, Volume 45, Issue 2, pp 181–190 | Cite as

Islamists in the “Rainbow” Coalition



In the 1980s, Britain’s Labour Party promoted a system of race-relations that envisioned Britain as a collection of discrete cultures with equal status. This multicultural model for organizing society conflicted with traditional British notions of a unified national culture, with an assimilationist model of immigrant incorporation. Today, the Labour Party’s relationship with Islamists is sharply dividing Labour’s “rainbow” constituency. Whereas the horrific events of 9/11 and 7/7 have led many Labour leaders to replace its defense of multiculturalism with Tory-sounding calls for immigrant assimilation, other Labour leaders are working harder than ever to accommodate their Muslim constituents.


Britain Labour Party Muslims Elections Multiculturalism 

“Why did black people come to Britain?” asks a small schoolboy. The teacher answers, “(Because) white people went over to their countries, robbed them of their land and riches, enslaved their people and taught their children to be more loyal to this country than to their own.” This episode was recorded in a cartoon book produced for use in schools by London’s Institute for Race Relations. It expresses several presumptions of the multicultural project that has been aggressively pursued by the British left. This project had four components. First, it rejects Western universalism as a facade for cultural domination. Second, it demands compensatory treatment for formerly colonized racial groups. Third, it rejects the inclusive politics of citizenship and societal integration for the exclusive politics of racial and ethnic identity. Fourth, it subsumes all non-whites in Britain under the label “black,” thereby promoting anti-white solidarity (Joppke 1996:449–52). The multicultural model for ordering social life in Britain has sharply divided British political leaders. In general, the Tory Party has opposed multiculturalism in favor of an assimilationist model of immigrant incorporation. The Labour Party, on the other hand, has until recently promoted multiculturalism as an organizing principle for a post-national and post-colonial society.

For two decades, the Labour Party has depended heavily on Muslim voters in local and national elections. In the 1980s, white, organized, working class men began to abandon the Labour Party, and Labour politicians sought to replace these constituents with a “rainbow coalition” of minority groups, women, and gay rights activists. Of the 160 local councilors in Britain who are Muslim, 153 are members of the Labour Party; six are Liberal; and one is Conservative. In 1997, Labour defeated the Tories with over 90% of the Muslim votes. The horrific events of 9/11 and 7/7 have led many Labour leaders to replace its defense of multiculturalism with Tory-sounding calls for immigrant assimilation, social cohesion, and national unity. But others in the Labour Party are working harder than ever to retain their Muslim base by courting Muslims with dramatic symbolic gestures. Amid protests from Hindus, Jews, Christians, homosexuals, and women, London Mayor Ken Livingstone invited Islamist cleric Yusuf al-Qaradawi to City Hall as his “honoured guest.” In 2005, at the request of Iqbal Sacranie, the general secretary of the Muslim Council of Britain, the Blair government began pushing for a law that would ban “incitement to religious hatred.” The law would apply to publications, plays, films, and broadcasts.

Labour’s trouble with its Muslim constituents began with Britain’s support for the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq. A March 2004 opinion poll, published in the Guardian, showed that Labour support in the Muslim community had halved from 75% in 2001 to 38% in 2004. Only about two million Muslims live in Britain, less than 3% of the population, but they are concentrated in urban centers which are traditional Labour strongholds. Several Labour Members of Parliament (MPs) cannot win elections without Muslim votes, and the threat of defection has increased Muslim political leverage in the Party. “Since the war, the government has realized that the 90 percent that used to support Labour is now down to thirty percent,” said Lord Ahmed, the only Muslim member of the House of Lords. “There is a growing realization by all political parties that we are a crucial vote. Not big, but decisive in crucial seats in city areas.” “A deal was going down,” Nick Cohen wrote in the New Statesman. “Labour was prepared to sacrifice Britain’s liberties and run the risk of religious riots for the sake of grabbing votes. Freedom of speech was to be written off as collateral damage in the war against Saddam Hussein.”

Labour’s U-Turn

An early critic of British multiculturalism was Ray Honeyford, a Bradford headteacher, whose pupils were more than 90% of Indian or Pakistani origin. He published a 1984 article, “Education and Race: An Alternative View,” in the conservative Salisbury Review in which he argued that all children should receive the same education; cultural relativism could only set back their chances of successful social integration. He accused the educational establishment of using the word “racism” to suppress constructive thought. “They apply it with the same sort of mindless zeal as the inquisitors voiced ‘heretic’ or Senator McCarthy spat out ‘Commie.’” “These children knew they were Asian,” Honeyford said. “And they knew they were Muslim. But they didn’t know they were British... All I wanted was for Asian kids to have the same education as their white counterparts, and the overwhelming majority of Asian Parents agreed.”

Honeyford’s resistance to his Local Educational Administration prompted the formation of an “anti-racist front” consisting of the Council of Mosques and various leftist groups, who demanded Honeyford’s dismissal. The Council of Mosques organized demonstrations and a school boycott, and it set up a “pirate” school in the Pakistani cultural center. The local educational authority sent a psychiatrist to see Honeyford, implying he was mentally ill, and the Department of Education sent Baroness Helena Kennedy to interrogate him about his untenable views (Liddle 2004). On the other hand, Margaret Thatcher threw her support behind Honeyford and invited him to Downing Street to address a meeting of educational experts. Tories spoke out against town-hall “totalitarians,” comparing life in Brent and Lambeth to life in Eastern Europe. In response to the politics of ethnic mobilization, Tories coined the famous phrase, “Labour calls him Black, we call him British” (Joppke 1996:483). After various legal actions, Ray Honeyford was forced to take early retirement at the age of 51. He received a golden parachute of £165,000, the largest ever awarded in British education.

