A fundamentalist in Slough

(Observer Magazine, 30 September 1990)

Dr Kalim Siddiqui’s condemnation of Western involvement in the Gulf, his pronouncements on The Satanic Verses, and his call for an Islamic revolution have made him Britain’s most controversial Muslim. Richard Askwith meets him

While the world was waiting to see how the Muslims of the Middle East would respond to Saddam Hussein’s call for a holy war against Western forces in Saudi Arabia, Dr Kalim Siddiqui was interrupting a conversation on the subject to call for a cup of tea. “We have two kinds,” he explained. “Earl Grey, which is smelly, and PG, which is disgusting.” Then he giggled.

It was a donnish giggle, high-pitched and slightly naughty. It was also strangely reminiscent of that giggle that Ayatollah Khalkhali, bloodthirstiest of all Khomeini’s judges, used to produce on television news bulletins in the mid1980s when explaining the latest batch of death sentences meted out by revolutionary Islamic justice in Iran.

It is an intriguing connection. Dr Siddiqui has also made a name for himself in Britain through his pronouncements on Islamic justice. In his case, it was the Ayatollah Khomeini’s fatwa against Salman Rushdie that caused the trouble. Over the past couple of years Dr Siddiqui has repeatedly endorsed the fatwa in public, and last year he narrowly escaped being prosecuted for incitement to murder after asking a meeting of 300 Muslims to raise their hands if they agreed that “this man should be put away”.

This summer he aroused further controversy by launching the Muslim Manifesto, which called for Britain’s Muslims to set up their own “non-territorial” Parliament to protect them from the “lava of hatred” against Muslims which, he said, was emanating from the establishment and the media. More recently there have been rumblings about disloyalty, after a press interview in which he expressed enthusiasm for Saddam Hussein’s invasion of Kuwait and hoped that the Iraqis “would smash on to Riyadh”.

In person, Dr Siddiqui bore disappointingly little resemblance to a foaming ayatollah. In a quiet semi-detached in Slough, he was charming and polite, with a tweedy, bookish air about him.

As he was quick to point out, he used to be a journalist himself and is at home in the company of the press. He was also surprisingly conciliatory. Where the fatwa was concerned, for example, he almost seemed to be backtracking. “It is still valid,” went the new line, “because Rushdie has committed a capital offence in Islamic law. But it cannot be carried out in this country. There is no death sentence in British law, and the overriding duty of Muslims in Britain is to obey British law.” (Later, though, he enthused with glee over the “deterrent” effect of the fatwa on Rushdie himself, and observed, with a giggle, that, “although the death sentence has been abolished, they haven’t abolished murder.”) He also argued that his proposed “Parliament” would be no more than a Muslim equivalent of the Jewish Board of Deputies. And he denied supporting Iraq, dismissing Saddam Hussein as “a brigand”, explaining that his apparent sympathy was only a reflection of his contempt for the regimes in Kuwait and Saudi Arabia.

(“Iraq,” he said, “is a Western bulldog that has mauled a Western poodle.”) This was quite credible. As one of Europe’s leading apologists for Iran, Dr Siddiqui is not inclined to be well-disposed towards Iraq. And, as director of the Muslim Institute in London, he has been making known his views on “moderate” Islamic regimes for nearly 20 years. His views on the Gulf, like his views on most things, derive from an unrelenting hostility to Western colonialism – and a fierce resentment of all its surviving works.

One of his most important articles of faith is that jihad – which can mean anything from holy war to “holy struggle” – is still a basic requirement of Islam. Another is that Islam requires an Islamic theocracy in order to flourish.

“At the root of all our problems,” he said in a recent speech, “is the fact that Muslims have little experience of living as a minority in a country where we exercise virtually no political power.”

A third axiom is that the political and moral problems of today cannot be divorced from history. The colonies may have gone, but most Islamic countries are still ruled by Westernised elites who allow their people to be exploited by the West in return for support for their unrepresentative regimes. The only Islamic country ruled by and for its people – not for the West – is Iran.

“The present crop of regimes in Islamic countries, from Morocco to Indonesia, is unacceptable,” he said. “They have to be overthrown. Islamic revolutions are needed all over the Muslim world. Muslims have an overriding duty to overthrow those governments which currently rule Muslim countries.”

In Britain, Muslims have both a right and a duty to uphold their cultural and religious values – and to defend them robustly. They should obey the law –and are not required to overthrow the regime – but should also obey Islamic laws. And they are entitled to have their beliefs taken into account by the British government.

As for the often-repeated suggestion that Muslims have some obligation to modify their values to suit British traditions, British Islam should have nothing to do with it. “The media here says to the British public, look, we have admitted these people, they enjoy the fruits of our high standards of living, and yet they don’t accept the rules of the game.

