“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,” Mr. Rushdie said. And for once, he is right. PEN is supposed to oppose censorship and defend the freedom of speech — except, apparently, when to do so would involve “cultural intolerance” — that is, violating Sharia blasphemy laws.
“Six PEN Members Decline Gala After Award for Charlie Hebdo,” by Jennifer Schuessler, New York Times, April 26, 2015 (thanks to Anne Crockett):
The decision by PEN American Center to give its annual Freedom of Expression Courage award to the French satirical newspaper Charlie Hebdo has prompted six writers to withdraw as literary hosts at the group’s annual gala on May 5, adding a new twist to the continuing debate over the publication’s status as a martyr for free speech.
The novelists Peter Carey, Michael Ondaatje, Francine Prose, Teju Cole, Rachel Kushner and Taiye Selasi have withdrawn from the gala, at the American Museum of Natural History in Manhattan. Gerard Biard, Charlie Hebdo’s editor in chief, and Jean-Baptiste Thoret, a Charlie Hebdo staff member who arrived late for work on Jan. 7 and missed the attack by Islamic extremists that killed 12 people, are scheduled to accept the award.
In an email to PEN’s leadership on Friday, Ms. Kushner said she was withdrawing out of discomfort with what she called the magazine’s “cultural intolerance” and promotion of “a kind of forced secular view,” opinions echoed by other writers who pulled out.
Mr. Carey, in an email interview yesterday, said the award stepped beyond the group’s traditional role of protecting freedom of expression against government oppression.
“A hideous crime was committed, but was it a freedom-of-speech issue for PEN America to be self-righteous about?” he wrote.
He added, “All this is complicated by PEN’s seeming blindness to the cultural arrogance of the French nation, which does not recognize its moral obligation to a large and disempowered segment of their population.”…
But Mr. Solomon and Suzanne Nossel, the group’s executive director, said in a letter sent to the PEN board on Sunday morning that it was not necessary to agree with Charlie Hebdo in order to “affirm the principles” for which the magazine stands.
“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,” the letter said….
Some PEN members not involved with the gala agreed. The short story writer Deborah Eisenberg said via email yesterday that she had written in late March to Ms. Nossel to criticize the award.
“What I question is what PEN is hoping to convey by awarding a magazine that has become famous both for the horrible murder of staff members by Muslim extremists and for its denigrating portrayals of Muslims,” she said. “Charlie Hebdo’s symbolic significance is unclear here.”
But Salman Rushdie, a former PEN president who lived in hiding for years after a fatwa in response to his novel “The Satanic Verses,” said the issues were perfectly clear. Mr. Ondaatje and Mr. Carey were old friends of his, he said, but they are “horribly wrong.”
“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,” Mr. Rushdie said. “What I would say to both Peter and Michael and the others is, I hope nobody ever comes after them.”