WORLD

DEADLY DEFIANCE

THE AYATOLLAH QUICKLY DASHED ANY HOPES THAT HE MIGHT SHOW MERCY TO SALMAN RUSHDIE

ANDREW PHILLIPS March 6 1989
WORLD

DEADLY DEFIANCE

THE AYATOLLAH QUICKLY DASHED ANY HOPES THAT HE MIGHT SHOW MERCY TO SALMAN RUSHDIE

ANDREW PHILLIPS March 6 1989

When Canadian diplomat Scott Mullin flew to Tehran last October and reopened Canada’s embassy in Iran, he ended eight years during which Canada and Iran maintained no formal diplomatic ties. That action resulted from a wider opening up to the West adopted by Iran’s revolutionary Islamic government in the months following the end of its war with Iraq. But on Feb. 23, Mullin abruptly left Tehran—joining an exodus of Western diplomats in a growing international protest over Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini’s murderous edict against British author Salman Rushdie. Khomeini’s order, first issued two weeks ago and reiterated last week, calls on Moslems around the world to kill Rushdie for allegedly blaspheming against Islam in his novel The Satanic Verses. The death threat, declared External Affairs Minister Joe Clark, “constitutes a fundamental breach of international law and practice.”

Canada was among 16 countries that withdrew representatives from Iran last week to underline their opposition to Khomeini’s order. At the same time, prominent writers in Europe and North America joined the chorus condemning the threat against Rushdie, who remained in hiding under armed guard in Britain. But those protests did nothing to soften Iran’s official position. Instead, as voices of moderation inside Iran were drowned out by even harsher threats against the writer, it became clear that Khomeini had used the Rushdie affair to shift the balance of power in Iran decisively against those favoring greater openness to the West. “As long as I am alive,” the 88-year-old leader declared in an uncompromising message on Tehran Radio, “I will never allow liberals to come to power again.”

Khomeini first ordered Rushdie’s death on Feb. 14, and for a few days it seemed that there might be room for compromise. Iranian President Ali Khamenei suggested three days later that the author might be forgiven if he apologized. The next day, Rushdie expressed regret for any distress to “sincere followers of Islam” caused by his book—which Moslems contend insults the Prophet Mohammed and distorts their religion. But the Ayatollah quickly dashed any hopes that Rushdie might be granted mercy. “Even if Salman Rushdie repents and becomes the most pious man in the world,” he said, “it is incumbent on every Moslem to employ everything he’s got, his life and wealth, to send him to hell.” President Khamenei quickly changed his tune. “There is no solution to the Rushdie affair,” he said. “An arrow has been shot and it is unerringly aimed at its target.”

That defiance led major Western governments to take strong diplomatic action. Britain, Rushdie’s home for the past 20 years, had at first issued only a cautious condemnation out of concern for British citizens held captive in Iran or by Iranian-backed groups in Lebanon. But on Monday, Britain received firm support for a stronger stand from its 11 partners in the European Community. All 12 EC governments withdrew their top diplomatic representatives from Tehran—and Britain closed its embassy completely. Sweden, Denmark and Norway quickly joined the protest. Iran retaliated by summoning its European ambassadors home—destroying months of work in rebuilding diplomatic relations with the West.

In Ottawa, Clark summoned Mullin back to Canada for consultations the day after the EC countries announced their action. But he left one low-level diplomat in Tehran—prompting Liberal Leader John Turner to charge that Canada’s response to the Rushdie threat had been weak. Responded Clark: “We are not in a race with other countries as to who condemns the Ayatollah.”

Canada’s position was also clouded by Revenue Canada’s decision to review The Satanic Verses under a federal law prohibiting the importation of hate literature. On Feb. 17, the department announced that any new imports of the novel would be detained while customs officers reviewed it, following a complaint from a Canadian Moslem group. But a spokesman later said that the book’s publishers, Penguin Books Canada Ltd., had asked for an early review—and on Feb. 19, Revenue Canada ruled that The Satanic Verses is not hate literature. Revenue Minister Otto Jelinek expressed sympathy with Moslems who feel offended but added that Ottawa cannot ban importation of the book. Then, Jelinek himself received death threats and was put under guard by the RCMP. Meanwhile, Penguin officials said that during the week of Khomeini’s first death threat to Rushdie, they had distributed three new shipments of The Satanic Verses to Canadian booksellers. Two of them came from Britain, but Maclean’s has learned that the third was printed in Canada.

There were other signs of strong feeling across Canada and elsewhere. Managers of some bookstores said that members of their staff had received threats for selling The Satanic Verses. And several booksellers criticized Ottawa’s temporary ban on importation of the book. “It sends the wrong signal,” said Serge Lavoie, executive director of the Canadian Booksellers Association. In New York City, leading writers, including Norman Mailer and E. L. Doctorow, rallied in support of Rushdie, reading excerpts from The Satanic Verses and protesting outside major bookstores that had taken the novel off their shelves. By week’s end, some of those U.S. retailers announced that they would resume sales. And in Canada, a spokesman for Coles Book Stores Ltd. said that the firm would also allow its managers to resume selling the book.

In Bombay, meanwhile, Indian police killed at least 12 Moslems and wounded 40 others last Friday when angry protesters tried to march on the British Deputy High Commission to condemn Rushdie’s book. And throughout the week, Khomeini’s supporters vowed to carry out his execution order. In Lebanon, leaders of the pro-Iranian Hizbullah, or Party of God, labelled The Satanic Verses “a method of aggression against Islam and the Prophet Mohammed”—and promised to retaliate. Another pro-Iranian group, the Islamic Jihad for the Liberation of Palestine, also vowed revenge in a statement sent to a Western news agency in Beirut—and included a photo of three American hostages that the group is believed to be holding in Lebanon.

In Iran itself, Khomeini’s condemnation of “liberals” in the Islamic government could well signal a shift back toward militant policies after the comparative moderation of the past several months. Most Western analysts had ascribed the greater openness to Iran’s need for Western economic aid following the ceasefire last August in its eight-year war with Iraq. With the country’s economy in ruins, they said, moderates—grouped around parliament speaker Ali Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani—had favored renewing diplomatic and commercial ties with key Western countries, including Britain. But Khomeini, apparently halting that policy, described the controversy over The Satanic Verses as a godsend that had delivered Iran from “a naïve foreign policy.”

From his place in hiding, meanwhile, Rushdie wrote a newspaper review of American author Philip Roth’s autobiography, The Facts. In it, Rushdie says that he feels a kinship with Roth, whose books were once heavily criticized by his fellow Jews. For Rushdie, however—at the centre of a potentially deadly storm that showed no signs of subsiding— Roth’s experience must have seemed comparatively placid.