The fact that we were essential for the recovery of this country after the war is never pointed out. We are here because of certain historical forces, of the West’s making, working to bring us here. The economy of this country desperately needed our labour.

“We were factory fodder. Now we have families, we’ve paid our mortgages, paid our debts. What more do you want? You want us to say yes, sir, no, sir, three bags full, sir, morning, noon and night? And then you think you can insult and abuse us as well? Well, we’re not going to have it. The demographic map of this country is permanently altered. So take that on board. If something is unacceptable to us, it is unacceptable: you can’t have it.”

Dr Siddiqui’s first brush with the British establishment came in 1942, when, as an 11-year-old schoolboy, he was shot at by a British soldier during nationalist agitations in Azamgarh in north-east India. “The bullet killed the boy behind me.” Most of his teens were spent in the “very unpleasant” atmosphere of the years leading up to partition, and he fled to Pakistan at the earliest opportunity, aged 17, He spent six dissatisfied years in Pakistan before coming to Britain in 1954 with plans to become a journalist.

For the next 10 years he worked as a reporter on various local papers. Then, from 1964 until 1972, he was a sub-editor at The Guardian. He also married, in 1960, and, at around the same time, began to address what he perceived to be gaps in his education. He spent most of the Sixties as a part-time student, doing his journalism by night and studying by day, starting with O-levels and culminating in a PhD from University College, London. He also wrote a book, about Pakistan, which was banned in that country. (Did the Pakistani government have the right to ban his book? “Of course not.”) And he became prominent among Britain’s earliest Islamic activists. Suez saw him demonstrating in Hyde Park; the Algerian war saw him driving friends to Paris to demonstrate in the Champs-Elysées.

In 1972 he abandoned journalism and with some friends founded the Muslim Institute, in Bloomsbury, funded by subscriptions from members and donations from Muslims around the world. He himself became director.

“We started from the idea that Muslim political thought needed to be rewritten. We felt that Western political thought had penetrated Islamic political thought and that we needed an institute to disengage from the West at the intellectual level.” Today, he believes, much of that task has been accomplished. “It is now widely recognised, by all Muslims everywhere, that we need Islamic revolutions all over the Muslim world.”

The Iranian revolution in 1979 was a turning-point, establishing for the first time in Dr Siddiqui’s lifetime the sort of Islamic state that his theories advocated. He became a regular visitor to Iran and a friend of Ayatollah Khomeini. Both men promoted a newly self-confident version of Islam, contemptuous of everything Western.

Sipping his cup of PG Tips, Dr Siddiqui spoke warmly of his late hero.

“The Imam was a very great man. I think his greatness was not in the sense that people like Churchill or Hitler were great. He was a simple man. He simply believed in certain basic values and rallied people to them. He lived a simple life. He slept on the floor, his food was simple. He took nothing for himself. He was an example to men.”

The affection in his voice was palpable, as if he saw Khomeini as a role model. He takes pride in his disciplined lifestyle. For the past 25 years he has lived in the same modest house in the same quiet avenue. He does most of his work in the house next door, which belongs to the Muslim Institute. In his spare time he grows vegetables. He has worked hard and takes pride in having paid off his mortgage. But his stout frame and laughing eyes do not suggest an obsessive figure. He is a family man, with three surviving children and one son recently dead. He is also, in some ways, very British: not just as a representative of the self-made middle classes, but also as a survivor of the radical, demonstration-filled world which London students and journalists inhabited in the Sixties and Seventies.

For all his Britishness, though, he retains a deep resentment of “the West”, which bursts out from time to time like -well, rather like a lava of hatred.

Asked to define his position on the morality of hostage-taking (he recently said that much terrorism was “evidence that the power of Islam is abroad again”), and specifically on the morality of Iran’s holding of the American hostages between 1979 and 1981, he responded with a torrent of recrimination. “This is so hypocritical of the West… They have taken hostages throughout history… You people apply one standard to yourselves and another to us… We have been unjustly treated, we have been wrongly treated, we have been projected as a bad people, as an evil people… I am going to put this right. I am going to rub people’s noses in the dust, because we are a proud people, we are a good people, we are a moral people, all right? And we are as civilised as anybody else I have ever met! You get offended by taking hostages, or hijacking. But there are 10,000 Palestinians held hostage by the Jews…Today the world wants to go to war to liberate Kuwait. But nobody ever wanted to go to war to liberate the West Bank. Why not? They are good white Western Jews, so they’re allowed to get away with it… Iran was held hostage by the USA and Britain for a very long time. Who carried out the coup in Tehran in 19537 The CIA and MI5, of course…”

Only after the fourth interruption did he answer the original question about the American hostages: “I think it was totally, totally justified. An admirable decision.” What about the taking of individual hostages in Beirut? “No, that is utterly wrong,” he said, “utterly wrong’, once again looking and sounding like a good-humoured professor.

