RARELY in the modern era has a novel been the cause of international incidents, including violent demonstrations. But the Muslim world is in upheaval over a book that has been published in Britain and is about to appear in the United States. The book is ``The Satanic Verses,'' by Salman Rushdie, who was born in Bombay to Muslim parents but now lives in London. A capacious, complex interweaving of realism and fantasy - and the winner of a prestigious literary award in Britain - the novel has provoked wrath throughout the Islamic world.
Muslim opinion leaders have denounced as blasphemous dream sequences suggesting that the wives of the Prophet Muhammad were prostitutes and that the Koran is not God's infallible word. (Mr. Rushdie says the detractors are distorting his work.)
The book has been banned in Egypt, Saudi Arabia, Bangladesh, and India, which, though predominantly Hindu, has a large Muslim minority. Last month Muslim protesters in Bradford, England, publicly burned the novel and demanded that it be withdrawn from booksellers. This month a mob in Islamabad attacked an American cultural center, ostensibly to protest against the imminent release of the book in the US (the book has not been distributed in Pakistan). Most recently, Iran's Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini condemned Rushdie to death and called on Muslims to carry out the sentence.
To Western observers, this frenzy of censorship, culminating in a barbaric death threat, is perplexing, even frightening. The battle for freedom of expression has largely been won in democratic countries (which makes the action of the Indian government particularly disturbing). To most Westerners, moreover, freedom of expression is a universal value, not one rooted in a peculiar culture. They hold that every voice is entitled to be heard, that truth is best gleaned in a free ``marketplace of ideas,'' and that protests should be made through the media of civil discourse.
But Westerners should not be glib in their - quite proper - denunciation of censorship. For one thing, many Christians also are sensitive to what they regard as misinterpretations of received truth or, if you will, revelation. This lay behind the recent outcry in the US over the film ``The Last Temptation of Christ.''
Westerners must also bear in mind the troubled history of dealings between the Western/Christian world and Islam, in which neither culture is blameless. More is going on in the Muslim turbulence than just hostility to a single book. The upheaval must be viewed as part of a backlash against what many Muslims see as cultural imperialism.
Even so, the hysteria and intolerance that have been unleashed against Rushdie's book are deeply disturbing. Whether motivated by religious zeal or, as some in India and Pakistan have suggested, by political opportunism, fanaticism should not supplant reason in public discourse. Iran offers an example of what excesses can be perpetrated in the name of religious purity.