Salman Rushdie Scolds ‘Charlie Hebdo’ PEN Award Boycotters

Rushdie called the six boycotters, all prominent writers, "pussies."

Salman Rushdie
Photo via: Salon

The writer Salman Rushdie has condemned the decision of six prominent writers—including Rachel Kushner, Peter Carey, and Michael Ondaatje—to boycott the PEN American Center’s annual gala next week in which the French satirical magazine Charlie Hebdo will be given PEN’s Freedom of Expression Courage Award.

“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,” Rushdie, a former PEN president, told the New York Times. “What I would say to both Peter and Michael and the others is, I hope nobody ever comes after them.”

Rushdie also took to Twitter to express his disappointment, tweeting yesterday morning: “The award will be given. PEN is holding firm. Just 6 pussies. Six Authors in Search of a bit of Character.”

Rushdie spent several years living under police protection after the publication in 1988 of his novel The Satanic Verses. The book caused a huge outrage and riots in the Islamic world, with many considering Rushdie’s depiction of Muhammad blasphemous. In 1989, Iran’s Ayatollah Khomeini issued a fatwa against Rushdie, requiring his execution.

PEN American Center announced last month that they would be giving the award to Charlie Hebdo during the gala which will take place on May 5.

The prize will be accepted by Jean-Baptiste Thoret, a Charlie Hebdo staff member who arrived late for work on January 7, missing the terrorist attack.

“It is the role of the satirists in any free society to challenge the powerful and the sacred, pushing boundaries in ways that make expression freer and more robust for us all,” PEN argued in the statement that accompanied the announcement. “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.”

But some members do not agree. Besides the six writers who have withdrawn from the gala (Kushner, Carey, Ondaatje, Francine Prose, Teju Cole, and Taiye Selasi), PEN member Deborah Eisenberg has also been vocal about her discomfort.

“I can hardly be alone in considering Charlie Hebdo’s cartoons that satirize Islam to be not merely tasteless and brainless but brainlessly reckless as well,” Eisenberg wrote to PEN’s Executive Director, Suzanne Nossel, in an letter published by Glenn Greenwald in The Intercept. “To a Muslim population in France that is already embattled, marginalized, impoverished, and victimized, in large part a devout population that clings to its religion for support, Charlie Hebdo’s cartoons of the Prophet must be seen as intended to cause further humiliation and suffering.”

“This issue has nothing to do with an oppressed and disadvantaged minority,” Rushdie wrote in a letter to support PEN’s decision, excerpted in the Guardian. “It has everything to do with the battle against fanatical Islam, which is highly organised, well funded, and which seeks to terrify us all, Muslims as well as non Muslims, into a cowed silence. These six writers have made themselves the fellow travellers of that project. Now they will have the dubious satisfaction of watching PEN tear itself apart in public,” Rushdie added.

Follow Artnet News on Facebook:

Want to stay ahead of the art world? Subscribe to our newsletter to get the breaking news, eye-opening interviews, and incisive critical takes that drive the conversation forward.