Iran's Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini today ordered his followers to seek out and kill the author and publishers of "The Satanic Verses," a novel that has sparked rioting in India and Pakistan by Muslims who consider the book blasphemous, although few have read it.
"Whoever is killed doing this will be regarded as a martyr and will go directly to heaven," Tehran Radio quoted Khomeini as saying when he "sentenced" author Salman Rushdie to death.
Indian-born Rushdie, who denies the book blasphemes the faith he was born into, told the British Broadcasting Corp. in London today that he takes the threat "very seriously indeed" and may consider asking British authorities for protection.
But he added, "It seems to me that Islamic fundamentalists could do with a little bit of criticism right now."
In violent demonstrations against the book, at least five people have been killed in Pakistan and one person in India when police fired into stone-throwing mobs.
The book is banned in those countries, as well as in South Africa and some other Islamic nations. Protesters want the book banned in the United States.
Rushdie, interviewed from London, said he regretted the violence. But he told CBS "This Morning":
"Frankly, I wish I had written a more critical book. I mean, a religion that claims, 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 which must be above any kind of whisper of criticism, that doesn't add up."
Tehran Radio quoted Khomeini as saying:
"I would like to inform all the intrepid Muslims in the world that the author of the book entitled 'Satanic Verses'. . . as well as those publishers who were aware of its contents, are hereby sentenced to death."
Viking, which has offices in London and New York, is publishing the book in both countries.
The patriarch of the Islamic revolution said in a decree that the book was "compiled, printed and published in opposition to Islam."
The Iranian government declared Wednesday a "day of national mourning . . . in protest against the new conspiracy of the great Satan (the United States) to publish poisonous and insulting subject-matter concerning Islam, the Koran and the blessed prophet."
"Satanic Verses," a contender for Britain's highest literary award, the Booker Prize, portrays the founder of a fictional religion that Muslims consider an insulting parody of the prophet Mohammed, the founder of Islam.
U.S. Center Attacked
Outrage over U.S. publication of the novel spurred hundreds of Muslims on Sunday to attack the American Cultural Center in the Pakistani capital of Islamabad and the protests spread Monday to a second Pakistani city and into India. Six people died and 180 were wounded in two days of violence.
Khomeini's order to assassinate Rushdie was seen as an illustration of the Iranian leader's desire to be recognized as an international, crusading Islamic religious leader.