After chants of " Allahu Akbar !" echoed in the cavernous Royal Albert Hall, the audience was told that passages from "The Satanic Verses" would be read aloud and that those who couldn't take it had two minutes to leave.
No one stirred. Then a tall man with a white beard and skullcap took the podium and fired the latest salvo in the yearlong Islamic campaign against the novel and its Indian-born Muslim author, Salman Rushdie.
In a worldwide effort to suppress a novel they consider blasphemous, Muslims have rioted, burned books, gone to court and threatened to kill Rushdie. The author now lives in Britain.
Many who condemn him have turned to Ahmed Deedat, a 72-year-old Muslim scholar from South Africa with a simple message: Read the book.
It may be a painful experience, Deedat said, but Muslims who know what the novel says have a much better chance of persuading Westerners their cause is just.
He does not feel the blasphemy argument will persuade Westerners that "The Satanic Verses" should be suppressed, but he believes they would be more responsive if they knew what the book says about Britain, Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher and the West in general.
To prove his point, he regaled the 6,000 Muslims in the Royal Albert Hall with four-letter words extracted from the 547-page novel.
Rushdie is abusing his adopted country, Deedat declared, so the Muslim argument should go like this: "Admitted that Rushdie has many filthy, dirty and obscene things to say about Islam and its heroes and heroines; but sir, do you know what he has to say about you, his benefactors and protectors?"
Deedat has an engaging, folksy manner and the voice and vigor of a man half his age. He argues cogently, in simple language, and has a keen eye for Western hypocrisies.
Citing a newspaper report about British lawmakers demanding that American actor Mickey Rourke be barred from Britain for using a four-letter word to describe Thatcher's policies, Deedat expressed confidence they would feel the same about Rushdie.
Applause greeted his presentation, but at least one listener spotted an apparent flaw and expressed it during question time. The young man said Britain would not ban the book, however insulting, because its "people are tolerant."
Another troubling matter for questioners was the death sentence imposed on Rushdie by Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini, the Iranian revolutionary patriarch who died in June. Rushdie went into hiding after Khomeini issued his declaration Feb. 14.
Deedat deflected questions on that subject, saying it required an entire two-hour lecture by itself.
In an interview afterward, he said the death threat had become a political issue. "One group wants to take a certain stand which is against another group. I'm not interested in groupings. I'm interested in the best way to solve a problem."
To many questioners, the problem was how to interpret the death sentence. A young woman described hardships encountered at school because of her attempts to defend the Muslim attitude toward Rushdie.
Someone else suggested that Deedat is in conflict with the Koran, the Muslim holy book, if he did not support killing Rushdie.
The gathering underscored contrasts in modern, multicultural Britain:
Arabic chants of "God is Great!" in a hall built as a monument to the traditional British way of life; young men in jeans and T-shirts kneeling on the lawn at the foot of the ornate Albert Memorial across the road, praying to Mecca; stalls selling prayer mats, Korans, alcohol-free perfumes and cassettes of Deedat's remarks.
It was a placid scene, but a Muslim weekly distributed outside the Albert Hall had expressed the undercurrent of unease.
"Peace-loving Muslims fear that a time shall come when the British public would begin to identify an average Muslim as a terrorist, and feelings of hate could ruin the otherwise peaceful coexistence," it said.
Last February, Iran's late supreme leader, the Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini, called on Muslims to execute author Salman Rushdie because his novel, 'The Satanic Verses,' allegedly blasphemes Islam. Rushdie and his wife, who live in Britain, went into hiding shortly afterward, where they remain.