If lives were not at stake, it would be better to ignore the controversy over Salman Rushdie's new novel, "The Satanic Verses," even though the furor is international in scope.
After all, the novel is deeply offensive to Moslems, and understandably so. Though fictional, it includes a hallucinatory sequence involving a prophet named Mahound who is portrayed as frequenting prostitutes and writing the Koran, the Islamic scriptures, with the help of Satan. The name Mahound is said to have been coined by medieval Christians as an anti-Islamic insult - apparently by combining "Mohammed," the name of the founder of Islam, and "hound."Moreover, the longer the controversy persists and the more intense it becomes, the more free publicity the book gets - and the more its sales are likely to be increased.
But such outrages do not justify the violent demonstrations against the book that have left six persons dead and more than 120 wounded in Pakistan and India. Elsewhere there also have been angry protests by Moslems demanding that the book be banned worldwide. It already has been banned in India, Pakistan, and South Africa.
Nor can such outrages justify the inflammatory broadcast by Iran's Ayatollah Khomeini, who has called on the world's Moslems to seek out Indian-born novelist Rushdie, who is now living in London, and kill him and the book's publishers.
Khomeini's order makes a mockery of Iran's recent efforts to disassociate itself from the international terrorism for which it has been known since the ayatollah took over in Tehran.
The order also is at odds with the Islamic tradition of toleration. The Los Angeles Times quotes Dr. Maher Hathout, spokesman for the Islamic Center of Southern California, as noting that tolerance of differing opinions derives its sanction in Islamic tradition from the fact that the Koran itself records the criticisms directed against Mohammed by his contemporaries.
Moslems are not being over-sensitive when they accuse Rushdie of flagrantly bad taste. But in the civilized world, that is not a capital offense.