To President Clinton:
On February 14, four years will have gone by since the late Ayatollah Khomeini of Iran pronounced his nefarious death sentence upon Salman Rushdie and those responsible for the publication of his novel The Satanic Verses. During these four years the million-dollar bounty on Rushdie’s head has been increased twice, the fatwa has been repeatedly reaffirmed by Iran, and the Italian and Japanese translators of Rushdie’s novel have been assaulted, the latter fatally. The British government, at first resolute in its denunciation of the fatwa, has now retreated into silence, and diplomatic relations between Britain and Iran have been partially restored. The Bush administration lamentably failed to take concrete action in the affair and declined to meet with Rushdie during his visit to Washington in 1992 on the grounds that—according to White House spokesman Marlin Fitz-water—“there’s no reason for us to have any special interest in him.”
More promising in recent months have been the strongly worded resolutions on Rushdie’s behalf in the German and Canadian parliaments and the public undertaking by the Danish, Norwegian, and Swedish governments to do their utmost to have the death sentence lifted by bringing the Rushdie issue before the United Nations Human Rights Commission. These efforts are highly laudable, but might well be crucially strengthened by the American government’s joining in this undertaking. If our democracy and others around the world fail to recognize this horrifying act of international terrorism for what it is and to challenge it energetically, we can expect that other chilling decrees of this kind will be issued in the future, endangering the lives of writers, their translators, and their publishers.
It is imperative that the Clinton administration follow a path different from that of its predecessor. We feel that President Clinton has an obligation, in keeping with our nation’s traditional defense of human rights, to do his utmost to defend the principle of freedom of expression that has been violated in the Rushdie affair. We urge our new president to declare his intention of supporting this principle and to make it a condition underlying his negotiations not only with Iran but with other countries involved in the current round of international trade deliberations.
The strategy of silence in the Rushdie affair has manifestly not worked. Four years has been long enough to establish the fact that the fatwa will be rescinded only when the Iranian government understands that not to do so will be seriously detrimental to Iran’s standing in the community of nations.
Larry McMurtry, Susan Sontag, Norman Mailer
Co-Chair, Freedom-to-Write Committee
Executive Board Member