Rushdie’s Prison Without Bars

It has been six months since the Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini ordered the death of Salman Rushdie for insulting “Islamic sanctity” in his novel “The Satanic Verses.” Since then the India-born Rushdie and his American-born wife, Marianne Wiggins, who is also a novelist, have lived in fear and hiding in Britain, Rushdie’s adopted homeland. They are under full-time police protection and by one account they have been moved 56 times from safe house to safe house. Normal activities--shopping, movies, the company of friends--have become impossible. They lead a furtive, cramped, incomplete existence; their lives have become indeterminate sentences in prisons without bars. For though Khomeini is now dead, Iran says the death threat against Rushdie won’t be lifted. So long as it remains in force there will be fanatics eager to undertake his murder.

There has been nothing quite like the Rushdie affair in recent times, if only because of the defiant, self-righteous openness with which Iran has pursued the author. This is not a case where a fugitive from justice is being sought by appropriate state authorities guided by the rule of law. It is not even a case where a regime has approved or carried out a secretive act of terrorism. There is nothing at all secret about what Iran wants to do. Straightforwardly and unapologetically, it says it intends to kill a writer, the citizen of another country, because it doesn’t like what he wrote. Iran’s late spiritual leader provided the incentive of both a cash bounty and a sure place in heaven to anyone who succeeds in doing that.

And so Salman Rushdie is forced to go on living underground and afraid, knowing that to return to a normal life would probably invite the most primitive form of vengeance. Iran and its apologists--those who say that while the death sentence may be excessive the outrage behind it is not--profess to regard this whole matter not as an instance of state terrorism but as a religious imperative, as if putting the word “religious” to it is enough to endow the threatened crime with the sanction of higher law. But state terrorism is what it is, and the threat it presents not just to one man but to all of civilized society remains as ugly and inexcusable as ever.