I hadn’t read Salman Rushdie’s The Satanic Verses when Ayatollah Khomeini first issued his fatwa in 1989, but I did soon after hearing of Rushdie’s “Islamophobia” at an Islamic Saturday school.
Ahmed Deedat, the renowned and learned religious scholar (or so I was told) from South Africa, arrived at Mearns Castle High School in Glasgow in the autumn of 1989. The building, on the edges of Glasgow’s South Side, stands in a predominantly white, upper-middle-class part of the city. The class – of around 100 students – had been inaugurated the year before by a co-operative of like-minded parents who had decided to hand over their children to local Muslim scholars every Saturday morning to instil in them the basic principles of Islam.
It was, in many ways, the twilight of my adolescence. Having recently discovered the night-time delights of the city centre, my white friends would hide me in gaming arcades from the Islamic priests who often strolled past terrified bouncers looking for Muslim children. They called people like me “guvachi gavan” (“lost cows”). I, in turn, had heard that my generation jokingly called them “the God Squad”.
Saturday morning religious classes like the one at Mearns Castle, called Islamiyat, are a quiet and unobtrusive phenomenon throughout the country – and are held either in schools, where parents hire a room or two, or mosques. Mine conducted its business between the hours of 9am and 11am. It was a pretty typical school, as my visits to other such classes – primarily in the East End and in London suburbs such as Wembley and Hendon – have shown. According to the Islamic Cultural Centre in London, around 10 per cent of all Muslim children attend Islamiyats around the country. The classes there enforce the fundamental principles (or pillars) of Islam – iman, or faith; salat, or prayer, to be said five times a day; sawm, or charity; zakat, fasting during the month of Ramadan; and the Hajj, or pilgrimage to Mecca. Pupils are taught how to interpret the teachings of the Koran, and prayers in Arabic. Boys are almost entirely taught by male priests; their female counterparts are often taught separately. The teachers are strict and the punishment they dispense uncompromising: at my school, if you came late for class, or forgot your lesson, you would be forced to stand apart from the class, with your arms in the air. A couple of times, when I’d forgotten my lesson, the priest grabbed hold of my earlobe and twisted it until I moaned in agony.
Back in that cold, dank autumn of 1989, Ahmed Deedat, a short and sprightly campaigner for right-wing Islamic values (he is almost always armed with a firecracker-like arsenal of quips,) delivered Koranic righteousness at Rushdie’s controversial text. His audience, 50 boys between the ages of ten and 17, listened in rapture as he delivered his entirely lopsided broadside against Rushdie.
In the 12 years that have passed, I have sometimes wished I’d taped Deedat’s speech. In fact, the only thing I can remember accurately about his anger is a clumsy metaphor he employed at the end of the hour-long sermon. “Satanic” Salman Rushdie, he said, was always destined to meet death at the hands of a Muslim assassin. His surname, broken into syllables, fulfilled the prophecy alone. “Rush-die. Rush-die,” I remember Deedat pronouncing, his hands imagining some profundity. “He is rushing to die. See? He is rushing to die.” I had to lift a school desktop to stifle my giggles.
I hadn’t thought much of Ahmed Deedat since then, until purchasing a Deedat cassette recently at Finsbury Park Mosque. Listening to it helps me to fill in some of the gaps from my Saturday school religious classes. And although the tape is tailored for an adult audience, the monologue, called “The Satanic Versus Unexpurgated”, best illustrates the speaker’s resolute sense of anger. To quote: “If you can’t stomach Rushdie’s ‘shit’ in print, please tear up this publication and throw it in your toilet pan. In all my lectures on Rushdie, I have warned my audiences in advance that my talks were ‘definitely not for prudes, children, and bashful men and women’!”
I have heard similar diatribes at other Saturday classes around the country – to listen to Sheikh Abu Hamza, the unforgiving leader at Finsbury Park Mosque, is to hear that the “west is evil”, George Bush is “the Great Satan” and that all of Hamza’s students are “soldiers for the jihad”. Organisations such as al-Muhajiroun, the serious young militants (all dressed head to toe in black) led by Omar Bakri Mohammed, hold similar classes across the country where they, too, dissect and pour scorn on western ideals. To capture the hearts and minds of the young at an early age is to win the propaganda war.
When visiting Oldham, a few weeks after the riots of last summer, I could not help but notice that there were five mosques in the trouble-torn area of Glodwick alone. In a town already discovering the pitfalls of racial segregation, the mosques and their Saturday classes only add to the feeling of dislocation amongst residents.
“People mistrust each other here,” one Pakistani careworker told me. “The whites and Asians have decided they can’t get along. And in Asian communities, when you feel under siege both at home and at work, what do you do? You run for shelter into the one place where you will be cared for – the mosque.”
“Saturday schools are a staple diet of the Muslim family in this country,” says Ghayasuddin Siddiqui, the leader of the Muslim Parliament in the UK. “As an older generation realises that their children are less in touch with their values – namely, those of religion and the Asian subcontinent – they make sure that their children are well versed by people that they trust. The schools are invaluable: they teach young Muslim boys and girls the basic tenets of Islam. Sometimes, of course, with organisations like al-Muhajiroun, there is a certain amount of misrepresentation going on.”
Then Siddiqui, who himself has been keen to stress his role as an Islamic moderate since the events of 11 September, comes out with his trump card: “Christians have Sunday school. Jewish children have an equivalent as well. So why shouldn’t Muslim children be allowed to learn about their own culture?”