SALMAN RUSHDIE says he has reached a turning point in his battle against the fatwa (death sentence) imposed on him 4-1/2 years ago by the late Ayatollah Khomeini of Iran.
The Indian-born author of the novel "The Satanic Verses," which militant Muslims say is a severe blasphemy against the prophet Muhammad, described a meeting he was granted last month with John Major, the British prime minister, as "a clear and welcome sign that governments have at last begun to take my plight seriously."
It was Mr. Rushdie's first encounter with a head of government since February 1989, when Iran's supreme religious leader put a multimillion dollar price on his head and called for his assassination. A close friend said the meeting at the House of Commons was part of "an accelerating campaign" on Rushdie's part to assert the inherent right of free expression by writers and simultaneously to obtain release from "the hell to which the fatwa has condemned him."
At a news conference after the meeting with Prime Minister Major, Rushdie said they had discussed "a series of international measures" aimed at persuading Iran to lift the fatwa. He declined to say what the measures were, but political sources spoke afterwards of stepped-up efforts by British diplomats in Islamic and other capitals to bring pressure to bear on Tehran.
Major's readiness to see him, the novelist said, was "a further sign that those who care about freedom recognize the wrong that has been done - and still is being done." But Rushdie, his Scotland Yard bodyguards hovering nearby, conceded that relations between London and Tehran would "probably become frostier" in the near future as a result of his 30-minute conversation with the British premier.
RUSHDIE has had to wait a long time for the open political support he says he must have if Iran is ever to drop the fatwa and allow him to return to a reasonably normal life. And last year he began traveling secretly to European capitals, seeking the support of governments. So far he has visited 10 countries.
Wherever he goes, he seeks out politicians and officials willing to listen to his case. One of his most striking successes was in Germany. After hearing his account of the life he has been forced to lead, the Bundestag - the federal parliament - passed a resolution saying Iran should be held legally responsible for any attempt to kill Rushdie.
Friends describe the novelist's life since the fatwa was declared as a deeply frustrating hole-in-corner existence. Frances d'Souza, who helped to organize the meeting with Major, says Rushdie has had no option but to move his residence several times. His public appearances have to be organized in deepest secret. He is guarded around the clock by Scotland Yard "special branch" detectives.
In the last few months, the author has been increasingly bold in the things he says about the people who threaten to punish him for writing and publishing a book they still insist merits the death penalty. In a February address at King's College Chapel, Cambridge University, Rushdie said: "Just as this chapel may be taken as a symbol of what is best about religion, so the fatwa has become a symbol of what is worst."
Iranian religious leaders continue to say that "The Satanic Verses" is blasphemous. Three months ago, Ayatollah Ali Khamanei, Khomeini's successor as Iran's top religious leader, said the death edict against Rushdie "must be carried out, whatever the consequences." A week before the Rushdie-Major meeting, the Tehran government told members of a high-level British trade mission that they would not be welcome in Iran if the prime minister carried out his plan to meet the writer. The trade mission visit had
to be cancelled.
Rushdie describes Major's decision to see him as "an act of very considerable political courage."
"This will send a message around the world," he says. "It is very important that the British government is seen to be leading from the front."