In December 2001, the Labour government issued the Candle Report, titled “Community and Cohesion,” that echoed nearly all of the criticisms of multiculturalism in Honeyford’s 1984 article. The Report concluded that the “multiculturalist settlement” that had defined race-relations in Britain for two decades was no longer working. The old multiculturalist formula of “celebrating difference” was to be replaced by a new strategy, “community cohesion.” British “core values” should place limits on multiculturalism, and ethnic minorities should be required to develop “a greater acceptance of principal national institutions.” Since the publication of the Candle Report, Labour Home Secretary David Blunkett has made it clear that learning English and adhering to British law and cultural norms will be explicitly expected of communities that define themselves as culturally or religiously apart from the indigenous one. Blunkett said that practices such as forced marriage and genital mutilation had been allowed to continue because of an over-emphasis on “cultural difference” and “moral relativism.” Blunkett wanted a new framework of core values, which would set limits to the laissez-faire pluralism of the past. Honeyford’s outlook has become mainstream in Labour circles. “Labour has realized its error,” Fraser Nelson wrote in The Spectator. “The Party that fathered multiculturalism suddenly wants to pose as its executioner.”

Labour’s new sensibilities on the issue of Muslim integration were dramatized in October 2006 when Jack Straw, leader of the House of Commons, suggested that women wearing a full veil (niqab) can inhibit inter-community relations. Jack Straw as MP represented a large Muslim constituency, and he has been at the forefront of advocating government funding for Muslim schools. Asked whether he would prefer veils to be abolished completely, Mr Straw said: “Yes. It needs to be made clear I am not talking about being prescriptive but with all the caveats, yes, I would.” Straw said that he had asked women visiting him to consider uncovering their noses and mouths in order to allow better communication. He claimed that no women had ever chosen to wear a full veil after this request.

Tony Blair voiced his support for Straw, calling the veil a “mark of separation,” while London Mayor Ken Livingstone came out on the side of the Muslim minority. Livingstone said, “I guarantee now getting Muslim women to give up the veil... is not going to be done by old white male politicians telling them to do it.” Fraser Nelson wrote, “There is no policy at stake here, nor any question of banning the niqab in Britain, so it is irrelevant what ministers think of it. Instead, the veil debate is serving as a catharsis for Labour, allowing ministers to renounce the pro-diversity agenda which the party has relentlessly pursued for decades.”

Multicultural Britain

At the end of World War II, 800 million persons born outside of the United Kingdom could claim the status of “British subjects” with the right of settlement in Britain. The British Nationality Act of 1948 solemnly affirmed the existence of a single Commonwealth citizenship in Britain and her former colonies, with the equal right to enter Britain freely, work, and settle. In a Westminster debate over immigration policy, a Tory Minister expressed the Commonwealth ideal then prevalent among the British elite: “In a world in which restrictions on personal movement and immigration have increased, we can still take pride in the fact that a man can say civis Britannicus sum whatever his color may be, and we take pride in the fact that if he wants, [he] can come to the Mother Country” (Joppke 1996:478).

In the 1960s, Britain’s faltering economy and popular anxieties about immigrants undermined Commonwealth idealism and prompted British legislators to tighten its policies on immigration. The Commonwealth Immigration Act of 1962 limited entry to people with work permits and to close family members of permit holders. In 1968, when British Asians were expelled from Kenya, Parliament quickly passed the new Commonwealth Immigrants Act. This Act clearly violated earlier promises by banning these expellees from entry into Britain. The Immigration Act of 1971 tied the right of residency to the existence of at least one British grandparent—an indirect way of expressing British preference for white immigrants. Finally, the British Nationality Act of 1981 established a three tier system of British-dependent territory and overseas citizenship, with the right of entry and residence for “British citizens” only. Throughout the 1980s, Mrs. Thatcher pursued an immigration policy that she described as “firm but fair.” Her critics accused her of pursuing policies that “detect and keep out that one extra black.”

Labour governments, in contrast, built a race-relations regime based on anti-colonial ideologies that viewed Britain as a collection of distinct cultures, with equal status (Joppke 1996:480). The Labour Party’s race policies challenged the Tory presumption of a unified national culture, and they sought compensatory treatment for formerly colonized peoples. The first Race Relations Act of 1965 set up a board to combat racial discrimination in public places. This law inaugurated what has become known in Britain as the “race-relations industry”—publicly funded professionals who promote racial equality. The Race Relations Act in 1968 authorized the board to investigate discrimination in employment, housing, and the social service industry. Finally, the Race Relations Act of 1976 banned “indirect” discrimination, and established the Commission for Racial Equality (CRE) to perform official investigations and to make policy recommendations. To enforce these laws, Labour governments set up an elaborate network of local Race Relations Councils (RRC) to dispense social services and to monitor racial discrimination. By 1990, there were 80 RRCs in Britain, with over 600 employees (Joppke 1996:480–81).

