Hunted by An Angry Faith

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

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& Such controversies reflect the confusion of a country torn between the more pragmatic forces seeking to moderate the ten-year-old Islamic revolution and open Iran to Western trade, and ideologues determined to retain control. For some months, moderate elements seemed to be in the ascendant. Only a few days preceding Khomeini's rampage against Rushdie, the Iranian leader's designated successor, Ayatullah Hussein Ali Montazeri, made an unusually conciliatory speech in the holy city of Qum. Montazeri lamented the fact that "people in the world have gained the idea that our business in Iran is just murdering people" and called on his country to "set aside past mistakes and harsh treatment," adding that "extremism is to our detriment." At about the same time, Parliamentary Speaker Ali Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani told the Iranian news agency that Tehran erred in seeking a military victory over Iraq. "We took too big a bite," he said.

This was extraordinarily revisionist talk, and it may have been too much for Khomeini to stomach. He struck back, reaffirming his leadership of the Iranian masses with the most convenient weapon at hand, The Satanic Verses. The return of Khomeini's fiery rhetoric may be an isolated rage or it could mean that the hard-liners are once again trying to assert their strength.

Politics also played a role in the anti-Rushdie agitation in Pakistan. Last week's demonstration at the American cultural center in Islamabad was staged by political and religious groups that oppose the government of Prime Minister Benazir Bhutto and were formerly aligned with her predecessor and enemy, the late President Mohammed Zia ul-Haq. On her return from a trip to China, she seized on this theme in a speech, asking, "Was the agitation really directed against this book, which has not been read, sold or translated in Pakistan, or was it a protest by those who lost the election ((and wish)) to destabilize the process of democracy?"

Toward the end of the week, more violent protests flared in Iran, India and Bangladesh. In Tehran, however, Iran's President Ali Khamenei remarked that the death threat against Rushdie might be withdrawn if he would apologize to Muslims and to Khomeini. A day later, when Rushdie did exactly that, Iran's government-run news agency began to issue its series of contradictory reports and commentaries -- a symbol of the confusion within the Tehran regime.

But what to believe? Even as he was discussing the possible benefits of a Rushdie apology last week, Khamenei said of the author, "This wretched man has no choice but to die because he has confronted a billion Muslims and the Imam." Rushdie of course intended to do no such thing; rather, he used his considerable literary powers to address an audience of educated readers who understood very well that he was offering them a work of the imagination. The fate of both book and author poses a dilemma for Western societies that is not easily resolved. Granted there is a need in the West for greater sensitivity to Islamic concerns, so also is there a need to deny trespass to intruding zealots -- one is reminded of Khamenei's remark that "the Imam knows no frontiers" -- determined to inflict intellectual and sometimes physical terrorism on the rest of the world.

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