Leading Article: At long last, a show of support

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FROM ITS start four years ago with Ayatollah Khomeini's infamous fatwa, to yesterday's meeting between author and Prime Minister at Westminster, the Salman Rushdie affair has thrown a revealing light on the English character: in particular, on the inability of normally liberal people to separate the issues at stake from the author himself and his book The Satanic Verses.

In remarkable numbers, they failed to see that neither Mr Rushdie's likeableness nor the degree of provocation shown in his book were relevant. The issues have always been the right of Britons to be defended from death threats supported by a foreign government, and to express themselves freely within the constraints of British law. Those death threats extend to others associated with the book, including publishers, translators and bookshops. They are far from empty. In July 1991 the novel's Italian translator was attacked and seriously injured in his flat in Milan, and its Japanese translator was stabbed to death near Tokyo.

The reasons for the confusion are complex. For a start, this country has no tradition of intellectual life comparable to that of France. Our intelligentsia, to use an old-fashioned term, are lightweight and on the defensive, fearful of being deemed 'too clever by half', a term of opprobrium that could have been minted only in Britain. They were divided by the fatwa. If Mr Rushdie had offended the Christian faith, drawing an anathema from the Pope, they would probably have been unanimous in their support. As it was, many felt a kind of vicarious guilt because one of their number had offended the already disadvantaged Muslim minority in Britain.

Others, too, have mistaken the effect for the cause. Just because British Muslims were offended by Mr Rushdie's book (or what they had heard of it), that was no reason to propitiate Britons who supported the fatwa. Other ingredients in English reactions included resentment of the book's financial success and of the cost of Mr Rushdie's protection (part of which he defrayed). Racism, too, undoubtedly played its part: what right did this un-British-looking fellow have, the voice of intolerance asked, to stir up so much trouble for his adoptive country, especially by capitalising on his Muslim origins?

The Government produced three excuses for its mealy-mouth reactions to the oft-reiterated fatwa. It was in the country's larger commercial and diplomatic interests to improve relations with Iran; it did not want to offend British Muslims; overt support for Mr Rushdie might jeopardise British hostages in Lebanon. This was much the most valid argument - until the last hostages' release in 1992.

Since then, not only foreign intellectuals have been strikingly supportive to Mr Rushdie, but foreign governments: to them the fundamental issue of freedom of expression seemed clear. Last October, Mr Rushdie was received in Bonn by the president of the Bundestag, Rita Sussmuth, who ranks second to the federal president. Yesterday's unequivocal support from John Major thus represented a welcome stiffening of British support, and one requiring a measure of courage. But it was overdue.