THE BLOG

Muslims Protest Against H. G. Wells Book in 1930s Britain

19/09/2012 15:21 BST | Updated 19/11/2012 10:12 GMT

The publication of Salman Rushdie's memoir Joseph Anton will inevitably give rise to reappraisal of the Satanic Verses affair. In this pair of articles, we look backwards and then forwards in time from this dispute to other controversies involving religious protests against creative works to add historical depth and complexity to the debate.

A little known historical precedent which dates back to August 1938 unsettles the perception that the Rushdie affair was the starting point of a series of challenges to creative freedom in the UK. Members of the Jamiat-ul-Muslimin, a British Muslim organisation whose members were predominantly working-class South Asians, gathered at one of their regular meetings in King's Hall on Commercial Road, east London. Here, according to the Guardian of 13 August 1938, they 'ceremoniously committed to the flames' a copy of H. G. Wells's A Short History of the World because of references to the Prophet Muhammad which they considered offensive. This was followed by a protest march by members of the organisation to India House, Aldwych, which accommodated the Indian High Commission in London's West End. Contrary to the public perception that Britain's Muslim minority began to find a voice of dissent only as recently as the 1980s, here we have evidence of a group of working-class East End Muslims marching west into the heart of London to assert their rights as Muslims and plead their cause with government officials.

A Short History of the World, first published in 1922, promised to be a concise form of world history for the general reader. In a chapter entitled 'Muhammad and Islam', Wells makes several disparaging remarks about the Prophet Muhammad, pronouncing him a man of 'very considerable vanity, greed, cunning, self-deception and quite sincere religious passion'. Although he states that Islam was an empowering and inspirational religion, he makes sweeping generalisations about the religion. Wells's view of the Qur'an was no less damning: for him it was 'unworthy of its alleged Divine authorship'.

The London-based demonstrations were triggered by protests in Calcutta, which themselves had been sparked by articles in the Indian press about the offensive passages in Wells's book, recently translated into Hindustani. Later, they spread further afield, to east Africa and Sindh province in what is now Pakistan. In 1989 the Satanic Verses controversy mirrored this geographical trajectory: articles and excerpts in Indian newspapers triggered protests in Bradford before going global. Rumours surrounding the Wells protests circulated widely at the time: the press claimed that protesters planned to march on Wells's house, and to burn effigies of him in front of a London mosque in Putney. Yet, these proved unfounded. In fact, the Jamiat organised a petition, signed by 136 local Muslims, most of whom worked in London's docks. They delivered the document to the High Commissioner for India, Feroz Khan Noon, at the end of their highly publicised demonstration. The march, from Bank through Fleet Street and on to India House, took the protestors past iconic landmarks including St Paul's Cathedral, the Royal Courts of Justice and several newspaper offices - British symbols of faith, justice and freedom of expression.

Feroz Khan Noon agreed to act as an intermediary and intervene on their behalf, despite his awareness that their chances were slim. And indeed, both publishers, Heinemann and Penguin Books, refused to make any changes to the text. Yet, as a fellow Muslim, Khan Noon expressed his sympathy with the protesters, and the Jamiat did receive a relatively fair hearing from British officials. While the India Office considered the Jamiat to be of little importance, the Secretary of State for India expressed in a letter to Khan Noon 'regret ... that offence should have been given to members of the deputation and those whom they represent, on a matter concerning their Faith'.

The India Office's response should also be viewed in a wider context of official awareness of and sensitivity to cultural products that could further inflame an already volatile situation among Indian communities in Britain as well as in India. For the Jamiat-ul-Muslimin's protest against H. G. Wells's book was not the only faith-based protest against a cultural work enacted by South Asian Muslims in Britain. Another contemporaneous example is worth a brief mention. Between 1935 and 1948 there was a series of objections by South Asian Muslims to pictorial representations of the Prophet Muhammad in a range of British magazines including Every Woman's Magazine, Parade, Britannia and Eve and the Mirror magazine. These objections resonate with the 2005 protests across Europe against the publications of cartoons depicting the Prophet Muhammad in the Danish newspaper Jyllands-Posten.

The 1930s Wells protest raises important questions about freedom of expression and offence which have gained prominence in public discourse in recent years. As the debates have grown increasingly polarised, it has become imperative to consider these questions in a complex and evolving social and cultural context. Class, race and faith are central to such disputes. Why was it such a disadvantaged group of Muslims who mobilised against Wells's book? Why not their elite or middle-class counterparts who had a more powerful voice in Britain? The class status and local identity of Wells's dissenters as working-class Muslim East Enders surely played a role in their grievance and protest, as did the social position of Rushdie's Bradford-based dissenters a half century later. Lacking access to a public forum, the protestors found alternative means to make their voices heard and have their cultural and religious sensibilities recognised in the public sphere.

The protest against H. G. Wells's A Short History also demonstrates the cultural assertiveness of working-class Muslim South Asians during the period of empire. By marching from the industrial East End to the privileged West End they laid claim to public space and made their voices heard in the very heart of the imperial metropolis.

Read part one, Literary Controversies Since the Rushdie Affair, here.