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Wednesday, September 23, 1998 Published at 11:07 GMT 12:07 UK

World: Middle East

Fatwa cannot be revoked

Ayatollah Khomeini: For many in Iran the edicts of the late spiritual leader remain sacrosanct

Religious Affairs Correspondent Jane Little explains why the religious edict against Salman Rushdie cannot be revoked:

The Iranian President, Mohammed Khatami's remarks in New York, attempting to draw a line under the Salman Rushdie case, mark a further step in Iran's efforts to improve relations with the West.

British author Salman Rushdie was effectively condemned to death by the late Ayatollah Khomeini for his book The Satanic Verses which was ruled as blasphemous against Islam.

Years of backroom diplomacy have failed to get the religious decree or Fatwa lifted.

It was nine years ago that the late spiritual leader of Iran issued his Fatwa - or 'spiritual opinion' - that effectively condemned Salman Rushdie to death.

Bounty increased

The ruling followed a wave of book burnings and rioting across the Muslim world. Mr Rushdie, a non-practising Muslim, had written a book which was deemed to have mocked Islam's holy book, the Koran, the prophet Mohammed and his wives, whose names in the novel were given to prostitutes.

A reward for the author's head was offered and last year the private Khordad Foundation increased the bounty to $2m. The round-the-clock security for Mr Rushdie has cost the British tax-payer significantly more.

Fatwa 'sacrosanct'

The diplomatic tensions over the affair have bedevilled recent efforts by the reforming president of Iran to improve relations with the west.

Britain has been pushing for the Fatwa to be revoked. But that isn't going to happen. A Fatwa technically dies with the person who pronounced it, but for many Shiite Muslims in Iran, the Ayatollah Khomeini's edicts remain sacrosanct.

His successor, Ayatollah Khameinei has also endorsed it. For the government, already tiptoeing towards reform, challenging the Fatwa would have huge political ramifications.

Mr Khatami has made his overtures, now the British government is under pressure to meet him half-way.

Perhaps the best it can hope for is further distancing from the decree and pressures to get the bounty on Mr Rushdie's head withdrawn.

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