The success of British multiculturalism is dramatized in the wide latitude that minority cultures have to express their cultural distinctiveness. In a country that forces students to wear school uniforms, ethnic-minority children are generally free to wear their traditional religious dress. In the workplace, religiously prescribed beards, headgear, and time-outs for prayer are generally honored. The CRE’s Code of Practice, approved by Parliament in 1983, states, “Where employees have particular cultural and religious needs which conflict with existing work requirements, it is recommended that employers... adapt these requirements to enable such needs to be met.” The Code protects religious minorities who wish to observe prayer times and religious holidays. It protects South Asian girls who wish to wear saris or shalwar trousers to school. It exempts turban-wearing Sikhs from wearing crash helmets when motorcycling. The Slaughterhouse Act of 1974 exempts Muslims from laws requiring that animals be stunned before slaughtered. The Water Act of 1989 enables Hindus to scatter human ashes and sink corpses in tidal and estuary waters. Christian Joppke writes, “A short walk along East London’s Brick Lane or Southhall’s South Road conveys authentic images of Islamabad or the Punjab, with Muslim, Hindu, and Sikh men, women and children in their traditional dresses, the sight of mosques, and exotic smells and oriental music from the bazaars and tea houses” (Joppke 1996:481). In these neighborhoods, people may adopt British citizenship while insulating themselves from British values, language, and customs.

In the 1980s, British multiculturalism became a fighting creed, steeped in the Marxist rhetoric of class struggle. At the center of the militant anti-racist movement was the Greater London Council (GLC), which was led by Ken Livingstone (“Red Ken”). When the GLC fell into Labour hands in 1981, it became the “flagship of municipal socialism.” With 22,000 employees and no direct service responsibilities, the GLC was free to devote itself entirely to the politics of war and peace, anti-racism, and gay and lesbian rights. Livingstone vowed to “use the council machinery as part of a political campaign both against the [Thatcher] government and in defense of socialist politics.” Under Livingstone, the GLC declared Greater London to be a “nuclear free zone,” and it funded such groups as “Babes Against the Bomb.” The GLC named 1984 an “anti-racist year,” with festivals, free concerts, and generous grants to organizations that were combating racism. The local anti-racist regime produced a climate of fear and intimidation in public schools and government agencies by setting out to purge them of everything that even hinted at “racism” (Joppke 1996:485). A 1986 Brent Council report found the whole district “permeated with racism overt and covert,” with politicians, teachers, and administrators all “outright racists, patronizing, biased, ethnocentric or simply naively ignorant of the racist context in which they work.” The borough of Brent fired popular teachers for allegedly “racist” remarks and sent 180 race advisers into the schools to inculcate correct attitudes upon the rest. The Hackney, Haringey, and Islington Councils banned the nursery rhyme “Baa Baa Black Sheep” as racially offensive. Closely allied with the Greater London Council was the The Inner London Education Authority (ILEA). In a paper, published in 1983, the ILEA evaluated three approaches to race relations: assimilation, cultural diversity, and equality. Assimilation was “wrong” because of its racist premises of “white cultural superiority.” Cultural diversity was “wrong” because it denied the “structural aspects of racism” and the “power relations between white and black people.” The ILEA endorsed the “equality” perspective in which white people are the problem in need of correction (Joppke 1999:242).

Following the Conservative Party’s electoral victory in 1983, the Thatcher government set out to abolish the Greater London Council, “a wasteful and unnecessary tier of government.” Livingstone launched a massive campaign to “save London’s democracy.” On December 15, 1984, the House of Commons passed the Local Government Act of 1985, and the GLC was formally abolished at midnight on March 31, 1986. In 1987, Livingston was elected to Parliament. In 2000, he became London’s mayor.

The Rushdie Affair

Salman Rushdie’s bestselling novels, Midnight’s Children (1981) and Shame (1983), made him a celebrity among British Muslims. Like many British Muslims, Rushdie was an enthusiastic supporter of the anti-racist, anti-imperialist, anti-capitalist left. Rushdie was a signatory of the anti-Thatcher manifesto Chapter 88, a statement calling for constitutional reform. In a 1984 essay, “Outside the Whale,” Rushdie blamed Thatcher for Britain’s “continuing decline, growing poverty, and meanness of spirit.” In The Satanic Verses, Thatcher is referred to as “Mrs. Torture” and “Maggie the Bitch.” Following the 1981 Brixton Riots, Salman Rushdie called the government’s “race relations” policy “the latest token gesture toward Britain’s blacks.” Rushdie announced that a “new colony” would rise up in Britain against the “one real problem” that afflicted its members: “the racism of white people.”

The Satanic Verses portrays the West as a fascist empire intent upon crushing its ethnic minorities. After surviving a plane crash, the book’s hero, Saladin Chamcha, is picked up by British immigration officers who abuse him verbally, force him to strip, and make him pick up excrement. The police pull the “hair on his rump,” and they “thump and gouge various parts of his anatomy, using him as both a guinea pig and a safety valve.” Rushdie portrays London as seething with racism. Its Pakistani inhabitants are “brown Jews” who live in a state of terror, attacked, harassed, and occasionally murdered by native Brits. Rushdie calls New York City “the transatlantic New Rome with Nazified architectural gigantism.” In The Satanic Verses, the “motherf—ing Americans” and the “sisterf—ing British” are empty creatures “stuffed with money, power, and things.” Cheryl Benard, in the Wall Street Journal, wrote that The Satanic Verses portrays Islam as somewhat rigid, but the West “is a nightmare out of [the movie] Blade Runner.” Rushdie, who Muslims believe wrote a Westernized pamphlet against Islam, in fact “composed an Eastern diatribe against the world of the Unbelievers.”

