A new leaf as Muslims put Rushdie on the spot

DAVID LISTER

Arts Correspondent

Salman Rushdie spoke at a pre-publicised public meeting last night for the first time since he went into hiding more than six years ago. And two Muslim questioners at the meeting showed that there was still resentment against him in some parts of the Muslim community.

Tickets priced at pounds 10 went on sale three days ago to all-comers for a debate, "Writers Against the State", at Westminster Central Hall. More than people 500 attended.

Special Branch agreed to a request by the organisers, Dillons book shops and the Times newspaper, that it be open to the public. Special Branch's compliance was a clear sign that Rushdie is determined to make more genuinely public appearances.

Nevertheless, all members of the audience had to go through airport-style security checks on entering the hall, and visible uniformed and plainclothes police officers bore witness to the death threat from the fatwah against him over The Satanic Verses. Rushdie's new novel, The Moor's Last Sigh, has added to the controversy surrounding the author by offending an extreme Hindu sect.

Rushdie was joined on the platform by fellow novelists Fay Weldon and Martin Amis, and the broadcaster Melvyn Bragg. The sense of occasion was at times more overwhelming than the debate, a slight misnomer as all four participants were in agreement. But when the meeting was thrown open to questions, a Muslim questioner said: "It was a very offensive book, obscene and offensive. A writer must be responsible to society."

Another Muslim questioner asked if blasphemy was not a crime in Britain. Rushdie replied: "Yes there is a blasphemy law in this country ... it seems to me quite obvious that the law of blasphemy should be repealed. It would be a strange god that needed the protection of the law."

Rushdie added that he had had large numbers of letters of support from members of the Muslim community, particularly women, who had read The Satanic Verses and enjoyed it.

Earlier he said he had been a beneficiary of the state and had expressed his gratitude many times. "In terms of ideology," he said, "I would expect nothing much of the state except to keep out of my way."

Earlier he told of meeting Graham Greene after the burning of his books but before the fatwah.

Greene had said: "So you are the man who made all this trouble. It's wonderful. I've never made so much trouble. Tell me how you do it."

Rushdie commented last night: "In those innocent times one of a writer's functions was to make trouble. One of the things a writer is for is to say the unsayable, speak the unspeakable and stir up society. That's what I've always tried to do."

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