THERE HAVE been hostages released this year, but the British author Salman Rushdie, a hostage of a different kind, remains in captivity after 16 months. Now events seem to be conspiring to plunge him into even deeper isolation. The problem is not the usual one hostages have of keeping the public's attention; on the contrary, partisans and publishers of Mr. Rushdie would be only too happy for the uproar to die down, specifically so that they could bring out the paperback edition of "The Satanic Verses." Instead the issue has shown a staying power that is both unnerving and uncomfortably revealing of the emotions and agendas involved.
In Pakistan, as reporter Steve Coll recently wrote in this paper, a million people have seen a hit "adventure" movie that depicts the hapless author as the blood-drinking, victim-torturing head of an international Jewish conspiracy -- destroyed, at the movie's end, by a bolt of lightning from Allah. Meanwhile, leaders of the Moslem community in Britain spent the winter pressing a lawsuit to force the government to extend the blasphemy laws to Islam. This effort ultimately stalled early this month when the bar refused the Moslems permission to appeal it before the House of Lords. But, as Islamicist Bernard Lewis points out, the case's constant presence on the news had the effect of broadcasting both the most intolerant representatives of Islam and an outdated and illiberal aspect of British law, driving further apart a country already sorely strained by the ethnic tensions brought on by the Rushdie affair.
The general progress of the affair and Mr. Rushdie's long-term fate are out of any one player's hands -- unless the mullahs rescind the threat. But one immediate short-term effect, coincidentally the most injurious to Mr. Rushdie personally, is amenable to action by the committed partisans of free speech. That is the difficulty Mr. Rushdie is having not just with the paperback edition of his notorious novel -- something he has attached great importance to in statements -- but with finding a publisher for the work he is doing now. As the Financial Times newspaper reported last week, Viking Penguin indefinitely postponed a paperback release on advice from the British Foreign Office that going ahead would inflame the hostage situation. Separately, and in one more sad and ironic turn on this sad affair, pressure on Mr. Rushdie to make some kind of conciliatory gesture -- to his captors! -- has come from the families and friends of other hostages, who fear provocation and have themselves urged delay of the paperback.
Understandable as this longing may be, its effect is to plunge the author into ever deeper isolation, and it cannot be the right one in this confrontation between free expression and fundamentalist suppression of speech. If publishers can somehow band together for protection, as has been proposed, and show their solidarity with Mr. Rushdie by printing his work, they will be standing up not only for a hapless victim of violent injustice, but also for the principles by which they too in the long run must stand or fall.