Television news item inspired death edict: Ayatollah's action followed report on protesters' deaths

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Indy Politics
IT WAS 14 February 1989 when Ayatollah Ruholla Khomeini, the 88-year-old religious leader of Iran, decided to condemn Salman Rushdie to death.

As was his habit, the ayatollah was watching the evening news at his villa near the Alborz mountains when his attention was drawn to an item about the deaths of five people during riots in Pakistan and another rioter in Kashmir. The rioters had been protesting against the publication of a book by a British author about whom Khomeini knew nothing. The book, The Satanic Verses, was, according to its detractors, blasphemous.

Despite reports of his ignorance on the matters of the book and its Muslim author, the ayatollah is understood to have called for a secretary to take down the following: 'I inform the proud Muslim people of the world that the author of The Satanic Verses book, which is against Islam, the Prophet and the Koran, and all those involved in its publication who were aware of its content, have been sentenced to death.' The sentence, or fatwa, was broadcast by the Iranians and picked up by monitoring stations all over the world, and the exile of Salman Rushdie had begun. Since that date, Mr Rushdie has been under Special Branch protection, much of which he has paid for himself, ironically from the profits of his book.

He has lived in more than 50 different locations. His wife, Marianne Wiggins, left him after experiencing several months of the difficult lifestyle, and the couple were quietly divorced in March this year. His son is now 14 but most of their communication is by telephone. And, because of Mr Rushdie's peripatetic lifestyle as a fugitive from assassination, he has lost the right to vote.

The immediate political fallout after the imposition of the fatwa was enormous. British Muslims burnt copies of The Satanic Verses on the streets of Bradford and Leicester; Pakistan called for the book to be banned in the UK and the United States and for all published copies to be destroyed; the British Embassy in Tehran was besieged by 5,000 rioters who smashed windows; demonstrations were staged at other embassies around the globe by the World Association of Muslim Youth; bomb threats were made and rumours flourished of terrorist attacks on British interests abroad, including a British Airways jet in Bombay. Most frighteningly of all for Mr Rushdie was the announcement by the June Fifth Foundation, an Islamic charity, of a reward of dollars 1m for his assassination.

The political response did little to ameliorate the feelings of hundreds of thousands of Muslims in Britain who had already been angered by an earlier refusal by Sir Patrick Mayhew, the Attorney General, to prosecute Mr Rushdie under public order and race relations legislation. The situation was inflamed further by a ruling that the law of blasphemy applied only to Christianity. Many Muslims, including Sayed Abdul Quddus, secretary of the Council of Mosques, supported the fatwa.

Diplomatically, ministers decided to adopt a low-key policy to safeguard the British hostages still being held in Beirut and because, as one diplomat told the Independent, there was a genuine belief in Whitehall that the fatwa would 'wither on the vine'. But by the middle of last year, Douglas Hurd, the Foreign Secretary, was having his doubts. His Iranian counterparts were advising that progress could be made if Mr Rushdie stuck to his lower profile; but the author was refusing to lie down. 'For three years we had run a low-profile campaign in the interests of the British hostages, but once they were released, we moved up a gear,' Carmel Bedford, of Article 19, the human rights organisation fighting for Mr Rushdie, said. 'The real breakthrough came when Salman visited Germany and was met by the leaders of all the political parties. They condemned the fatwa in a way the British government never had.'

Visits to 10 other countries - each of them apparently prepared to offer Mr Rushdie more support than the British government had - resulted in Douglas Hogg, a Foreign Office minister, inviting the author to a meeting in February, with an agreement for yesterday's meeting with John Major coming soon afterwards.

In an interview in the Independent on 11 February, Mr Rushdie said he was confident the new approach would work. 'If there is enough international pressure against them, they'll change anything,' he said. Four days later, the Ayatollah Ali Khamenei reiterated the fatwa and the June Fifth Foundation increased the bounty on the author to dollars 2m.