We live in a time of infamy. The West is committing suicide. Some writers—who should be especially sensitive to the perils of censorship and the dangers of intolerance are, instead, in favor, not of free speech but of the rights of one religion-only (Islam) to be spared the writers’ critique.
PEN American Center has decided to give its annual Freedom of Expression Courage Award to the French satirical newspaper Charlie Hebdo. Editor-in-Chief, Gerard Biard, and staff member Jean-Baptiste Thoret are scheduled to receive this award on May 5th at a star-studded gala of 800. Literary figures host tables filled with their admirers and with industry insiders.
The novelists Peter Carey, Michael Ondaatje, Francine Prose, Teju Cole, Rachel Kushner, and Taiye Salasi have withdrawn from the event which will be held at the American Museum of Natural History. They have done so with great “vehemence.”
This is particularly frightening because we are talking about some very distinguished novelists. Carey won the Man Booker Prize not once but twice (just like Hilary Mantel); Michael Ondaatje also won the Man Booker Prize for The English Patient; Francine Prose has been a President of PEN and is a successful novelist in her own right; she has claimed, in the pages of The Guardian, that the “narrative of the Charlie Hebdo murders—white Europeans killed in their offices by Muslim extremists—is one that feeds neatly into the cultural prejudices that have allowed our government to make so many disastrous mistakes in the Middle East.”
She goes further. While insisting she is in favor of free speech and against censorship, she does not believe that Charlie Hebdo deserves an “award.” She writes:
“The First Amendment guarantees the right of the neo-Nazis to march in Skokie, Illinois, but we don’t give them an award.” Shockingly, (at least in my view), she writes that “Edward Snowden and Chelsea Manning” are more worthy of such an award.
Prose is a professor at Bard College—where another writer who withdrew at the last moment, Teju Cole, is now a Distinguished Writer in Residence.
Rachel Kushner is a graduate of Berkeley; her first novel, Telex from Cuba, which explores the colonialist roots of the Cuban Revolution, was a finalist for the National Book Award.
Taiye Selasi comes from a very distinguished family and her first novel Ghana Must Go, was hailed as a magnificent debut in all the venues that matter.
None of these writers are lightweights or fools. All are serious leftists and are therefore, “distinguished” prize winners. They are also pro-Islamist and remain at odds with the very Western enterprise that has fostered them so well.
Ironically, only Salman Rushdie, a former PEN president, said that although Mr. Ondjaate and Mr. Carey were “old friends,” that in this matter they are “horribly wrong.” He further hoped that “if PEN cannot defend and celebrate people who have been murdered for drawing pictures, then frankly, the organization is not worth the name….I hope nobody ever comes after them.”
Update: Now, 145 PEN writers, including the six hosts who have withdrawn have publicly written to PEN protesting the award being given to the survivors of the Charlie Hebdo magazine massacre. Editorials and blog posts are being fired across the bows so to speak of the PEN mother ship.
Unsurprisingly, some left and pro-Palestinian Jews are among the signatories: Deena Metzger, Sarah Schulman, and Deborah Eisenberg to name a few—and then there is Deborah Baker who wrote a biography of an American Jewish woman who converted to Islam, moved to Pakistan, and became a potent voice for radical Islamism.
The issue is interesting and perhaps complex and all points of view are to be welcomed. But, as Salman Rushdie has just said, rather succinctly, those who have withdrawn from hosting tables are, essentially, “six authors in search of character.” It takes backbone and clarity to stand up to the threats of radical Islam as the cartoonists of Charlie Hebdo most certainly did.