On January 14, 1989, in Bradford, West Yorkshire, a crowd of Muslims, led by the Bradford Council of Mosques, publicly burned a copy of The Satanic Verses. As the book burst into flames, Muhammad Ajeeb, who had been elected Britain’s first “black” mayor in 1985, addressed the protestors, saying that they bore witness to the indignation aroused by the book. He congratulated the protestors for keeping their demonstration peaceful. The Council of Mosques made sure that this event was videotaped and sent to television stations. This “act of faith” provoked responses that the Muslims of Bradford had not anticipated. Western commentators compared the book burning to an Inquisition and a Nazi book burning. The Muslims of Bradford were not necessarily disturbed by the comparisons. They recall with pride how they were interviewed by journalists from all over the world. As the group’s stature rose in the Islamic world, donations flooded in to support the Council’s activities (Kepel 1997:138–39).

Violence broke out in Muslim countries as news of the book spread. In Islamabad, Pakistan, on February 12, 1989, inflammatory passages from Rushdie’s book were translated into Urdu and read publicly. In response, 10,000 demonstrators attacked American (but not British) institutions. They set fire to the American Cultural Center and to the offices of the American Express. In the skirmishes, five demonstrators died and 100 were injured. On February 13, one person was killed and 60 injured in riots in Srinagar, India. On February 14, Ayatollah Khomeini was “utterly shaken” upon reading passages from The Satanic Verses. He sent for his secretary and dictated the following fatwa against Rushdie and his publishers:

In the name of Him, the Highest. There is only one God, to whom we shall all return. I inform all zealous Muslims of the world that the author of the book entitled Satanic Verses—which has been compiled, printed and published in opposition to Islam, the Prophet, and the Qur’an—and all those involved in its publication who were aware of its content, are sentenced to death... I call on all zealous Muslims to execute them quickly, wherever they may be found, so that no one else will dare insult the Muslim sanctities. God willing, whoever is killed on this path is a martyr... In addition, anyone who has access to the author of this book, but does not possess the power to execute him, should report him to the people so that they may be punished for his actions (Pipes 2004:27).

When this decree was issued (9:30 am, London time), Salman Rushdie was attending a book party for his wife in London. By noon, Rushdie was discussing this threat with the media. That afternoon, senior police commanders announced that they would provide Rushdie with “grade one” protection by the Special Branch—Britain’s highest level of security. Following a memorial service for Bruce Chatwin, Salman Rushdie was taken into hiding by security forces. Daniel Pipes describes the irony behind this incident: “Salman Rushdie first savaged the British government, then sought its shelter; he renounced police methods, then gratefully accepted around-the-clock police bodyguard. Rushdie forcefully denounced the Shah’s government and supported the Islamic Revolution, and ten years later found himself persecuted by the latter” (Pipes 2004:236).

In the months that followed, Rushdie’s translators suffered several attacks. Two translators, Ettore Capriolo (Italian) and William Nygaard (Norwegian), were seriously wounded in knife assaults, and Hitoshi Igarashi, translator of The Satanic Verses into Japanese, was killed on the campus of Tsukuba University in 1991. To the chagrin of the Japanese public, Japanese Muslims applauded this killing and declared that “Igarashi got what he deserved.” In July 1993, at a cultural conference in the town of Sivas, Turkey, protestors demanded that Aziz Nesin, translator of The Satanic Verses into Turkish, be handed over for immediate execution. The protestors set the conference hotel on fire and prevented firefighters from putting out the blaze. Thirty-seven conference participants died in the fire, but Nesin escaped unharmed. The Turkish state attorney said that Nesin’s relationship with Rushdie was “provocative” and that he must share blame for the deadly riots (Elst 2004:259).

On February 18, 1989, Rushdie issued a statement “regretting the distress” that his book had caused, but he did not apologize for the book itself. On February 19, Khomeini responded to Rushdie’s statement by saying: “Even if Salman Rushdie repents and becomes the most pious man of [our] time, it is incumbent on every Muslim to employ everything he has, his life and his wealth, to send him to hell.” On February 22, Khomeini characterized the fatwa as irrevocable: “An arrow has been shot toward its target and now it is traveling toward its aim.” The head of an Iranian religious and charitable organization offered millions of dollars to the assassin who succeeded in killing Rushdie. A number of groups sponsored by the Iranian government announced their intention to kill Rushdie, including Lebanese groups (Hezbollah, Amal, the Islamic Unification Movement, and The Revolutionary Justice Organization) and Palestinian groups (Islamic Jihad and the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine).

On February 28, the Majlis, Iran’s Parliament, passed a bill calling for a complete break in diplomatic relations with Britain unless the British government declared “its opposition to... the anti-Islamic book, The Satanic Verses.” On March 2, British Foreign Secretary Geoffrey Howe went on the BBC World Service to try to satisfy Khomeini. He said: “The British Government, the British people, do not have any affection for the book. The book is extremely critical, rude about us. It compares Britain with Nazi Germany. We do not like that any more than the people of the Muslim faith like the attacks on their faith contained in the book. So we are not cosponsoring the book. What we are sponsoring is the right of people to speak freely, to publish freely.”

