Margaret Thatcher: A Muslim’s Perspective

Did you hear the one about Margaret Thatcher’s funeral? As Britain prepares to ceremoniously bury—at considerable expense to the public purse—the former Prime Minister who ruthlessly drove to privatize public utilities, it’s no wonder a joke is circulating that the funeral should be handled by the company making the best bid!

Seldom do we joke on the passing of any human being but Britons do have a black sense of humor. And given the divisiveness of Thatcher the joke would presumably not be thought to be of bad taste by many. This is particularly true when we consider that “Ding Dong the Witch is Dead” (as sung by the munchkins in The Wizard of Oz) reached number 2 on the UK singles charts. And the cover of the Daily Mirror read, in large type, “The woman who divided a nation,” while the smaller type below asked “So should she really be given a ceremonial funeral like Princess Diana’s?” 

That Thatcher was divisive is one thing that Britons of all political persuasions can agree on, though given the prayer attributed to Francis of Assisi that she quoted on first becoming Prime Minister, it is a little ironic. “‘Where there is discord, may we bring harmony…” she recited.

As the funeral and the legacy of Thatcher is being debated in Britain, and as aged politicians and journalists line up to offer their personal memories, I cannot help but recall just two of the things which will stick in the mind of British Muslims—let alone Muslims from elsewhere in the world. 

Firstly, Thatcher led the UK government at the time of the Rushdie affair, that regrettable episode where the representations of an offended religious minority were ignored for the sake of freedom of speech, only to have international consequences. Although the Rushdie affair erupted in 1989 with the publication of The Satanic Verses, toward the end of Thatcher’s period in power, the author of that book has recently appreciated the support he received from Thatcher when offering his own reflections on her life. One wonders whether a more diplomatic British leader could have avoided that which befell. If the appeals and protests of the British Muslim community had been taken seriously in the beginning, perhaps the issue would have been nipped in the bud and would not have resulted in the infamous fatwa of Ayatollah Khomeini in which he expressed his opinion that Salman Rushdie should be killed.

Later, after being ousted as PM, Thatcher unhelpfully, and incorrectly, noted an absence of Muslim condemnation over 9/11, an error which the Muslim Council of Britain rebutted. To add insult to injury, Thatcher also outlined a scheme in the New York Times for dealing with global terrorism—a scheme which lacked insight and with which “clash of civilization” proponents would surely have been pleased. As Thatcher said, “the Western world and its values” face a “deadly threat” from Islamic extremists which is to be countered militarily. If only she had the curiosity of Miss Marple she might have perhaps questioned the “Us vs. Them” narrative.

According to the blogger writing under the pen name of Archbishop Cramner, Thatcher was a devout Christian with a mission of political reform. Thatcher’s Christian faith was, Cramner suggests, central to her politics. Perhaps if Thatcher had been more sympathetic toward Muslim issues, not only would she have found a socially-conservative group within her electorate, but she might have also been impressed by the religious political reformer who founded their religion.