Meant no disrespect to Muslims, Clinton avers

December 01, 1993|By Los Angeles Times

WASHINGTON -- President Clinton, responding to outrage in the Muslim world over his meeting with British author Salman Rushdie, says he intended no disrespect toward followers of Islam.

Although aides insisted Mr. Clinton was not apologizing for receiving the author of "The Satanic Verses," a book deemed blasphemous by millions of Muslims, the president's remarks yesterday appeared designed to soften the impact of last Wednesday's brief meeting, which was controversial even within the administration.

Mr. Clinton acknowledged that some of his advisers opposed his symbolic embrace of Mr. Rushdie, which resulted from a last-minute initiative by top White House political aides. They succeeded in overruling foreign policy experts, who wanted lower-level officials to meet with Mr. Rushdie.

Former President Bush refused to see the author, considering such a meeting too sensitive in the Islamic world. Mr. Rushdie's agents had been pressing for a meeting with Mr. Clinton since shortly after the inauguration.

Mr. Rushdie, an Indian-born British citizen, is under a death decree issued nearly five years ago by Iranian Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini, who condemned "The Satanic Verses" as heretical and an affront to all practicing Muslims. Although Ayatollah Khomeini has since died, Iranian President Hashemi Rafsanjani has not lifted the sentence and fundamentalists in Iran have offered a $1 million bounty for Mr. Rushdie.

Mr. Clinton asserted yesterday that by seeing Mr. Rushdie he hoped to make a statement about U.S. devotion to free expression and opposition to state terrorism -- not deliver a rebuke to the Muslim world.

"I respect the religion and I respect the culture enormously, so I mean no disrespect to the people who have that religious faith," Mr. Clinton said in response to a question at a news conference.

"But I do think it's important that here in the United States we reaffirm our commitment to protecting the physical well-being and the right to speak of those with whom we may intensely disagree . . . So I hope that I will not be misunderstood. I believe I made the right decision," he said.

However, Mr. Clinton sought to minimize the importance of the meeting, describing it almost as a chance encounter in the Old Executive Office Building, next door to the White House.

The meeting took on enormous symbolic import in the Muslim world, where clerics and political analysts denounced it as an insult to the Islamic faith and a blow to peace prospects in the Middle East.

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