Khomeini rejected these diplomatic overtures and demanded the confiscation of copies of The Satanic Verses, a ban on further publication of the book, and legal action against Salman Rushdie. British authorities refused to take these steps, and Tehran broke off relations with Britain on March 7, announcing that “in the past two centuries Britain has been in the frontline of plots and treachery against Islam and Muslims.” Abandoning all attempts at reconciliation, the British foreign secretary called the Iranian government a “deplorable regime” responsible for “mass exterminations.” Most official British Muslim groups distanced themselves from Khomeini’s fatwa, but at the grassroots level, many Muslims saw Khomeini as the defender of their faith. Throughout 1989, demonstrations against The Satanic Verses featured slogans calling for Rushdie’s death and posters depicting Rushdie covered in blood. On October 20, 1989, a survey carried out for the BBC indicated that a significant portion of British Muslims approved of the fatwa.

In the wake of the Rushdie Affair, Islamist Kalim Siddiqui emerged as a populist leader of alienated British Muslims. Siddiqui had founded the Muslim Institute in 1972 to liberate Muslims from Western concepts of democracy and promote revolution based on Islamic principles. Several Muslim Institute members were Iranian students who went home to play important roles in Iran following the Revolution (Kepel 1997:141). In the weeks following the fatwa, Siddiqui became the face of radical Islam to the British public. Unlike the leaders of other British Muslim associations, Siddiqui endorsed the Ayatollah’s pronouncement. His flamboyant rhetoric and quick wit guaranteed him press attention. Siddiqui ridiculed moderate British Muslims leaders, calling them the “Saudi lobby.” He declared that their ineffectual protests had fueled Rushdie’s success. “Salman Rushdie was enjoying himself tremendously rushing from one party to another, while his bank balance, and his publisher’s profits, reached for the sky, far beyond their wildest dreams.” Siddiqui proposed instead “taking on the British government, opposition, media, and even police and the judiciary in a prolonged campaign which may at times amount to confrontation and open conflict. The fact is that the presence of two million angry Muslims in a post-Christian secular society represents a major source of potential social conflict” (The Observer, April 2, 1989).

In 1990, Kalim Siddiqui convened a series of meetings to discuss his text, The Muslim Manifesto, which proposed setting up a “Muslim Parliament” intended to counter the Westminster assembly. The Muslim Parliament was to “consolidate the Muslim population in Britain into an organized community in pursuit of the goals set by Islam.” According to Siddiqui, the acquisition of British nationality “does not absolve the Muslim from his or her duty to participate in jihad; this participation can be active service in armed struggle abroad and/or the provision of material and moral support to those engaged in such struggle anywhere in the world.” Siddiqui blamed secularization for “disorders of the mind, body and soul” afflicting Western civilization. He said that Muslims have a duty to convert non-believers to Islam, but warned that “this will only happen if [Muslims] succeed in arresting the ‘integration’ and ‘assimilation’ of Muslims into the corrupt bogland of Western culture” (Kepel 1997:143).

The Muslim Parliament convened in London on January 4, 1992, with 155 “Muslim Members of Parliament.” Siddiqui declared that “the inauguration of this Parliament transforms the disparaged Muslim minority in Britain into a political community with a will and purpose of its own.” Siddiqui said that the Muslim Parliament represented a diverse ethnic, linguistic, and social community, whose common language was English. This symbolized the goal of the Parliament: to build an Islamic enclave on British soil. The “Muslim Members of Parliament” should not aspire to return to their countries of origin; neither should they integrate or assimilate. Rather they should strengthen their Islamic identity and form a counter-culture. The inauguration of a separate Muslim Parliament implies an ambiguous relationship to British law. Siddiqui said, “Let us be clear that Muslims in Britain will oppose, and if necessary defy, any public policy or legislation that we regard as inimical to our interests” (Kepel 1997:144).

Integration and Assimilation

The Rushdie affair raised concern among British journalists and politicians that Muslims would refuse to submit to Western norms and values. In the Financial Times, Ian Davidson warned Muslims that “they may be entitled to their own distinct cultural and religious identity; but only within the limitations permitted by law.” In an address to worshipers at Birmingham’s central mosque, Home Secretary Douglas Hurd lectured Muslims on free speech and on the responsibilities of citizenship. An editorial in The Independent complained about the naïve expectation that “all manifestations of cultural diversity would be benign. It is becoming disturbingly apparent that this is not the case.” The British tabloid, The Star, offered to pay the price of one-way tickets for Muslim “fanatics” wishing to return home. Sunday Sport suggested that “those who say their deep religious convictions prevent them from obeying the law of this land should quit Britain immediately.”

The official (Tory) government position was that immigrants should assimilate. The Chairman of the Commission for Racial Equality (CRE) said that “British society must learn how to give space and value to other cultures,” but added, “that does not mean abandoning [British society’s] own beliefs and traditions” (Joppke 1999:254). In an open letter to British Muslims, the Home Office Minister of State, John Patten, clarified the government position. The Home Office did not expect Muslims to “lay aside their faith, traditions or heritage.” But neither could the Home Office compromise the two principles necessary to maintain order in a pluri-ethnic society: freedom of speech and rule of law. This required that Muslims recognize and support “the framework of laws, freedoms, rights and obligations which we live under; the English language; and British history.”

