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The conflict cut to the heart of Muslim and Judeo-Christian values, with centuries of cultural misunderstanding and mistrust finding a flash point in Rushdie's novel. After Khomeini's call to murder, many Muslim leaders worldwide disagreed with the ferocity of his action, but none had a friendly word for Rushdie, his literary intentions or his right to free speech. To be sure, few of his prosecutors had read the book, as the author pointed out repeatedly; most seemed to feel they had learned enough from printed excerpts or merely word of mouth to convict the author of blasphemy compounded by apostasy, the crime of renouncing one's religious faith. In the Muslim faith, the traditional punishment for an apostate is death.
Asked if he took Khomeini's threat seriously, Rushdie, clearly shaken, replied, "I think I have to take it very seriously indeed." He canceled a planned book tour in the U.S., moved out of his four-story house in North London and, under protection of Scotland Yard's antiterrorist squad, quietly disappeared. Then, in a formal statement released on Saturday, he declared, "I profoundly regret the distress that publication has occasioned to sincere followers of Islam."
The Iranian news agency initially observed that the "Muslim heretic" had not repented. Later it said the apology might be accepted, and still later it dismissed the previous comment as the personal opinion of one of its employees. At the same time, the news agency reported that a local newspaper had denounced the offer of money to anyone who would kill Rushdie, observing that "to pay one man to kill another man is murder at a premium and not a religiously inspired act." This remarkable display of vacillation, played out in the dispatches from Tehran, suggested that pragmatists in Iran had begun a campaign to control the damage caused by the Ayatullah's earlier pronouncement.
In the West, political leaders and the general public alike reacted with anger and disbelief to the outrage of a foreign despot declaring a death sentence on another country's citizen whose only crime, at least in Western eyes, was to probe the meaning of his Islamic heritage. In Washington, the State Department said it was "appalled" by Khomeini's statement as well as by the reward for Rushdie's murder. The Dutch Foreign Minister canceled a trip to Tehran. The British government found itself at the center of the controversy -- because Rushdie is a British citizen and because its Tehran embassy, reopened less than three months ago after being closed for eight years, had been attacked by an angry mob earlier last week. The Foreign Office summoned Iran's lone diplomat in Britain and told him that Khomeini's threat was "totally unacceptable," demanded special protection for its embassy, and disclosed that London was "freezing" its plan to strengthen diplomatic ties with the Islamic state.