WHEN the Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini first issued his decree against Salman Rushdie three years ago this month, I swear I thought it was a joke -- a very bad joke, a bit like "Papa Doc" Duvalier putting a voodoo curse on Graham Greene for writing "The Comedians," but a joke nevertheless, in the sense of being an example of furious but harmless flatulence -- just wind.
I thought the death sentence would be laughed off -- condemned as despicable, and then mocked.
Of course, I did not foresee much merriment about "The Satanic Verses" in any Islamic state, where building blueprints have to be submitted to a board of Islamic scholars, the ulema, so that the authorities can make sure that no toilet faces Mecca.
Where toys and calendars and mugs based on the Muppet figure of "Miss Piggy" are dragged from shops by the religious police and ritually destroyed.
Where there are equally batty and murderous-sounding fatwas, such as the recent one delivered by a Saudi Arabian official ZTC cleric that declared that as all Shiite Moslems are heretics, they should all be killed.
You know you have traveled through the looking glass when you are in a country where Miss Piggy is seen as the very embodiment of evil.
How disgusting to see that so far the intimidation has worked!
Mr. Rushdie is in hiding, his book is still vilified, his life is still threatened.
Most countries, including his own, Britain, are doing business with Iran, buying its oil and cashew nuts, selling the Iranians new cars and wristwatches, and sending them paper and ink so they can print their fatuous laws.
Trading partners in Europe and the United States are treating the Islamic Republic of Iran as though it is a thoroughly rational place, when any fool can see that the ayatollah's fatwa is barbarous, as well as, from the point of view of international law, an example of criminal incitement.
In Sydney, Australia, one of my taxi drivers was an economic refugee from Pakistan, a man of 60, with a science degree from Karachi University.
We talked about the Koran for a while, and then I asked him about the fatwa. His bony hands tightened on the steering wheel: "Rushdie must die!"
I had a similar encounter in rural Fiji, also with a credulous Moslem.
Naturally, I set these people straight: I suggested to them that these were ignorant sentiments, and I mentioned them to Mr. Rushdie's Australian publishers.
These big strong Australians, living in a democratic country, with a tradition of rugged individualism and a talent for being rude, said confidentially that they were frightened.
One said, "Some of us have families."
On a personal level people are muddled or uninterested; on an official and governmental level the response has been weak and cowardly. On a religious level the Moslems have either been supine or vindictive.
There is very little that Mr. Rushdie can do himself.
The task is for the rest of us to resist the notion that beheadings and ritual destruction of toys are rational and humane, and that the religious leader in one country has the power to condemn a citizen of another country to death for writing a book.
We often find ourselves in odd postures in our dealings with the Islamic world.
It always strikes me as perverse when British and U.S. academics willingly go to any number of countries and teach in schools where women are segregated from men and the laws are medieval. They do it for the money.
The governments that have been timid in defending Mr. Rushdie's rights have been influenced by money, too. They need to see him as he is -- a hostage to much worse fanaticism than that which confined Terry Anderson or John McCarthy. It is not just Hezbollah but the entire Moslem world that has been urged to kill him.
The first step is for governments and world leaders to speak out on Mr. Rushdie's behalf.
Then it is our turn -- the readers and writers.
It is obvious that if any of us raises Mr. Rushdie's name in Iran or Saudi Arabia or Pakistan, or like-minded countries, we will be vilified and we will be hounded.
But this ought not to be the case in the rest of the world.
Any non-Moslem country with the rule of law ought to be a safe haven for Mr. Rushdie, where he can walk the streets and ride the buses and live without fear of being set upon.
I'm uncomfortable talking about Moslems this way because Islam is one of the world's great religions, and many of its tenets are humane. But Moslems who do not understand that we regard the fatwa as an aberration must be singled out, because only they pose a threat to Mr. Rushdie.
With his confinement in mind, I have made a point of asking all the Moslems I meet their views on Mr. Rushdie and his book. I have had some crisp replies, but I still think my little practice is salutary.
It ought to happen everywhere: First the question -- What about Rushdie? -- and if the answer is hostile, set them straight.
This should also happen on an official level, whenever a world leader communicates with President Hashemi Rafsanjani of Iran.
What about Rushdie? I have no doubt that eventually the message will get through and he will be free.
Paul Theroux is author of the forthcoming travel book, "The Happy Isles of Oceania."