The Rushdie affair provoked anxieties about cultural pluralism, even among the architects of British multiculturalism. In 1989, Roy Jenkins annoyed the multiculturalist lobby by publicly questioning the results of his earlier policies. In 1965, as Labour Home Secretary, Roy Jenkins declared that Britain was a pluralistic society and that there was no was no need to assimilate immigrants. Jenkins defined integration in terms of equal opportunities and cultural diversity, “in an atmosphere of mutual tolerance” (Kepel 1997:145). After the Rushdie incident, however, Jenkins declared that some of the “assumptions of the Sixties” were invalid. He said that the British government should “have been more cautious about allowing the creation in the 1950s of substantial Muslim communities here.” In his view, Muslims were clearly not socialized into British society, and this was producing unhealthy results.

Labour leader Neil Kinnock opposed Muslim demands for censorship, holding instead to the principles of secularism and freedom of speech. Clare Short, MP for Birmingham Ladywood, said, “It is absolutely crucial that [The Satanic Verses] be published in hardback, paperback, and other versions. If we didn’t publish [books that offend], we would have no books in Britain.” Liberal columnist Hugo Young invited Iranians who object to British tolerance to return to Iran. Novelist Anthony Burgess wrote: “We want no hands cut off here. For that matter, we want no ritual slaughter of livestock, though we have to put up with it... If [Muslims] do not like secular society, they must fly to the arms of the Ayatollah or some other self-righteous guardian of strict Islamic morality.”

The Rushdie affair caused sharp divisions in Britain’s Labour Party. Parts of the Labour Party, especially those dependent on Muslim votes, sided with the anti-Rushdie campaign. In 1989, Labour deputy-leader Roy Hattersley, from the predominantly Muslim district of Birmingham Sparkbrook, denounced the Satanic Verses as “intentional blasphemy,” and he called “racist” the proposition that Muslims should “stop behaving like Muslims.” Jack Straw, Labour’s education spokesperson, used the occasion to commit his party to state-financed Muslim schools. Keith Vaz, MP for Leicester East, wrote: “We are the party that will support every black issue anywhere in the world except those sitting at our doorstep.” Vaz accused the Labour Party of saying to Muslims “You can support us at election time. You can join us. But please don’t come to us... if you are affronted and afraid... Don’t associate us in any way with your suffering.” Max Madden, Labour MP for Bradford West, urged his party to console the Muslims, “We understand, we know that you have been hurt.” Madden explained, “There is a reluctance in the Labour Party to stretch out a hand of understanding and friendship to the Muslim community. That is what I have tried to do.” Both Vaz and Madden stressed the importance of Muslim votes for Labour victories. Vaz said, “Muslims probably determine the outcome of the elections in several cities [including] Bradford, Leicester, the Wolverhamptons, Birmingham, Manchester, and some of the London seats.” Max Madden added, “It should be very clear to the leaders of the Labour Party that whether or not there is a Labour government in the next election could rest on whether or not... the party manages to persuade the vast majority of Muslims... to continue to give [Labour] their electoral support.”

Britian’s Red Black Alliance

In recent years, the Labour Party’s relationships with Islamists (who are forming an ever-more important role in British elections) have divided its “rainbow” constituency and caused bitter disputes. In July of 2004, Ken Livingstone welcomed Muslim cleric Yusuf al-Qaradawi to City Hall as his “honoured guest.” Qaradawi, who lives in Qatar and is a member of the Muslim Brotherhood, is best known for his popular al Jazeera program, “Sharia for Life.” When Qaradawi’s reactionary positions on social and political issues became known, Livingstone’s leftist supporters were baffled. Qaradawi believes that the Asian tsunami victims were punished by Allah because their countries are centers of tourism, with widespread “alcohol consumption, drug use, [and] sexual perversion.” According to Qaradawi, homosexuals and religious apostates should be executed in Islamic countries “to maintain the purity of Islamic society and to keep it clean of perverted elements.” Qaradawi has said that he “personally supports” female genital mutilation and has stated that husbands should be allowed to beat their wives who display signs of “disobedience and rebelliousness.” He has accused rape victims of immodest dress, and he supports suicide bombing campaigns in Israel. “Women’s participation in martyr operations carried out in Palestine,” Qaradawi said, “is one of the most praised acts of worship.” In 2003, Qaradawi issued a fatwa allowing the killing of pregnant Israeli women and their unborn babies on the grounds that the babies could grow up to join the Israeli army.

In response to the Qaradawi visit, a coalition of Hindus, Jews, Christians, homosexuals, atheists, women, and liberal Muslims produced a document listing Qaradawi’s inflammatory statements, and they accused Livingstone of abusing his office. Livingstone accused his critics of Islamophobia, and he said that a mayor has to “maintain dialogue with all of London’s faiths and communities.” “Why is Ken willing to have a dialogue with Islamic reactionaries like al-Qaradawi, but not with progressive Muslims?” asks gay Muslim activist Ramzi Isalam. “We never get invited to City Hall. Having suffered enough at the hands of fundamentalists, we do not want our persecutors following us to London and being given the red-carpet treatment by the mayor.”

The controversy that the al-Qaradawi visit provoked represents a dilemma facing many Labour Party politicians. Tony Blair’s support for the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq has seriously eroded Muslim support for Labour. In January 2005, Labour MP Mike O’Brien published a bold appeal for Muslim votes in the Muslim Weekly: “Ask yourself what will (Tory candidate) Michael Howard do for British Muslims? Will his foreign policy aim to help Palestine? Will he promote legislation to protect you from religious hatred and discrimination? Will he give you a choice of sending your children to a faith school?” O’Brien showed his readers how responsive Labour is to Muslim concerns by reporting that Tony Blair had brought to Parliament a new “Racial and Religious Hatred Bill” at the request of Iqbal Sacranie: “Recently Iqbal Sacranie, the general secretary of the Council, asked Tony Blair to declare that the government would introduce a new law banning religious discrimination. Two weeks later, in the middle of his speech to the Labour Party conference, Tony Blair promised that the next Labour government would ban religious discrimination.”

