Rushdie Issues Strident Call for British Diplomacy

SALMAN RUSHDIE, who describes himself as "the last British hostage," has launched a campaign to try to force Prime Minister John Major to ask Iran to ease his plight.And by insisting that a paperback edition of his novel, The Satanic Verses, be published, he has reawakened the animosity of Muslims who believe he should be killed because of the alleged blasphemy it contains. The book's publisher, Penguin Books, later said his statement had taken them by surprise and that there was no date set for a paperback edition. The Indian-born author spoke about freedom of speech last week at a surprise appearance at Columbia University in New York. He said that more than 1,000 days after the late Ayatollah Khomeini delivered a fatwa, or death sentence, on him for his novel, he spends most of his time hiding. He compares his situation with that of Terry Waite, John McCarthy, and Jack Mann, the three British hostages who were held in Lebanon but have been released in the last six months. Mr. Rushdie's New York trip was the first time he had ventured overseas since the fatwa. He flew from London under a false name and was heavily guarded by security police. In a 20-minute address to Columbia's graduate school of journalism Rushdie complained that his case had not received the same level of government pressure as the Western hostages in Lebanon. "For many people I've ceased to be a human being. I've become an issue," he said. Rushdie is also bitter toward John Carey, the Archbishop of Canterbury, who called The Satanic Verses an "outrageous slur" on the Prophet Muhammad. One of Rushdie's friends, who had spoken to him by telephone, reported him as saying: "Instead of extending sympathy to the people who say they want to kill me, the Archbishop should use his influence with Iran's religious leaders to lift the fatwa." Rushdie's frustration first surfaced last month when Britain's Foreign Office urged him to cancel a demonstration organized by friends to mark his 1,000 days in enforced seclusion. Officials told him that the demonstration might jeopardize the release of Mr. Waite, the Church of England envoy. Rushdie lives in exile at a secret location in England guarded by antiterrorist police. Scotland Yard sources estimate the cost of protection to be 2.5 million British pounds ($1.4 million) to date. In a Nov. 13 appearance in northeast England, Rushdie called the Foreign Office advice about canceling the vigil "an act of bad faith and foolishness." The government was "cynical and untrustworthy," he said. Now that Waite is free, Rushdie's friends say they plan a demonstration for Feb. 14, the third anniversary of the fatwa. Meanwhile, the Iranian government has refused to lift the death sentence or to cancel the $2 million bounty it has offered to any Muslim who kills Rushdie. The author's friends say he is unhappy that, after Waite's release, British officials said the way was clear for normalizing relations between London and Tehran. "How can relations return to normal when a British citizen's execution continues to be authorized by the Iranian authorities?" Rushdie asked. Rushdie's criticism of the British government has prompted counterblasts from leading government supporters. Sir William Clark, a senior Conservative member of parliament, said: "He should stop whining or get out of Britain. If he is so unhappy with the way his case has been handled, he should go elsewhere." British Muslims offer Rushdie little solace. Ziauddin Sardar, author of a book about the Rushdie affair, said: "The fatwa cannot be lifted. As long as The Satanic Verses is in the public domain, the fatwa stays." Mr. Sardar advised Rushdie to "shut up and not draw attention to himself." A Foreign Office source said it was difficult to ask the Iranian authorities to lift a declaration by a religious leader. But there is hope that the bounty on Rushdie could be lifted by Tehran.

of 5 stories this month > Get unlimited stories
You've read 5 of 5 free stories

Only $1 for your first month.

Get unlimited Monitor journalism.