In assessing President Clinton's meeting with the author Salman Rushdie, two points have to be kept very clear and separate: Everything the United States stands for must repudiate the right of the dictators of Iran to commission the murder of an Indian-born British subject who blasphemed Islam. But this is not endorsement of Mr. Rushdie's novel, "The Satanic Verses," which every reader is entitled to interpret individually, if able and willing to slog through it.
In writing this large and convoluted tale, Mr. Rushdie was liberating himself from an Islamic heritage with the help of his English education, and also intending to shock. The literary sensibility he brought to the job was Western, the axes he ground were Middle Eastern or South Asian. The values he championed were modernist, those he trampled were many centuries old. The two views of his work are incompatible.
Mr. Rushdie was ordered assassinated by the late Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini, a decree continually endorsed by the government of Iran. The Japanese translator of the book was murdered in Tokyo, the Italian translator stabbed in Milan and the Norwegian publisher shot near Oslo. This is an assault by Iran on the sovereignty of other nations. Yes, Western authors have similarly mocked both Christian and Jewish beliefs, and been despised by believers -- but not murdered for it on the order of religious or national authorities.
Mr. Rushdie is a symbol. The moral objection to his book is religious. The campaign against his life is political. It is designed to show the long reach of the rulers of Iran. Since their Islamic Republic was proclaimed 14 years ago, 59 Iranian dissidents have been murdered in 14 countries.
So long as a price remains on Mr. Rushdie's head, no one can call President Hashemi Rafsanjani a moderate, however much he wants to dilute Iran's isolation in the world. So long as this goes on, Iran isolates itself in the community of nations.
Some lovers of literature find "The Satanic Verses" a masterpiece. Some sensitive to Islamic faith are outraged by it. People whose taste in satire runs from "Saturday Night Live" to "The Simpsons" would be bored. Mr. Clinton probably would rather curl up with a 1,342-page bill. But Mr. Rushdie has a right in every civilized society not to be murdered for it. And that was the point that Mr. Clinton properly brought home by meeting him.