Rushdie takes on the bullies Novelist goes public: The lesson is 'to function or to be afraid. You can't do both.'

January 24, 1996

Despite his recent series of public -- determinedly public -- appearances, Indian-born British novelist Salman Rushdie must realize that danger stalks him still. He is rightly suspicious of what he calls the "charm offensive" by Iranian officials who say their government no longer intends to carry out the fatwa issued against Mr. Rushdie seven years ago by the late Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini. (That death sentence, accompanied by a $1 million bounty, was handed down for the alleged slanders of Islam in the novel, "The Satanic Verses.") It's one thing for Iran to turn on the "charm" to improve its relations with the West, Mr. Rushdie has suggested; what he wants from the Iranians is an official revocation of the death sentence, in writing.

And yet, even if Iran took such a step, that would not keep some fanatic of the faith from taking it on himself to execute the author for the glory of Islam and Iran. Mr. Rushdie surely knows this. So does the British government, which continues to pick up most of the tab for the writer's omnipresent bodyguards. Indeed, they have been conspicuous at each of his public stops to promote his acclaimed new novel, "The Moor's Last Sigh."

Nerve-jangling as these appearances might be to Rushdie fans, there is nonetheless a triumphant feeling about them. They express more than an unjustly imprisoned man's wish for freedom, more than a writer's desire to push his latest creation up the best-seller charts. They express, as Mr. Rushdie said in The New York Times, "the lesson you learn in the school playground that what you do with bullies is not be bullied You basically take the decision that you're either going to function or to be afraid. You can't do both."

Even from the grave, Khomeini has a grip on Salman Rushdie, and likely will for the rest of the author's life. But Mr. Rushdie is bravely fighting back, showing his face and using his greatest weapon, his writer's voice, to vanquish the bullies who have tried to silence him for seven long years.

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