I witnessed the birth of political multiculturalism in Britain. It was in Bradford in the late 1980s when the left, shamefully, swapped secular universalism for ethnic particularismby Kenan Malik / October 22, 2005 / Leave a comment
It was February 1988. I was in Bradford, a few weeks after the demonstration on which a copy of Salman Rushdie’s The Satanic Verses had been burned. I was there to interview Sher Azam, president of the Bradford Council of Mosques, and the man who had torched the book. Waiting in the drab building that housed the Bradford Council of Mosques, I heard a familiar voice.
“Hello Kenan, what are you doing here?”
It was Hassan, a friend from London, whom I had not seen for a couple of years. “Good to see you Hassan. I’m doing some interviews about Rushdie,” I said. “What are you doing in this godforsaken place?”
“Trying to make it less godforsaken,” said Hassan. “I’ve been up here a few months, helping in the campaign to silence the blasphemer.”
“No need to look so shocked. I’ve had it with the white left. I’d lost my sense of who I was and where I came from. So I came back to Bradford to rediscover it. We need to defend our dignity as Muslims, to defend our values and beliefs, and not allow anyone—racist or Rushdie—to trample over them.”
I was astonished. The Hassan I knew in London had been a member of the Socialist Workers party (as had I for a while). Apart from Trotskyism, his indulgences were sex, Southern Comfort and watching Arsenal. We had marched together, chucked bricks at the National Front together, been arrested together. I had never detected a religious bone in his body. But here he was in Bradford, an errand boy to the mullahs, inspired by book-burners.
Today, “radical” in an Islamic context means someone who espouses a fundamentalist theology. Twenty years ago it meant a secularist who challenged the power of the mosques. The expunging of that radical secularist tradition has played an important part in the rise of Islamic militancy in this country. Hassan embodied this mutation from left-wing activist to Islamic militant. He was not alone. A large number of anti-Rushdie demonstrators were young. Many were not religious, only a handful could recite the Koran, and most flouted traditional Muslim taboos on sex and drink. They felt resentful about the treatment of Muslims, disenchanted by left-wing politics and were looking for new ways of expressing their disaffection. They formed the pool of discontents into which radical Islamic organisations dipped. It was in the late…