LONDON -- Salman Rushdie has joined his Moslem critics in opposing an official ban on a Pakistani film that depicts the embattled author as a torturer and murderer.
The British Board of Film Classification has refused to permit distribution of "International Guerrillas," which depicts Rushdie, author of "The Satanic Verses," as the diabolic agent of an international conspiracy against Moslems. The board's chairman, James Ferman, said yesterday that it had to ban the film on legal advice that the movie appeared to violate the law of criminal libel.
"It was the most difficult decision that the board has ever taken," Ferman said. "Those of us who believe in freedom of expression ... believed very strongly there was an argument for not increasing the grievance of the Moslem community and taking the film with a pinch of salt."
Sher Azam, president of the Council of Mosques in Bradford, said: "The ban clearly shows there is discrimination, double standards and hypocrisy in high places against Moslems. Now they have made this decision, surely we will be doing something about writing to them and saying that the public at large should have an opportunity to see this film."
Rushdie was born into a Moslem family in India and now is a British subject. He has been in hiding under guard since February 1989, when the late Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini of Iran said "The Satanic Verses" blasphemed Islam and that Rushdie deserved to die.
The 3 1/2-hour movie portrays the Rushdie character as a pro-Israeli playboy who tortures and kills Moslems; his crimes are avenged by a bolt from the heavens. It has played to packed houses in Pakistan, and unofficial copies of the video are already circulating among Moslem communities in Britain. The film's makers have said the characters are fictional but are intended to show that the protectors of Islam will one day track down Rushdie.
Despite the unflattering depiction, Rushdie believes the film should not be censored. "He feels it should not be decided in advance what the public should or should not see without there being proof that it would cause public disorder," said Frances D'Souza, chairwoman of the Rushdie Defense Committee.
"The reaction of the Moslem community is in itself understandable; they feel they have been blasphemed by the book" -- which was not banned -- "and feel there are two different standards being applied," she said.
Mohammed Fayyaz of London, who owns the worldwide distribution rights to the film, said he was confident that his appeal to the film classification board would prevail -- "especially in the light of Salman Rushdie saying he has no objection to issuing the film." Ferman said the hearing by the Video Appeals Committee would take at least two weeks.
In announcing the ban, the film board issued a statement saying: "We are informed that this video presents a prima facie case of criminal libel on a British citizen, Salman Rushdie, and that the libel is a serious one." The board said the distributor of "International Guerrillas" had been told that it could be resubmitted if the Rushdie character were given another name, and if calls for Rushdie's death were excised from the film.
An editorial in the Times of London noted that Rushdie's own defense of his book is that it is fiction. "The distributors will argue in turn that a film which shows Mr. Rushdie slitting the throats of good Muslims or, more horrid torture still, forcing them to listen to tapes of 'The Satanic Verses,' should also be construed as fiction," the Times said. The editorial added that "in any case a ban will mean that millions, not a few thousands, will want to see what is now a notorious film. Censorship always backfires."
Rushdie's publisher announced earlier this month that it would soon bring out two new books by Rushdie. They will be his first since "The Satanic Verses" brought the death threats from Khomeini.