Hunted by An Angry Faith

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

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British airlines received bomb threats, causing security delays at London's Heathrow Airport. Viking Penguin, Rushdie's publisher, was also the target of such threats at its London and New York City offices. Thanks to the Muslim broadside, sales of The Satanic Verses boomed -- more than 100,000 copies were in print around the world -- and a second U.S. printing was on the way, but distribution was a growing problem. Waldenbooks ordered copies of The Satanic Verses removed from its more than 1,300 stores after getting several threats. Next day B. Dalton and Barnes & Noble followed suit. "We have never before pulled a book off our shelves," said Leonard Riggio, B. Dalton's chief executive officer. "It is regrettable that a foreign government has been able to hold hostage our most sacred First Amendment principle. Nevertheless, the safety of our employees and patrons must take precedence." Though American writers' groups were at first slow to react to the controversy, the 2,200- member PEN American Center later issued a statement in support of Rushdie.

In addition to the problem of distributing the book in the U.S., Viking Penguin faced a threat by 44 Islamic countries to ban the sale of its other books within their borders. In a statement, the company insisted that it had not intended to offend anyone and did not plan to withdraw the book from circulation. Andrew Wylie, Rushdie's New York City-based agent, said the book was still scheduled to be translated into 20 languages, but publishers in France and West Germany were reconsidering plans to issue editions of their own. The Canadian government halted imports of the book while it decided whether, as alleged by Muslims, the novel violates the country's laws against hate literature.

The actual risk faced by Rushdie and his publishers if Khomeini sought to follow through on his threat was difficult to gauge. Of the roughly 25,000 Iranians in Britain, it is believed there may be as many as 1,000 radical extremists, including students on short-term visas. Tehran-backed groups have a history of violent mischief in London, mostly bombings aimed at Iranian dissidents. Says Ian Geldard, head of research at London's Institute for the Study of Terrorism: "In the Islamic world, a call from the Imam is a full command . . . The worst of it is that this threat could remain in effect for months." Or even years. In a BBC radio interview, an exiled Iranian film director, Reza Fazeli, who himself has been the target of a Khomeini death threat and whose son was killed in a 1986 terrorist attack in London, said Rushdie faced a "living hell." He continued, "I had to learn to look over my shoulder. If they kill you, it's over -- it's finished. But ((this way)) they are killing you a hundred times a day."

What exactly did Rushdie do to merit such a threat? By Western standards, nothing -- at least nothing that could not be punished with a bad review. But among Muslims, and not just fundamentalists and extremists, there was an almost universal judgment that he had dishonored the faith (see box). Every Muslim critic seemed to have a favorite offending passage from his book. But, in sum, they felt he had insulted the faith, ridiculed the Prophet, trivialized the sacred -- and that the sin was compounded because it was committed by a born, though not a practicing, Muslim.

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