Salman Rushdie, Four Years Later

February 14, 1993

Salman Rushdie's "Satanic Verses" is a novel in which the two main characters bounce unpredictably through time and space, past and present.

Today, exactly four years after Iran's Ayatollah Khomeini imposed a death sentence on Mr. Rushdie for blaspheming Islam in his book, the creator of those fantastic travelers remains an earth-bound prisoner of the late Ayatollah's edict, or fatwa, which comes with a bounty of more than $2 million. Guarded by British police, moved from safe house to safe house, Mr. Rushdie is frozen in the present, his future on hold.

Even after the final Western hostages in Lebanon were freed last spring, the relief was muted by the image of Mr. Rushdie as hostage-by-fatwa. Worse, there was the danger people would forget him. "Maybe I'd be seen as a sort of party pooper," he wrote in the Feb. 7 New York Times.

The "party" he referred to was the warming of relations between an Iran anxious to become a world player and a West anxious to tap into the most populous nation in the Middle East. Was this rapprochement worth scuttling for the fate of one writer? The coolness of many Western governments to Mr. Rushdie's plight seemed to suggest not. Among them were Great Britain, of which the author is a citizen, and the United States.

So Mr. Rushdie decided last summer to press his own case. He has since visited several Western countries seeking to convince their leaders of two things: freedom of expression cannot be made a captive of state terrorism, and Iran cannot be admitted into the community of nations till it drops the death sentence. Consequently, he writes, "The boulder [has] begun to roll."

In Germany, Iran's top trading partner, the Bundestag has passed a resolution warning of dire consequences for Iran if its agents should harm Mr. Rushdie. The Swedish and Canadian parliaments are pondering similar measures. Britain has asserted, more firmly than before, that normalization with Iran won't happen so long as Mr. Rushdie is threatened. The United Nations has vowed support. Yasser Arafat, too, has criticized the fatwa.

The Clinton administration ought to advance this momentum. It should depart from its predecessor's policy of indifference toward Mr. Rushdie and, with Britain, take a guiding role among nations putting pressure on Iran. At the same time, we must make clear that our dispute is not with Islam but with an Islamic state practicing terrorism against a citizen of a foreign land.

Salman Rushdie says the ball is in Iran's court.

It's in ours as well.

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