NICOSIA, Cyprus -- As anger over an allegedly blasphemous novel continued to gather force in the Islamic world, Iran's spiritual leader, the Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini, said Tuesday that the author and publishers of the book should be killed.
Tehran Radio said Khomeini issued a statement saying in part: "I inform the proud Muslim people of the world that the author of 'The Satanic Verses,' a book which is against Islam, the prophet and the Koran, and all those involved in its publication who were aware of its content, are hereby sentenced to death."
Author Salman Rushdie, an Indian-born British citizen, told the British Broadcasting Corp. that he takes Khomeini's threat "very seriously indeed." Not long afterward, he was reported to be in hiding and under police protection somewhere outside London.
The London offices of his publishers, the Penguin Group, were also under police guard.
What Khomeini called a "sentence of death" was the latest in a series of outraged responses to the "The Satanic Verses."
Although few in the Muslim world say they have read the prize-winning allegorical novel about Britain's treatment of its colonial subjects, the book has provoked widespread outrage. In Britain, where the book was first published, there have been public book burnings in areas that have large Muslim communities.
The book has been banned in India, Pakistan, Bangladesh, Egypt and South Africa. In the United States and Britain, Islamic militants have called for it to be withdrawn from the market and for Rushdie to publicly ask "forgiveness from Almighty Allah for the great insult which he has brought up."
Publication of the book in the United States sparked two days of rioting in Muslim areas of India and Pakistan. Over the weekend, demonstrators stoned the U.S. Cultural Center in Islamabad and five people were killed when riot police fired at the demonstrators. An Indian was killed Monday at a demonstration in Srinagar, India, where protests continued Tuesday. Khomeini was quoted as saying Tuesday that "The Satanic Verses" was written and published "in opposition to Islam."
"I call on all zealous Muslims to execute them quickly, wherever they find them, so that no one will dare to insult Islamic sanctity," Tehran Radio quoted him as saying. "Whoever is killed doing this will be regarded as a martyr and will go directly to heaven."
The Iranian government declared today a day of national mourning to protest against the decision to publish "poisonous and insulting subject matter concerning Islam, the Koran and the blessed prophet."
Tour Being Reconsidered
Followers of Islam believe that the Prophet Mohammed is God's messenger on Earth and that the Koran, Islam's holy book, consists of revelations from the Almighty as given to Mohammed.
In London, a spokesman for Rushdie's agent, Gillon Aitken, said a planned book promotion tour of the United States, scheduled to begin later this week, is now under review.
British Foreign Secretary Geoffrey Howe expressed his "very real concern," and the British government was generally adopting a cautious stance on the threat to Rushdie, for fear of jeopardizing the safety of a British citizen imprisoned in Tehran as an alleged spy.
Iranian Information Minister Mohammed Mohammedi-Reyshahri was quoted by the official news agency IRNA as saying that a court has completed its proceedings against British businessman Roger Cooper, held since December, 1985, and had imposed a "heavy sentence" on him. The minister added, without elaborating, that final judgment is still under consideration.
Britain and Iran resumed diplomatic relations last November, and the British authorities had hoped that Cooper might be released as part of an amnesty announced to mark last week's 10th anniversary of the Islamic revolution.
Despite expressing concern about the danger to his life, Rushdie, in his interview with the BBC, was not in a mood to back down.
"Obviously, at a personal level it's very worrying," the 41-year-old, Bombay-born author said in a brief film clip shown on the BBC and Independent Television News here Tuesday night. "But I think, beyond that, it shows this is a later stage in a campaign which began with smears and vilifications and distortions of the book which has escalated to all sorts of levels of violence. And, frankly, I wish I had written a more critical book.
"A religion that is able to behave like this--religious leaders, let's say, who are able to behave like this--and then say that this is a religion that must be above any kind of whisper of criticism; I mean, that doesn't add up. It seems to me that Islamic fundamentalists could do with a little criticism right now."
In a statement distributed Tuesday evening, Penguin's Viking unit, whose trademark appears on the British and U.S. editions of Rushdie's novel, commented: "Neither we nor the author of this novel published the book with intent to offend. We very much regret the distress the book has caused."
'Tragic Loss of Life'
Referring to six people killed in anti-Rushdie demonstrations, the Viking statement said, "We are appalled at the tragic loss of life that has already occurred and deplore calls to future violence."
A spokesman for the Penguin Group confirmed that it has stepped up its security precautions after the Khomeini threat. The spokesman refused to elaborate.
The threat to Rushdie is being taken seriously. Britain has about a million Muslims among its 55 million people, and they have been an increasingly militant minority.
The People's Moujahedeen of Iran, a dissident exile group, called Khomeini's action "absurd" and "hysterical."
Rushdie, who was born in Bombay but came to Britain as a 14-year-old schoolboy, has described himself as a lapsed Muslim but insists that his book is not intended to be anti-religious. A British reviewer termed it "a sort of 'Last Temptation of Mohammed,' " in the spirit of the controversial Greek novel and American film, "The Last Temptation of Christ."
Rushdie said in an interview last Sunday with the Guardian newspaper that he was "very upset" by the deaths that resulted from demonstrations against his book in Pakistan. However, he said: "The deaths are not on my conscience. I am a writer trying to deal with real issues. I have not arranged any marches on embassies or arranged for shots to be fired. . . . I am completely horrified. The idea that people should directly or indirectly be dead as a result of (the book) is hard to believe."
Wallace reported from Nicosia and Fisher from London.Copyright © 2014, Los Angeles Times