As promised, the Labour government brought the proposal to Parliament in the session leading up to the May 2005 election. On July 11, 2005, The Racial and Religious Hatred Bill was passed by the House of Commons and sent to the House of Lords. This bill would criminalize “incitement to religious hatred,” and it would apply to comments made in public or in the media, as well as through written material. Home Office Minister Paul Goggins said, “This will be a line in the sand which indicates to a people a line beyond which they cannot go... people of all backgrounds and faiths have a right to life free from hatred, racism and extremism.” Religious hatred is defined in the Bill as “hatred against a group of persons defined by reference to religious belief or lack of religious belief.” The maximum penalty for anyone convicted of the new offense would be 7 years imprisonment. Iqbal Sacranie said in reference to the proposed law, “There is no such thing as an Islamic terrorist. This is deeply offensive. Saying Muslims are terrorists would be covered by this provision.”

Conservative Shadow Home secretary David Davis said the proposed law would “massively undermine freedom of speech. Religion, unlike race, is a matter of personal choice and therefore appropriate for open debate.” Aggravated crimes against religious groups are already protected through existing legislation, he said. Bruce Anderson wrote, “Any legislator who [is] serious about proscribing religious hatred would start by demanding that the Koran or the Bible should only be published in [edited] versions.” Rowen Atkinson wrote in a letter to The Times of London, “For telling a good and incisive religious joke, you should be praised. For telling a bad one, you should be ridiculed and reviled. The idea that you could be prosecuted for the telling of either is quite fantastic.” Nick Cohen wrote in the New Statesman that religious people “inspire hatred of other religions because they believe their [religion] is the only true way. This hatred shows when they seek to convert. Is proselytizing to be a criminal offense? Even in these PC times, it is not a crime to hate others, any more than it is a crime to envy them.” Cohen continues, “If this law is passed, the next Salman Rushdie would be prosecuted... The government would be... handing to reactionary clerics the power to damn dissident voices in minority communities as un-Islamic.” Baroness Cox said that, under the proposed bill, people accused of inciting religious hatred could not rely on the defense that they had been speaking truthfully about a particular religion. Lord Garel-Jones, the Tory peer, pointed to Monty Python’s satire of Jesus, The Life of Brian. “I want not to lose the ability to make a similar film about Mohammed. That is where my line lies.” Charles Kennedy, in the Guardian, wrote, “Labour—which had a proud libertarian tradition when Roy Jenkins was home secretary in the 1960s—is now the party of authoritarianism.”

On October 11, 2006, the bill was read by the House of Lords as hundreds of Christian protestors demonstrated in Hyde Park. Terry Sanderson of the National Secular Society joined the demonstrators. “They are looking at the restrictions on their right to evangelize. We are looking at the restrictions on our being able to criticize religion per se so we can make common cause with them on this” (BBC News, October 11, 2005). The House of Lords amended the government’s bill. The peers said that only “threatening words” should be banned in the bill, not words that are abusive or insulting. They also specified that proselytizing and discussion, criticism, insult, abuse, or ridicule of religion, belief or religious practice would not be a criminal offense. The Labour government said that these amendments stripped the bill of its effectiveness. The government urged members of Parliament to reject the Lord’s amendments and support instead the government’s version of the bill. On January 31, 2006, in a vote of 283 to 282, the House of Commons sided with the House of Lords against the Labour Government.

The Labour Party’s effort to restrict free speech in the interests of averting cultural friction and appeasing Muslim allies represents a trend that has been occurring throughout Europe. Anti-racist” laws in force in many European countries include a legal category called “opinion crimes” that are designed to suppress views that have nothing to do with race. “Anti-racist” legislation is being used by governments to punish critics of Islam. This is ironic, as many of the fiercest critics of Islam are non-white former Muslims. In 1992, the Anne Frank Foundation brought charges of “racism” against Mohamed Rasul, a Pakistani cabaret artist living in the Netherlands. Rasul’s crime was writing Impending Ruin of the Netherlands, which predicted that the burgeoning Muslim community in the Netherlands would lead to a civil war and the country’s partition. A Dutch judge fined Rasul, accusing him of “unjustified generalizations” about “soft Dutchmen” and “crude, cruel, corrupt, and bloodthirsty” Muslims. Rasul said, “It is ridiculous and scandalous that I have to justify myself in court... [when] Muslims are allowed to shout ‘kill Rushdie’... [and] when Muslims say on TV that all Dutch women are whores” (Elst 2004: 207).

