Hunted by An Angry Faith

Salman Rushdie's novel cracks open a fault line between East and West

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It was an absurdist nightmare, a story that all but defied the Western imagination. A middle-aged author, born in Bombay but for many years resident in London, writes a long, sardonic novel, by turns philosophical and comic and fantastic. In the book's opening scene, two middle-aged Indian actors fall 29,002 feet from a jetliner that has just been exploded by terrorists over the English Channel. They have an animated conversation as they hurtle toward earth; they land safely, but then their troubles begin anew. Along the way, the author writes about his schooling and young adulthood in Britain, about his love for Bombay and about the death of his father. He explores the roots ! of his Muslim faith and retells some legends of the Prophet Muhammad in a whimsical and sometimes outrageous way, though taking care to offer up these sequences as dreams, or even dreams within dreams, by characters who may or may not be mad.

The book is praised by critics and wins a literary prize, but Muslims find some of the passages offensive. Soon there are threats, protests, demonstrations, riots in scattered places -- India, South Africa, the Asian quarters of British cities. India bans the book to avoid sectarian violence, and is soon followed by Pakistan, South Africa, Saudi Arabia, Egypt. Then a mass protest is staged outside the American cultural center in Islamabad, the capital of Pakistan; six people are killed, a hundred injured. Another dies during protests in Indian-controlled Kashmir.

Then, most astonishing of all, Ayatullah Ruhollah Khomeini, 88, spiritual ruler of fundamentalist, revolutionary Iran, announces that the author must be killed for the sin of insulting Islam, the Prophet and the holy Koran, and for good measure exonerates any Muslim who manages to perpetrate this deed and promises him the rewards of martyrdom. And not only the author, but anyone else involved in the publication of the book. A day later, another Iranian cleric announces that a bounty has been placed on the author's head: $2.6 million if the avenger is an Iranian, $1 million if he is not. The following day, thanks to the generosity of still another Iranian philanthropist, the reward is doubled. Governments are angered, publishers intimidated, airlines subjected to bomb threats. The author and his family scurry into hiding, protected by Scotland Yard.

This was the extraordinary plight of Salman Rushdie, 41, whose fourth novel, The Satanic Verses, has precipitated what some Islamic experts regard as the most incendiary literary fight in the 14 centuries of Islamic history. Last week the controversy spread from the dusty streets of Pakistan to the offices of European publishers and to the shopping malls of America, where the nation's largest booksellers ordered all copies of The Satanic Verses removed from the shelves. Suddenly the name Salman Rushdie was on the lips of millions, many reviling him but others expressing sympathy and genuinely wondering how a novel could elicit such deadly passion. The dispute reminded Westerners once again of the zealous rage that Khomeini is capable of; it also raised questions about how free societies can best protect themselves and their citizens against so furious and mercurial a form of intimidation.

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