Alive ... and still kicking

In the week the bounty on his head was raised to $2.5m, Salman Rushdie hits out at press carping and the Government's softly-softly approach to Tehran
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The Independent Online
Salman Rushdie was in fine form last Thursday evening. The Times had reported that morning that the Iranians had raised the price on his head to $2.5m (pounds 1.6m) and that even non-Muslims were eligible to collect the purse.

Yet, on the eve of the eighth anniversary of the imposition of the fatwa by the late Ayatollah Khomeini over his book, The Satanic Verses, there he was, full of life, mingling with the liberal literary establishment at a reception to celebrate, coincidentally, the 10th birthday of Article 19, the anti-censorship pressure group.

Mingle is perhaps the wrong description. Being feted is more appropriate. Wearing a maroon linen jacket and matching suede shoes, Rushdie stood out from the throng of suits.

He is shorter than you expect, but even so, he was the centre of attention, shaking hand after hand, and, after hardly any persuasion, taking the rostrum. He cracked a good joke: he knew how hard-up Article 19 and writers are, and how the $2.5m bounty must seem tempting - "thank you for not collecting".

In truth, as always with Rushdie's life these past eight years, "collecting" would have proved difficult. Standing on the side of the gathering, constantly on his guard, was a Special Branch officer. On the way in, even into the salubrious surroundings of Chatham House, the Royal Institute of International Affairs, to meet a collection of people who would be among the last in the world to harm anyone, another detective diligently searched briefcases and handbags.

Outside Rushdie's specially adapted car was waiting to whisk him away to another place which would have been checked ahead of his arrival by Special Branch. He does not go anywhere unprompted or unannounced. If he wants to leave his home he must give six days' notice.

It is easy to mock these arrangements - he enjoys the same protection as a senior Cabinet minister or a member of the Royal Family - and to query their cost. Surrounded by friends and supporters as he was on Thursday, with waitresses bobbing in and out with canapes and wine, the degree of security seemed bizarre.

In an article last November, the Daily Mail made plain what it felt. Under the headline, "Living off the fatwa of the land (at someone else's expense, as usual)", the paper accused Rushdie of seeking the spotlight, of generating controversy, and of being "supremely indifferent to its consequences".

In Denmark to collect a European Union literary award, with prize money of pounds 8,000, the paper reported, "the millionaire author partied until the early hours in a Copenhagen pub, watched by a small army of bodyguards."

For once, noted the paper, the British taxpayer was not picking up the bill. This time the Danes were paying. In case anyone should miss the point, the paper noted how "looking after him costs Britain pounds 1m a year".

Such attacks, says Rushdie are all too familiar. "The Daily Mail is a powerful and malicious organisation which has chosen to take the case of a British writer fighting against a threat from another government and stand it on its head.

"The sub-text of what the Daily Mail is saying is that the whole thing is my fault, that I'm the guilty person, an unpleasant scumbag who is protected by a Tory government, having committed the national crime of voting for the Labour Party."

He pauses, then adds with a comedian's timing: "That is not a view of myself I recognise."

The threat to his life is very real. In the last eight years, says Rushdie, "a couple of dozen Iranians have been expelled from this country for reasons to do with the fatwa." So far nobody has got close - but that, presumably, is not through want of trying. During the Gulf war, he was told by hisminders, that "not only were there assassins around but that they had undertaken to commit my assassination within a finite period of time, 90 days."

That was, he says with a dollop of understatement, "a serious moment". He took even greater precautions than usual. Then, without explanation, he was told the immediate threat was over. Life returned to what has passed for normality since February 1989.

The point, he says in answer to the criticism, is that he does not want the security at all. Every so often - the last time was three months ago - he asks for it to be lifted and always his request is refused. "I'm being told by the police, on the one hand, they need to protect me and, on the other, I'm being attacked by the tabloids. Can we settle it? If we think writers should be killed, take the security away and that is fine. Otherwise let us stop this shit."

His contempt is not reserved for sections of the press. The Government, which cloaks him in security, he feels, also plays a two-handed game. He is irritated by the security but not ungrateful for it. He is told he must have it, so have it he does. He is not suicidal. Nevertheless, he finds the Government's approach hard to fathom. Within 24 hours of Foreign Office condemnation at the raising of the bounty came news that Britain was flying in the face of US sanctions against Iran and encouraging companies to sponsor a stand at a Tehran energy fair.

"The one thing I've learned is not to judge politicians by what they say but what they do." They ensure they do the minimum - he calls it "the bottom line" - of covering his safety. After that, argues Rushdie, there is "no strategy, no plan" to get the fatwa lifted. It is not without significance, he claims, that the latest condemnation came not from a politician but a nameless official. The Dutch, who currently chair the EU, wheeled out their foreign minister to berate the Iranians but from Malcolm Rifkind, his British equivalent, not a squeak.

"We do everything we possibly can to mount pressure on Tehran and we continue to do so," says a Foreign Office spokesman, "we want them to deliver a written assurance about Mr Rushdie's safety."

This invisible policy, presumably entailing secret negotiations in private, diplomatic halls, is reminiscent of the Beirut hostages' case. Then, it was Jill Morrell and her campaign to free John McCarthy who made herself unpopular at the Foreign Office. Now, it is Rushdie and his legion of vociferous supporters such as Carmel Bedford, secretary of the International Rushdie Defence Committee.

It could be argued that the British softly-softly diplomacy has worked. Rushdie is still alive. He has written five books since the Ayatollah's decree; this year he will go to India to oversee the shooting of Midnight's Children. Another film is to be made of a short story from his East, West collection.

The Satanic Verses has sold more than a million copies in the English language. "It is true," he acknowledges, "sales were helped by the fatwa. There was a freak effect, a lot of people bought it to show solidarity and support."

In Egypt The Satanic Verses is officially banned, yet copies circulate freely underground.

While he continues to work and, oddly, to prosper both critically and financially, a series of factors have combined to make his plight as insoluble as ever. In addition to tabloid criticism of his security and refusal to hide, and the lack of a forthright condemnation from ministers, they include:

n the security services letting it be known they believe the fatwa will never be lifted, regardless of what happens on the diplomatic front, creating a sense of resigned acceptance on the part of Rushdie supporters;

n the Iranian government continuing to peddle the line that 15 Khordad Foundation, the Qom-based charitable trust offering the bounty, is independent and outside its control;

n the EU lacking a coherent, agreed policy, making the Iranians believe that nobody is very bothered.

The stalemate shows no sign of ending. "If we think writers have no value in our society let us just say so, but if we think they do, let us stop all this and sort it out. If the fatwa were aimed at Margaret Thatcher, Elizabeth Hurley, Mother Teresa or John Major, it seems to me people would have fixed it by now," he says. He thinks of another celebrated figure: "Imagine Rupert Murdoch was the target - I do not believe the structure of world politics and capital would permit it to remain."

As it is, Rushdie spends every day in the shadow of death: "Nobody will believe the fatwa is real until I'm killed."