In France, the late Bishop Marcel Lefebvre, leader of the traditional Catholics, was brought to court for “actively inciting discrimination” for his “racist” remarks about the growing Muslim threat to France. If convicted, he would have been imprisoned and fined 300,000 francs. A judge let him off with a reduced charge and a fine of 5,000 francs (about $900). Brigitte Bardot has four times received fines for “inciting racial hatred.” In January 1998, she was fined $3,500 for saying, “Tomorrow, the Muslims who cut the throats of innocent sheep to celebrate Eid may well cut the throats of human beings, as is already being done in Algeria.” In June 2004, she was fined $6,500 for lamenting, in her book A Cry in the Silence, “the underground and dangerous infiltration of Islam.” The Paris court announced, “Madame Bardot presents Muslims as barbaric and cruel invaders responsible for terrorist attacks and eager to dominate [France].” The court sentenced the head of Bardot’s publishing house, Le Rocher, to a similar $6,500 fine and ordered both Bardot and her publisher to pay for advertisements in two newspapers announcing their conviction (The Independent, June 11, 2004).

In 2002, French postmodern writer Michel Houellebecq was tried for “incitement to racial hatred for his novel Plateforme. In Plateforme, the main character’s lover is killed by a Muslim in a bombing, and he responds by applauding the death of a Palestinian militant. At Houellebecq’s trial, Dalil Boubakeur, rector of the Paris mosque, said, “Freedom of expression ends where it can hurt... I think that my community has been humiliated, my religion insulted, and I want justice to be done.” Interrogated by the court, Houellebecq explained that he has the right to criticize “monotheistic religions,” adding that he considers the Bible and the Qu‘ran as “wrong” and “hate-mongering.” Houellebecq argued that criticism of a religion cannot be prosecuted under the legal category of “racism” because Islam is not a race. He also pointed out that “hatred” of a religion does not necessarily mean hatred of its adherents. One of the prosecutors asked Houellebecq if he “considered Muslims stupid.” He said that he had never generalized about Muslims in this way, but that, in his opinion, Islam as a belief system was indeed “stupid.” Houellebecq said that it was time to “pin-prick” the claim that “Islam preaches peace (Elst 2004:278–79).”

As European governments are censoring criticisms of Islam, many writers, artists, and actors are practicing self-censorship. In response to Muslim threats, they are canceling screenings of plays and movies; taking down artwork; and refusing to publish articles and books. In 1994, to celebrate Voltaire’s 300th birthday, the city government of Geneva, Switzerland organized the performance of all of his theatre plays. When Muslims objected to the staging of Voltaire’s play Mahomet ou le fanatisme, the city government withdrew funding for the play, and the play was cancelled. In November 2000, a theater in The Netherlands cancelled a play called Aisha after local imams objected to depictions on stage scenes of the Prophet Muhammad and Aisha, his favorite young wife. The 2005 the Rotterdam Film Festival cancelled a scheduled screening of van Gogh’s Submission. In place of Submission, the audience viewed films sympathetic to suicide bombers. In Sweden, the World Culture Museum in Gothenburg removed from its collection a painting by Louzla Darabi after receiving an email warning that “you and your disgusting work are going to set Muslims in Sweden on fire. Learn from Holland” (Bawer 2006:216). In September 2006, citing an “incalculable” security risk from enraged Muslims, Berlin Deutsche Oper cancelled a production of Mozart’s 1781 opera “Idomeneo.” In a Wall Street Journal editorial, Roger Kimball wrote, “Today it was Mozart. Tomorrow perhaps it will be Shakespeare. Or Dante, who after all has a pretty hot place reserved for Muhammad in The Divine Comedy.” Kimball criticized Europe’s “avant-gardist artistic establishment” for exercising “provocation” only “within the coddled purlieus of bourgeois security.” Displaying pornographic pictures of Christ earns artists “the delicious obloquy of the Catholic establishment” and shores up their reputation as brave pioneers; poking fun at Muhammad “sends murderous hordes into the streets looking for something, someone, to destroy.” Kimball wrote, “It is not—not yet—too late to put a stop to our habit of appeasing a murderous fanaticism.”

The success of Muslim political activism in Europe raises the specter of a burgeoning Muslim population imposing its political will on the majority population. Whereas most minority groups in the West have traditionally used their political capital to seek social and economic improvement, Muslim activism seeks something much deeper—the assertion of Muslim values in host societies (Pipes 2004:244–45). In Britain, fundamentalist Muslims took advantage of the Rushdie affair to threaten pubs and discos, establishments that are the perennial objects of wrath in the Middle East. Fundamentalist Muslims living in the West had earlier accepted public drinking and dancing as part of European life, but the Rushdie affair inspired them to begin thinking about Britain as a site for Muslim activism. In the last two decades, Muslims have succeeded in getting the British government to legalize halal butchering; establish single-sex schools which teach the Islamic religion; and to make oral pronouncements of divorce valid in British courts. Britain now hosts a full complement of Islamic institutions: Quranic schools, publishing houses, voluntary organizations, interest-free banks, and political lobby groups.

A legal ban on blasphemy against Islam will introduce an entirely new element affecting the tenor of life in Britain. As Iqbal Sacranie, the Muslim Council of Britain’s general secretary said, “Is freedom of expression without bounds? Muslims are not alone in saying ‘No’ and for calling for safeguards against vilification of dearly cherished beliefs.” In While Europe Slept, Bruce Bawer presents a bleak picture of a European future in which imams define the limits of free speech in the West. “To see anyone arrested in Britain for criticizing a religion [is] unsettling,” Bawer writes. “This [is not] how democracies are supposed to work” (Bawer 2006:214). As G.K. Chesterson wrote nearly 100 years ago, “There is a thought that stops thought. That is the only thought that ought to be stopped.”


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© Springer Science + Business Media, LLC 2008

Authors and Affiliations

  1. 1.The King’s CollegeNew YorkUSA

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