Rushdie's life our freedom

Leslie H. Gelb

December 31, 1991|By Leslie H. Gelb

IN GABRIEL Garcia Marquez's haunting novella "Chronicle of a Death Foretold," a man is killed in full view of his neighbors, who all knew of the impending murder.

Some felt the execution was deserved, others refused to believe the warnings, most procrastinated and a few tried to intervene, but their dreamlike actions had no effect.

Ask the U.S. government, the British government and the United Nations what they are doing to lift Iran's death sentence against Salman Rushdie.

Officials will condemn terrorism and offer comforting words. Ask further and you might get the chilling feeling that while they surely want Rushdie to live, they are not exerting themselves to prevent his murder.

Salman Rushdie, you see, is a diplomatic inconvenience. Iran's decree against him for perceived blasphemies in his book "The Satanic Verses" is too big an affront to Western ideals of free speech and justice to ignore. Yet it is too small a matter to derail the improvement of relations with the mighty mullahs of terrorism and oil in Tehran.

So the author's life and our liberty are slowly and certainly "sinking into the abyss," as Rushdie recently reminded an American audience.

Special pleaders cannot stop this tragedy. The mullahs will not listen to the prattle of columnists. But they will listen to what governments say, for only political authorities have the power to give Tehran what it now so desperately seeks -- re-entry into the world's commerce. Only political power can save Rushdie's life and our heritage.

Rushdie's voice was icy and precise, eerily detached, as he recounted for me on the phone what he knew of the diplomatic mind-set.

"It could be said this issue is central and must be removed before Western rapprochement with Iran," the native of India punched out in the clipped British accent of his adopted country. "Or governments might feel it was so small it doesn't have to be removed and go ahead with better relations anyway."

I told him I took offense at what the "Verses" said about Islam. He said: "To you and others, I said and say, 'I'm sorry.' " I said I stood with him nonetheless. He said nothing. It was his due. I offered to check out what was being done in his behalf. He expected at least that.

A State Department official responded this way: "Any substantial improvement in our relationship with Iran is not going to come until Iran's leaders stop their support of terrorism."

But it was muddy, to say the least, whether our government had made plain to Tehran that stopping terrorism included removing the Rushdie death decree.

Bush administration officials agreed on only one point -- "It is primarily a British matter because he is a British citizen," as one official put it.

"Our position on the death threat is very simple," said a British diplomat in Washington. "We condemn it. We would like it to be removed."

Asked if normalization of ties with Iran is directly linked to repeal of the death sentence, he said: "You can say we obviously look at every side of the policy involved . . . The Rushdie case continues to be a major factor in our relationship with Iran. I don't want to be more specific than that."

Nor was the U.N. more specific or encouraging about a strong public declaration. A spokeswoman for departing Secretary General Javier Perez de Cuellar said, "We don't have a policy about [Rushdie] at all."

Pressed, she produced two statements by the secretary general dated 1989. In the first he "appeal[ed]" for the lifting of the threat.

In the second he said: "We have a kind of conflict between two human rights, the right to protect and defend your religion, and the right to have freedom of expression. I am sure that with patience and wisdom, this situation will calm down. . . ."

Asked if the U.N. contemplated any action, she said that some country has to put the issue on the agenda, and "obviously, no one did."

Obviously, as diplomacy now stands, terrorist hit squads backed by Tehran will kill Salman Rushdie, just as surely as they killed the Japanese translator of his book a few months ago and attempted to kill his Italian translator.

If his death occurs as foretold, something at the core in all of us will die as well.

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