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10 Years After Iran's Death Order, Novelist Rushdie Is Still at Risk

Literature: Threats remain but friends believe he is relatively safe since government no longer authorizes the edict issued by Ayatollah Khomeini over 'The Satanic Verses.'

February 28, 1999|HILLEL ITALIE | ASSOCIATED PRESS

NEW YORK — Ten years ago this month, Salman Rushdie received what he has called his "unfunny Valentine."

On Feb. 14, 1989, the Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini condemned "The Satanic Verses" as blasphemy, and called for Rushdie's death. The author, who lives in London, was forced into hiding. The novel's Japanese translator was murdered, and the Italian and Norwegian translators were attacked.

A decade later, the 51-year-old Rushdie is, in many ways, a fortunate man. He has long outlived Khomeini, the Iranian leader who died less than four months after issuing the fatwa that called for Rushdie's death. "The Satanic Verses" has sold more than a million copies worldwide.

Rushdie continues to write and has been seen increasingly in public. Last fall, after Iran's foreign minister said his country would not enforce the fatwa, an international committee set up on Rushdie's behalf was disbanded.

But Rushdie's novel, which satirized the Prophet Mohammed and the origins of the Koran, is still banned in several Middle Eastern and Asian countries and is still controversial in parts of the West; only last year did a mainstream British publisher, Vintage, issue the book in paperback.

And although Rushdie has said the "last chapter" of his ordeal is complete and even boasted that he was "happy" not to be a Muslim, others doubt he is out of danger.

"Is the danger entirely gone? Of course not. There's still a bounty on his head. He still receives constant threats," said Susan Sontag, a friend of Rushdie's and a former president of the American center of International PEN, a writers' organization that vehemently opposed the fatwa.

"It's a step in the right direction, but one can't really jump up and down and start clapping yet," said author Paul Auster, also a friend of Rushdie's. "But to go through what he's gone through and not have moments of pique and anger and say things you would regret is perfectly normal."

Daniel Pipes, an author and director of the Middle East Forum, a Philadelphia-based think tank, said there was nothing new about last fall's announcement. He said that Iranian officials long had claimed that they would not act upon the death sentence and that they were simply interested in improving relations with Britain, a desired trading partner.

"The fatwa is in effect, and will remain in effect," said Pipes, who wrote about the death sentence in the book "The Rushdie Affair."

"My view was when Khomeini died, Rushdie had no chance to escape this edict. No one who took Khomeini's place had the stature to revoke it."

Carmel Bedford, who served as secretary for the now-defunct International Rushdie Defense Committee, said the committee's concern was that the fatwa had government authorization. Without that, she said, the author is relatively safe, despite the threats from religious leaders.

"Rushdie now is just the same as any celebrity who has that appeal for lunatics," said Bedford, whose organization was based in London and was affiliated with International PEN.

"After the agreement last fall with the Iranian government, we expected to have people come out of the woodwork and make threats, which they did in the immediate weeks after. But that was to try and galvanize extremists, and they are in a minority."

Support for the fatwa remains. In Rushdie's native India, a powerful Muslim cleric warned of violent protests against any visit by the author. India, which has a sizable Muslim minority and was the first to ban "The Satanic Verses," recently granted Rushdie a visa for the first time since the 1980s. Rushdie's lawyer, Vijay Shankaras, has said the author could visit India within two or three months.

In Iran, a foundation has offered a $2.8-million reward for Rushdie's death and hundreds turned out for a recent anti-Rushdie demonstration.

Speaking to reporters last fall, Rushdie said he would still need some kind of security, but no longer "the colossal apparatus of state protection." He said that a number of suspected stalkers were expelled from Britain over the years, but that none came close to harming him.

Compared to some authors, Rushdie is lucky. According to International PEN's Writers-in-Prison Committee, more than 300 writers and journalists have been killed in the last five years and at any given time about 300 are in prison. For all the worrying that no one cares anymore about writing, some unquestionably still care--enough to want the writer silenced.

"Writers are dangerous because they're free," Auster said. "They think for themselves, and in a repressive regime that's the most dangerous thing."

Many Iranian writers have lived in exile since the 1979 Islamic revolution and it is believed that several who remained in the country were murdered. Just last year, writers Mohammad Jafar Pouyandeh and Mohammad Mokhtari disappeared from their homes. Their bodies were found dumped on the outskirts of Tehran, both apparently strangled.

The two had tried to establish a writers association and had been summoned by a court two months earlier to answer questions about their activities.

"If I were Salman Rushdie, I would be concerned," said novelist Joanne Leedom-Ackerman, vice president of International PEN. "Clearly, with the number of writers who have been killed, all factions in Iran are not at peace with freedom of expression."

Rushdie, a prominent writer well before "Satanic Verses," is the author of eight works of fiction, including the Booker Prize-winning novel "Midnight's Children," and three works of nonfiction. He declined to comment on the anniversary of the fatwa.

His new novel, "The Ground Beneath Her Feet," will be published by Henry Holt this spring. The main character is a famous pop singer who is trapped in a major earthquake and lost to her friends forever.

The last day of her life: St. Valentine's Day, 1989.

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