A promise of freedom

Print edition : October 10, 1998

Salman Rushdie is relieved that the Iranian Government has finally dissociated itself from the death sentence passed against him by Ayatollah Khomeini. However, hardliners in Iran and elsewhere maintain that the fatwa against the author of The Satanic Verses stands.

"I INFORM all zealous Muslims of the world that the author of the book entitled The Satanic Verses - which has been compiled, printed and published in opposition to Islam, the Prophet, and the Qur'an - and all those involved in its publication who were aware of its content, are sentenced to death. I call on all zealous Muslims to execute them quickly, wherever they may be found, so that no one else will dare to insult the Muslim sanctities. God Willing, whoever is killed on this path is a martyr." With these words in February 1989, Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini, Iran's supreme spiritual leader, pronounced a death sentence on writer Salman Rushdie.

Now, after years of diplomatic efforts involving Britain, the European Union and Iran, an end seems to be in sight to the decade-long nightmare that the author has lived through. Iranian Foreign Minister Kamal Kharazzi read out a prepared statement to the press at the United Nations headquarters in New York on September 24 declaring that the 50-year-old Indian-born author was not under any threat from the Iranian Government. "The Government of the Islamic Republic of Iran has no intention, nor is it going to take any action whatsoever to threaten the life of the author of The Satanic Verses or anybody associated with his work, nor will it encourage or assist anybody to do so."

Kharazzi's statement, which was made after a meeting with British Foreign Secretary Robin Cook, was greeted by the British Government, and by Rushdie himself, as a decisive step towards ending the threat to the writer's life. "It looks like it's over," Rushdie told journalists in London after hearing the news. "It means everything, it means freedom." Cook himself was clearly delighted: "This is a breakthrough in our relations with Iran and in the security and safety of Salman Rushdie," he said. He went on to say that diplomatic relations between the two countries, which had been disrupted by the fatwa, would now be restored, and that the two countries would be exchanging ambassadors soon. The friends and supporters of Rushdie, who had stood by him during his harrowing days, were also elated. "Every lover of freedom should be rejoicing... it looks like a great victory for human freedom, a great victory for his courage and a great day for diplomacy..."

Salman Rushdie walks down a London street on September 25 after the Iranian Government announced that it had dissociated itself from the death sentence passed on him.-PETER JORDAN/ AP

However, the jubilation was also clouded by scepticism about whether the Iranian statement really meant that Rushdie was no longer under threat. The fatwa itself had not been revoked - the Iranian Government had made it clear all along that it had no powers to revoke an edict issued by the late Ayatollah, and therefore it had to stand.

Hardline Muslim groups in the United Kingdom were quick to reject the Iranian move and emphasise that as far as they were concerned, the fatwa was still valid. Anjem Chowdhary of Al-Muhajiroun expressed the hardline fundamentalist view when he said: "The Islamic position is that anyone who insults the Prophet must face capital punishment." He said that while no state would carry out the sentence, "there will always be Muslims who want to carry out the verdict." Ghayasuddin Siddiqui, leader of the "Muslim Parliament" in Britain, said: "They (Iran) have not revoked the fatwa because they cannot. As far as Rushdie is concerned, the situation remains the same. The fatwa remains operative and he is only safe in Britain." Less hardline voices in the Muslim community called upon Rushdie to apologise and withdraw The Satanic Verses. "Rushdie's rehabilitation into the Muslim community will not start until he apologises and agrees to have copies of The Satanic Verses destroyed."

Rushdie, however, has made it clear that he will neither aplogise for writing The Satanic Verses, nor have it withdrawn. "There is not a chance in hell of the book being withdrawn. We have not fought a battle for freedom of speech to give in at the last moment," he said.

There have been discordant notes from Iran as well, indicating a battle between President Mohammed Khatami's outward-looking government and religious conservatives who have opposed its conciliatory gesture. The hardline newspaper Jomhuri Eslami criticised Kharazzi for "making a political error", and said: "Whatever he says, nothing will change for Rushdie. His optimism and that of his supporters may even pave the way for a speedier execution of the sentence against him."

One of the many questions that remain unanswered is whether the $2.5 million reward that has been offered to anyone who assassinates Rushdie still stands. The reward was offered by a religious organisation, the 15th Khordad Foundation, set up by conservative clerics in the Iranian city of Qom.

In his statement in New York, Kharazzi dissociated the Iranian Government from the offer money. "The Government dissociates itself from any reward which has been offered in this regard and does not support it," he said. But it is quite possible that the reward will stay in place even without government support. Jomhuri Eslami said that it "will remain as long as the fatwa does," and added that "it is evident that any promises made to the contrary are a personal opinion with no link with the Islamic regime."

Rushdie himself appeared satisfied that at least the threat from the Iranian Government was over. He said: "All I can say is that it seems that this has been done in Iran with consensus, there doesn't seem to be any opposition to it in Iran." He conceded that "there are one or two self-styled hardliners in England belonging to tin-pot organisations who are saying this and that, but they are completely unimportant. The fact is that after 10 years, something extraordinary has been achieved."

Rushdie has been living under the protection of Special Branch police all these years, and clearly he will continue to receive some form of protection. But as one of his friends and supporters, Frances D'Souza, pointed out, the big change now is that the author no longer appears to be under threat from organised state terrorism. By Rushdie's own account, there have been several occasions over the past decade when the British police apprehended and deported potential Iranian assassins.

British Foreign Minister Robin Cook (left) with Iranian Foreign Minister Kamal Kharazzi on September 24 at the United Nations.-DAVID KARP/ AP

WHILE Rushdie has survived the threat to his life, others have been less fortunate. Several people have died in India and Pakistan in protest demonstrations against the book. In 1993, 40 people were killed in Turkey when riots broke out after a newspaper published extracts from the book. The Japanese translator of the book was stabbed to death, while its Italian translator was stabbed. The book's Norwegian publisher was shot at. Several bookshops of Penguin, the book's publisher, were attacked.

At a press conference held after the news of the deal with Iran became public, Rushdie paid tributes to those who had lost their lives because of their involvement with The Satanic Verses. "I would like to particularly think today of the family of Professor Hitoshi Igarshi, the Japanese translator of The Satanic Verses, who was murdered... I would like to think about the Italian translator, Dr. Ettore Capriolo, who was knifed but happily recovered; and my distinguished Norwegian publisher William Nygaard who took a number of bullets in his back and, mercifully, has made a full recovery."

Rushdie used the press conference to defend once again the freedom of free speech. He said that the real fight had not been over him. "Some incredibly important things were being fought for here...the art of the novel, beyond that the freedom of the imagination, the great, overwhelming, overarching issue of freedom of speech and the right of human beings to walk down the streets of their own country without fear," he said.

Rushdie believes that his ordeal is over, and that he can once again enjoy the simple pleasures and freedoms that people take for granted, such as being able to walk down a street or go into a shop without protection. "All I've ever looked for is a return to real life...the normal life of a professional writer, and that's what I hope I can very rapidly regain."

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