculturalism, to which all subsequent governments have also been committed. The American concept of the melting pot was consciously rejected.

“Immigrants and their offspring were no longer to be taught the language and customs of their new homeland as rapidly as possible, encouraged to abandon their ‘alien’ ways and then left to compete for jobs and status,” the newspaper said in an editorial. “It was not to be assumed that members of ethnic minorities would--or should--be willing to submerge themselves over a period of generations. The nation, it was argued, would be enriched, rather than endangered by continuing diversity.”

Rethinking Position


More than two decades later, a controversial, Bombay-born author and Britain’s newly assertive Muslim minority have triggered what may be the most serious reappraisal of those ideas since Jenkins voiced them.

Much of the rest of the world remains focused on the international repercussions of Salman Rushdie’s novel, “The Satanic Verses,” particularly on the “death sentence” pronounced on the author by Iran’s spiritual guide and supreme leader, the Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini. But here, where the book controversy first surfaced, the domestic impact is looming increasingly large.

There are already signs that British conservatives, long uncomfortable with a multicultural concept that they believe weakens the national fiber, are using the Rushdie affair to discredit it, said Bhikhu Parekh, a professor of political theory at Hull University and deputy chairman of the government’s Commission for Racial Equality.

“Multiculturalism . . . might not survive,” Parekh, a Hindu, said in an interview.


‘This Is a Cancer’

There have been previous periods of tension between Britain’s white Anglo-Saxon majority of 94% and its tiny Muslim minority, conceded Hesham Essawy, chairman of London’s Islamic Society for the Promotion of Religious Tolerance in the United Kingdom. But “the previous ones were like measles and chicken pox, and this is a cancer.”

The government is concerned enough that it reportedly devoted much of a recent Cabinet meeting to the subject. And last Friday, Home Secretary Douglas Hurd paid a well-publicized visit to Muslim leaders at the Birmingham Central Mosque. While pledging to respect minority customs and beliefs, Hurd warned that “no ethnic or religious minority is likely to thrive in this country if it seeks to isolate itself from the mainstream of British life. . . .”

“This government wants a country where all citizens, whatever their origins, have a sense of belonging to Britain, and where they both enjoy the liberties and shoulder the duties which go with that citizenship,” he said.

On the same day that Hurd spoke in Birmingham, Times of London columnist Barbara Amiel called for rescinding Britain’s existing race relations laws. “It seems to me that the solution to the problem facing Britain today must begin with the recognition that our aim of creating a multicultural society was an error,” she wrote.

Must Go in Same Direction

“We can have a multiracial society, and we can certainly say to our citizens that it doesn’t matter where you come from, but I don’t think we can go on saying it doesn’t matter where you are going,” Amiel argued. “If we want one country, our citizens must be going in the same direction. . . . We have to tell newcomers that it is their job to make peace with British culture and its values.”

Even the New Statesman magazine, a consistent campaigner for minority rights, found itself deeply troubled by the implications of the angry British Muslim reaction to Rushdie’s book. It “poses an acute problem for those who wish to see an end to racial discrimination and respect for religious and cultural differences,” the magazine said.


It is essential, the New Statesman added, “to insist on reciprocity. If we must tolerate that in some communities women are not allowed to go bareheaded in public, then those who insist upon such customs must also respect our right to hold such discrimination as repugnant.”

There are already examples of a more violent white backlash against Britain’s estimated 1 million Muslims. Essawy said in an interview that he has received three death threats in recent days, and both Muslim and non-Muslim sources confirm an upsurge in harassment of Muslim schoolchildren.

A firebomb was thrown recently at the London central mosque in Regents Park. And in Bradford, a northern English city with a large and reputedly militant Muslim population, intruders broke into the offices of the local Council of Mosques and defaced them. “Leave Rushdie alone or else!” one bit of graffiti warned.

A month before Khomeini’s call for Rushdie’s death put the affair on the world’s front pages, Muslims in Bradford publicly burned a copy of “The Satanic Verses” and finally captured the attention of the British public.

Before that, Essawy noted, their protests that the book was offensive to Islam were virtually ignored.

Rushdie’s book was published here last September. On Oct. 12, Essawy wrote to the publisher, warning that the novel is “insulting in the extreme to everything that the Muslims hold sacred.” Without being specific, the Islamic activist urged the firm to “take some kind of corrective stand before the monster that you have so needlessly created grows, as I am sure it will do worldwide, into something uncontrollable by any of us.”

Essawy said that Muslim leaders here spent more than $10,000 on legal advice but were finally told they had no grounds to sue. Finally, one attorney suggested they publicly burn the book to call attention to their complaints. They did--three times. But it was only the third burning, in Bradford, that got them significant publicity.

The Rev. Rod Marshall, an aide to Bradford’s Anglican Bishop Robert Kerr Williamson, said in a telephone interview that the incident revealed a dangerous institutional gap in the city. “It was absolutely clear there was no forum to deal with problems like this,” he said. Now, he added, there are moves afoot to create a new “interfaith forum” that might help cool passions before a similar situation gets out of hand.


Both Sides Insensitive

If Britain’s non-Muslim press and public failed to grasp the depth of Islamic anger quickly enough, Bradford’s Muslims displayed equal lack of sensitivity in burning Rushdie’s book, said Parekh of the Racial Equality Commission. The Anglo-Saxon majority automatically equated the action with Nazism.

“If the initial protesters had used only a little forethought, they would have realized that what they were doing was profoundly against the traditions of the country in which they live,” the Financial Times said in an editorial. “We do not burn books, even symbolically.”

Most Britons were also outraged when a number of British Muslims interviewed on television or in the press endorsed Khomeini’s death threats against Rushdie. Some of the Muslims even pledged to carry it out themselves if given the chance.

Essawy condemned Khomeini’s remarks as “almost blasphemous” and said that those who echoed them on the streets of Bradford and other Muslim communities did so out of a misguided and meaningless effort “to prove their religious virility. . . . Some of these people I know, and they wouldn’t hurt a fly.”

But Parekh said that Muslims must accept their responsibility for inflaming the situation by such remarks.

“Whatever the provocation, the eagerness with which some of them fell for Khomeini’s horrendous fatwa (religious decree) is deplorable,” he wrote in a column for the Independent last week. “It is unacceptable that they should even debate whether Rushdie ‘deserves’ to be killed. . . . If British Muslims do not treat the fatwa as it deserves, they will remain open to the legitimate charges of violating the integrity of the British state and failing to live up to their minimal obligations as its citizens.”

Anglican spokesman Marshall said that Bradford’s Muslims have in recent days pledged to keep their anti-Rushdie protests within the bounds of British law and have particularly “distanced themselves from the international death threat” against the author. That has calmed the situation there, if only temporarily.

More significantly, according to London School of Economics sociologist Christopher T. Husbands, the Rushdie affair has demonstrated “a new assertiveness” among Britain’s Muslims that is “symptomatic of a turning away from the wider society.”

Essawy suggested that it is the wider society that has never accepted the Muslims, despite its stated commitment to multiculturalism. “Britain has opened its borders to the Muslims but not its heart,” he said.

But whatever the case, the fallout from the Rushdie controversy has exposed deep fissures in British society that have troublesome long-term implications.

Said the Independent: “Roy Jenkins’ philosophy was predicated on the expectation that the minorities would also demonstrate tolerance and the implicit belief that all manifestations of cultural diversity would be benign. It is becoming disturbingly apparent that this is not the case.”