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Rushdie Rebukes Writers Protesting Charlie Hebdo Award

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Author Sir Salman Rushdie issued a scathing condemnation of six writers who pulled out of the annual PEN gala in New York over the organization’s decision to award the French magazine Charlie Hebdo with its freedom of expression award.

Calling them on Twitter “Six Authors in Search of a bit of Character,”  Rushdie also said, “If PEN as a free-speech organization can’t defend and celebrate people who have been murdered for drawing pictures, then frankly the organization is not worth the name.” 

Islamist gunmen broke into the Paris-based magazine’s offices on January 7 and killed 12 people, including the magazine’s editor and a number of cartoonists. The satirical weekly was known for lampooning organized religion and had published many cartoons viewed as insulting to Mohammed, revered by Muslims as the prophet of Islam.

Since the initial condemnation, more than two dozen writers, including Joyce Carol Oates, have joined their protest, saying that while they abhor the murders, they view ridiculing a “section of the French population that is already marginalized, embattled, and victimized” unacceptable.

Writing to the organization’s trustees, PEN’s president Andrew Solomon said that “in addition to provoking violent threats from extremists, the Hebdo cartoons offended some other Muslims and members of the many other groups they targeted.”

However, “Based on their own statements, we believe that Charlie Hebdo’s intent was not to ostracize or insult Muslims, but rather to reject forcefully the efforts of a small minority of radical extremists to place broad categories of speech off limits – no matter the purpose, intent, or import of the expression,” he said.

“There is courage in refusing the very idea of forbidden statements, an urgent brilliance in saying what you have been told not to say in order to make it sayable,” he added.

“It is quite right that PEN should honor [Charlie Hebdo’s] sacrifice and condemn their murder without these disgusting ‘buts,’” Rushdie commented.

Rushdie, a native of Kashmir, was subjected to death threats culminating in a fatwa issued against him by then Supreme Leader of Iran Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini after writing the book The Satantic Verses in 1988. Salmon relocated to the UK and was put under police protection by the British government. He was later made a British knight. He spent many years living in hiding until moving to the U.S. in 2000.

PEN is  an international literary and human rights organization which promotes cooperation among writers and fights for freedom of expression for oppressed writers worldwide. Originally, the organization included only “Poets, Essayists and Novelists,” (hence its name); it now includes all writers, from journalists to historians.  

Responding to the protest, PEN said that “in paying the ultimate price for the exercise of their freedom, and then soldiering on amid devastating loss, Charlie Hebdo deserves to be recognized for its dauntlessness in the face of one of the most noxious assaults on expression in recent memory. If we only endorsed freedom of speech for people whose speech we liked that would be a very limited notion of freedom of speech. It’s a courage award, not a content award.”

He added that the decision to award Charlie Hebdo was similar to the inclusion by PEN of the Russian punk protest girl band Pussy Riot at last year’s gala, saying that the band’s “content is in many instances juvenile, and many people had felt that removing large parts of your clothing in an Orthodox church was offensive, but in standing up to the Putin regime they did something worth admiration.

The award will be accepted by Charlie Hebdo employee Jean-Baptists Thoret, who escaped the fate of his fellow staffers because he arrived late for work the day of the attack.

Meanwhile, the Charlie Hebdo cartoonist who drew the first cover of the magazine after the attack announced that he will no longer draw Mohammed. Renald Luzier (known as “Luz”) said that, “I am not interested in him anymore. I got tired of him, just like I got tired of [former French President Nicolas] Sarkozy. I am not going to spend my life drawing them."

Luzier’s  post-carnage cover consisted of a picture of Mohammed holding a sign which read, “Je suis Charlie” under the headline “All is Forgiven.”

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Meira Svirsky

Meira Svirsky is the editor of ClarionProject.org