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Muslims Debate Rushdie Uproar

AT a mosque in a New Delhi suburb, Akbar Ali listened to a religious leader condemn the controversial book by Salman Rushdie, ``The Satanic Verses.'' ``[Rushdie] should never have said those things against the prophet,'' said the 20-year-old student. ``But it also not right to call for his death.''

In India, where the uproar over the book first erupted six months ago, many Muslims are as disturbed by the vicious turn of the controversy as they were over the work's publication.

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Last weekend, the Indian-born Mr. Rushdie - now a British citizen - expressed regret for offending Muslims in a move to placate Iran's leader Ayatollah Khomeini, who had called for the author's death. ``Living ... in a world of many faiths, this experience has served to remind us that we must all be conscious of the sensibilities of others,'' he said.

Khomeini reiterated his ``death sentence'' Sunday - but only after Rushdie's statement had drawn confused responses from various Iranian officials - a reflection, observers say, of infighting between fundamentalists and moderates inside Iran.

A number of Muslim countries have banned the book, saying its satire and belittling of Islamic religious figures is blasphemous and demeans Prophet Mohammed.

As in Iran, the controversy in the Asian subcontinent - India, Pakistan, and Bangladesh - has been an interplay of religious zeal and politics. The subcontinent - home to a majority of Hindus and a significant Muslim minority - is no stranger to the religious sensitivities that can easily explode into violence. The very formation of independent India and Pakistan in 1947 was rooted in historic religious antagonisms.

Last year, in what was widely seen as an election ploy to gain support from India's 20 percent Muslim population, Prime Minister Rajiv Gandhi's government banned the book.

In Pakistan last week, a mob, allegedly lead by fundamentalist opponents of Prime Minister Benazir Bhutto, attacked the United States Cultural Center in Islamabad, the capital. The demonstration, in which five protesters were killed by police, coincided with the publishing of Rushdie's book in the US.

``She [Bhutto] has not yet secured a firm hold on the government,' says Pakistani commentator Ayaz Amir. ``They were trying to take advantage of that although she seems to be riding out the controversy.''

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In India last week, callers to a local news agency threatened to attack British Airways flights out of India. Threats also were leveled against several prominent writers and Hindu political leaders who condemned the Iranian death threats against Rushdie.

In the Indian press, prominent Muslims have denounced Khomeini's call to kill Rushdie.

``What Rushdie has done is definitely a crime against Islamic law. If he were a citizen of an Islamic state, he could be prosecuted,'' says Tahir Mahmood, a law specialist at the Institute of Islamic Studies in New Delhi. ``But he is not. And, under Islamic law, any Muslim is not just allowed to kill anyone.''

``This ban has made the book more popular. Just ignoring it would have been better for Muslims,'' Mr. Mahmood concludes.

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