No less a literary figure than Sir Salman Rushdie has labelled a pair of novelist friends (Carey and Ondaatje) as cowards. In case you didn’t hear about it, on May 5, the global writers’ organisation, PEN, awarded its annual Freedom of Expression Award to Charlie Hebdo, the French satirical magazine which lost eight journalists during an attack by Islamic extremist gunmen in January. Charlie Hebdo had satirised Islam – amongst other targets.
Six prominent authors: Peter Carey (two-time Booker Prize winner for True History of the Kelly Gang and Oscar and Lucinda), Talye Selasi (author of Ghana Must Go), Michael Ondaatje (Booker Prize for The English Patient), Rachel Kushner (author of Telex from Cuba and The Flame Throwers), Francine Prose (who received the PEN translation prize in 1988), and Teju Cole (Nigerian-American writer) withdrew from the PEN event.
Rushdie, writing on Twitter and making reference to Luigi Pirandello’s play, Six Characters in Search of an Author, said, “The award will be given. PEN is holding firm. Just six pussies. Six authors in search of a bit of Character.”
Carey acknowledged that the murders of the journalists were an “hideous crime”, but he questioned PEN’s wish to champion Charlie Hebdo. He said, “Was it a freedom-of-speech issue for PEN America to be self-righteous about? All this is complicated by PEN’s seeming blindness to the cultural arrogance of the French nation, which does not recognise its moral obligation to a large and disempowered segment of their population.”
Gary Trudeau, the American cartoonist who produced the Doomsday comic strip said, “By punching downward, by attacking a powerless, disenfranchised minority with crude, vulgar drawings closer to graffiti than cartoons, Charlie wandered into the realm of hate speech.”
Jo Glanville, director of English PEN, said that the protesting authors appeared to be confused between the principle of free speech and endorsing the message of Charlie Hebdo. “The big mistake that these authors make is that they are essentially withdrawing their support for the principle of freedom of expression. If freedom of expression means anything, then it’s supporting work that you don’t like.” She said that Rushdie knew all too well the risks of causing offense: “It’s highly understandable that Salman Rushdie supports this in the way that he does. When he was hiding after writing The Satanic Verses he was attacked by writers including John le Carré and Roald Dahl.”
In my view, Ms Glanville has hit the nail on the head: the objecting authors are confusing supporting freedom of expression with supporting material with which you don’t agree. If one starts saying, “Well, I don’t think they should have said that and therefore I don’t think they deserve a prize for saying it”, one introduces an element of censorship into the process, which is intolerable.
I also don’t think that Carey’s comments about the French nation have anything whatever to do with the issue at hand: Charlie Hebdo is not a mouthpiece for the French government or the French people. And I think it is wrong for Gary Trudeau to assume that Charlie Hebdo was “attacking a powerless, disenfranchised minority”, but if they were, and even if it was “hate speech” does it have to be suppressed? In his column in The Times, Oliver Kamm wrote; “No one has a right to complain at having their religious beliefs mocked. No one is ‘disempowered’ by being offended. No one is entitled to redress for hurt feelings.”
For me, as a writer, the question is: what should I say? I should be the judge of whether what I write is so offensive to some group of people that they will not see it as rational, but only as an attack. If what I say is seen only as an attack, why do it? My writing includes some religious content: Christian, Muslim and Jewish, and these passages, in particular, are where I have to ask the question. But once I have answered it and once I have written, I fully expect that even those who disagree with what I’ve said will support my right to say it.