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Free Salman Rushdie

February 23, 1992|DIGBY DIEHL | Diehl, book columnist for Playboy magazine and the Prodigy network, is a member of the board of PEN West

Three years is a long time: Wars are fought, children are born, nations evolve.

Salman Rushdie has been in hiding for three years. The fatwa (an Islamic curse or death sentence) pronounced upon Rushdie by Ayatollah Rohollah Khomeini in Iran on Feb. 14, 1989, condemned him as a blasphemer. His crime was writing a novel, "The Satanic Verses."

In Iran last week, the newpaper Jomhouri-Eslami published statements by various Iranian leaders reaffirming the death sentence under the headline: "A Divine Command to Stone the Devil." Although Iran is a member of the United Nations and signatory to various human-rights treaties, it continues to ignore international law in the case of Salman Rushdie. The specific funding of the $2 million bounty for the killing of Rushdie comes from the 15 Khordad Foundation in Tehran, which operates with the authorization of the Iranian government.

Last weekend, events were held in nine countries to commemorate the third anniversary of the fatwa . In Los Angeles, a small group met at PEN West offices to recall the international expressions of outrage that poured forth three years ago: Writers all over the world stood up and read aloud from Rushdie's books in public--an act also punishable by death, according to the ayatollah's curse. Viking/Penguin continued to distribute his book despite bomb threats received at their offices in London and New York. Booksellers, perhaps the most visible and vulnerable targets for terrorism, displayed the book prominently and sold it, despite isolated incidents of window-breaking (and initial hesitation on the parts of the Waldenbooks and B. Dalton retail chains). The American public supported Rushdie with their dollars and made "The Satanic Verses" a best seller (although all of you who have the book unread on your bookshelves at home should know that simple possession of "The Satanic Verses" is punishable by death, according to the ayatollah's all-encompassing curse).

Since that swift initial reaction, there has not been much political follow-up to support Rushdie during three years. After several weeks of silence, President Bush cautiously noted that "inciting murder and offering rewards for its perpetration are deeply offensive to the norms of civilized behavior." Congress took no action. American business with Iran continued: $1.6 billion in imports (some 98,000 barrels of Iranian oil per day) and $59 million in exports. Meanwhile, Western Europe imported $5.7 billion from Iran and Japan quietly purchased 230,000 barrels of Iranian oil per day.

In December of 1990, a tormented Rushdie met with six Islamic scholars to affirm his belief in the Muslim creed; he also agreed to suspend plans for a paperback edition of "The Satanic Verses." The Muslim leaders said they accepted his apology and would work to lift the death sentence. This time, Viking/Penguin appeared to sigh with relief as they honored Rushdie's request and indefinitely postponed the paperback edition. Within days of their meeting with Rushdie, five of the six Muslims (who had agreed to help him after his concessions) denounced him and the book again.

The terrible saga of Rushdie's death sentence took an even more ominous turn on July 3, 1991, when in Milan, Ettore Capriolo, the Italian translator of "The Satantic Verses," was beaten and stabbed repeatedly by a man who claimed to be Iranian and was demanding Salman Rushdie's address. Eight days later in Tokyo, Prof. Hitoshi Igarashi, the Japanese translator of the book, was stabbed to death at Tsukuba University.

Last December, Salman Rushdie made a surprise appearance at Columbia University, where he appealed for support, explained his attempt to reconcile with the Muslim leaders, and reaffirmed his desire to have a paperback edition published: " 'The Satanic Verses' must be freely available and easily affordable, only because if it is not read and studied, then these years will have no meaning."

The most recent chilling development is that Viking/Penguin returned the paperback rights for "The Satanic Verses" to Salman Rushdie rather than risk the danger of publishing the book in paperback. Through the leadership of Erica Jong, president of the Authors Guild, a consortium of 72 publishing houses, periodicals, book-industry associations, and human-rights groups will jointly publish the book. This solution will not only demonstrate the broad support Rushdie has in the American publishing community, but will reduce the possibility of any single publisher being targeted by terrorist assassins.

The primary intention of the Muslim fatwa --to prevent dissemination of "The Satanic Verses"--has failed. Ironically, the death threat has focused international publicity on this book. But Salman Rushdie is still not free, and many people ask: What can we do?

We, as a nation, could bring a rapid end to this terrible violation of civilized behavior by urging the imposition of international economic sanctions on Iran until the fatwa is revoked. (International PEN passed a resolution calling for such sanctions at its Congress in Vienna last November.) But we, as individuals who believe in freedom of expression, have an equally clear mandate. We must read Salman Rushdie. Read his books aloud among your friends. Read his books at library meetings. Read his books at schools. Show that no one can impose religious or political beliefs upon a free people.

A meeting of the Freedom to Write Committee will be held on Thursday at the PEN West offices, 672 S. Lafayette Park Place. For further information, phone (213) 365-8500.

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