Then he thought for a moment and added: “On the other hand, it does depend on the individual.”

Almost invariably, Dr Siddiqui avoided hostile questions by answering them with counter-accusations against the West. When he was taken to task about this, he denied that the fault was his. “This is what I am saying. You ask single questions. I answer in the context of history.”

Nonetheless, there is history and history. Asked what he thought of the idea that Iran was a tyranny, he responded with another burst of lava. “Utter nonsense. Iran was never a tyranny, is not a tyranny now. lran did not send 14-year-old boys to the front. It was total myth, complete lies. lran did not hang any women whatsoever. The Islamic revolution has established a government which is according to the values of the people of lran. And it is the only country in the region which has regular elections. Of course the death penalty was imposed on a relatively large number of people, but this is part of the revolution. It happens. Make me ruler of certain countries I can think of and there would be a few heads rolling.”

Dr Siddiqui remains implacably angry at The Satanic Verses and all attempts to defend it. He also resents suggestions that he should read it. “I’ve not read the book,” he snapped, “and I’m not going to.” Nor was he sympathetic to suggestions of compromise, forgiveness or letting time heal old wounds. “I am not going to let this go. The fatwaremains valid. There is total unanimity in the Muslim world about this.” How could he be so certain? “Because I am in touch with the whole Islamic world.”

The Satanic Verses, he believes, was only the latest product of a conspiracy to denigrate Islam which has existed in the West “since the Crusades”. As the Muslim Manifesto puts it: “The circumstantial evidence, eg the size of the advance paid to the author, and the media and literary hype that accompanied its publication, leaves us in no doubt that The Satanic Verses is the result of a conspiracy.”

Many British Muslims prefer not to be associated with Dr Siddiqui’s extremist stance. Dr Siddiqui is equally keen not to be associated with them.

“These so-called moderates who are always being wheeled out to criticise me are not Muslims at all,” he said. Yet in the manifesto he calls for all Muslims to unite in mutual self-defence. They are urged, for example, “to develop the Muslim community as an island of peace, harmony and moral excellence” and to achieve “the greatest possible degree of taqwa” (moral excellence acceptable to Allah). There are also worthy proposals to take practical steps to strengthen Britain’s network of mosques and protect Muslim interests in public life.

The manifesto’s starting point is that “in Britain today, Muslims are being asked to accept subservience and the total disintegration of their identity, culture and religion, as the only real options open to them.” Its finishing point, to quote from the speech with which Dr Siddiqui launched it, is that, “Inside 10 years we can pack a greater punch than the Jews.”

How much influence the manifesto will have in Britain remains to be seen.

It is possible that its effects will be quite far-reaching. But it is also interesting because of the way it resembles Dr Siddiqui himself: generally intelligent, eloquent, perceptive and civilised, but with a persistent streak of paranoia, intolerance and vindictiveness.

Each chapter concludes with a maxim. For example, “Maxim: Islam is our guide in all situations”; or, “Maxim: Muslims will pursue moral excellence under all circumstances”. The echoes of totalitarian sloganising are unmistakable – just as they are in such choice phrases of Dr Siddiqui’s as “History is now inexorably moving towards a succession of Islamic revolutions”

Indeed, perhaps this is the key to Dr Siddiqui’s paradoxical character. Tempting though it may be to try to understand him as a Muslim counterpart to Ian Paisley, say, a more revealing comparison is with the traditional British Communist intellectual. Like the academics who were apologists for Stalinism in the 1930s, Dr Siddiqui is highly intelligent, highly civilised – and preaches revolution from a room in Bloomsbury. He believes in much that is good and much that is true. He advocates a world-view which is on the whole consistent with itself and, as a result, persuasive. But from time to time, in order to maintain the logical consistency of his position, he is driven both to advocate appalling brutality and, on other occasions, to deny its existence. Like his Stalinist predecessors, he has probably never really tried to imagine the brutality at anything beyond the theoretical level. Yet the brutality is no less real for that; and, as with Stalinism, the glibness of the theorising seems grotesque when compared with the horror of the reality.

As we parted, Dr Siddiqui pointed to his head with a smile. “You see,” he giggled, “I don’t have horns, or a tail, whatever you may have heard.” Immediately I thought of the unwanted horns and tail which form such a memorable image in The Satanic Verses; and of the equally unwanted horns and tail with which Salman Rushdie’s picture is often defaced in anti-Satanic Verses propaganda.

Dr Siddiqui, hornless and tailless, returned to his study with a spring in his step. Salman Rushdie, condemned without trial to be a Muslim devil for the rest of his life, remained in hiding.

© The Observer 1990

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