`The Satanic Verses' Is Still a Burning Issue

Muslims in Britain agree that `forgiveness' is impossible

IN the public lending libraries of the northern English city of Bradford, all eight copies of a certain novel - for which there is a long waiting list of borrowers - carry an unusual sticker. It reads: ``This book is a work of the imagination. It does not claim to be a contribution to historical knowledge. Nevertheless, it has caused great offense to Muslims in our community. The library regrets this. However, in a free society the Public Library has an overriding duty to provide its readers with the books they may require in order to judge for themselves, subject only to the law of the land.''

The book is, of course, Salman Rushdie's ``The Satanic Verses.'' The sticker sets out the British secular belief in the rights of free speech on one hand, and the Muslim religious belief that free speech can no longer be permitted when it comes to insulting Islam.

The sticker, put there by library authorities in response to pressure from Muslims, comes down on the side of free speech. Bradford is known by some British Muslims as ``little Pakistan.'' In fact, the Muslim population there is no more than 14 percent, expected to be 19 percent by 2001. (In Britain as a whole the Muslim population is about 1.4 percent.) But it was here that Muslim indignation over ``The Satanic Verses'' was stirred to the point of public book-burning in January 1989.

Film of this incident is almost automatically trotted out on British TV every time the Rushdie affair resurfaces in the news, as it did June 5 when Ayatollah Ali Khamenei of Iran reaffirmed the fatwa or death sentence on Rushdie - a simple call for ``all zealous Muslims to execute'' him ``quickly'' - first pronounced almost a year-and-a-half ago by his predecessor Ayatollah Khomeini. Rushdie remains in hiding, under police protection.

Talk to even the most anglicized, level-headed, college-educated British Muslims and you encounter a basic agreement with this death sentence. They may state it with impeccable calm. And they will probably add that they, of course, with due respect for United Kingdom law, are not planning to carry out the sentence. But they still consider it just. It cannot be rescinded.

British Muslim opinion, if basically in agreement, is variously shaded on the issue, but the possibility of simple forgiveness of the author (or of his publishers who are also under the death threat) seems almost entirely out of the question. The shades of opinion extend from outspoken reiteration of Rushdie's alleged offense against Islam to continued legal attempts to enlarge the scope of Britain's law against blasphemy (applicable only to offenses against Christianity as represented by the Church of England).

Some Muslims propose conciliatory attempts to persuade Rushdie to make concessions. ``I want to see this problem resolved,'' says Esham El-Essawy, chairman of ``The Islamic Society for the Promotion of Religious Tolerance.'' He has proposed a ``health warning'' - ``an erratum of historical errors and so on'' - to be printed in the book, as a warning to readers.

A spokesman for Viking, the book's publisher, says that if Rushdie asked them to print a new introduction to the book, they would not object. But, says Dr. Essawy, there's no evidence of Rushdie acting on the idea. Nor of taking up his offer to meet him, (with Essawy blindfolded if necessary), to talk over the issue. Rushdie's London agent, Gillon Aitken, who describes Essawy as ``a man of complete good will,'' says that Essawy's self-appointed efforts to mediate in the matter can be of no use.

Essawy says he strongly believes that the death threat goes against all that Islam stands for. All the Koran asks, he says, is that believers should not sit with mockers and insulters of God's word until they talk about something else. If all Muslims were as gentle, Rushdie would have little to fear.

``For a start the very title is offensive,'' says Syed Pasha, general secretary of the Union of Muslim Organizations in London. ``It is an attack on Christianity, Islam, and Judaism - all three,'' Mr. Pasha says. ``Rushdie is attacking the integrity of the prophet Abraham.'' (Abraham belongs to the history of the three religions. The book calls him a ``bastard.'')

It is hard for Muslims to understand, Pasha says, why Christians haven't been as outraged as Muslims have. The Church of England has not protested, although the Archbishop of Canterbury has expressed carefully worded sympathy for people who feel their religious beliefs have been offended.

WHILE the protests of Muslims have almost certainly increased interest in the book, British booksellers tend to be discreet about its availability in their shops. Like the libraries they opt for freedom of speech. W.H. Smith, a large, popular High Street bookseller, after initial problems, continues to stock the book. Some bookstores bring it out of a back room for customers but don't keep it on their open shelves.

The cost to Rushdie in deprivation of his previously much-relished public presence and in other personal inconveniences is apparent. The cost to his English-language publisher in London, Viking, is extraordinary: Last year, income from sale of the novel, which continues to be ``good'' but not ``exceptional,'' merely broke even against gigantic security costs of 2 million ($3.4 million). An apparent reluctance to publish the English edition in paperback (there is already a Norwegian paperback, and German is soon to follow suit) presumably results from Muslim threats. Yet Viking acknowledges that not to bring out a paperback would be to have bowed to terrorism. Though no date has been set, Viking says it is a matter of ``when'' it will be out in paperback, not ``if.''

The librarian in Bradford, meanwhile, notes that, although people wait eagerly to borrow ``The Satanic Verses,'' they rarely keep it for the full three weeks allowed. This could suggest that the renowned difficulty of actually reading it soon defeats most readers. Rushdie himself, in February 1989, claimed: ``It's very hard to be offended by `The Satanic Verses.' It requires a long period of intense reading. It's a quarter of a million words.''

Unfortunately, he had overlooked the capacity of Muslims to be profoundly offended without reading it at all.

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