PEN has witnessed some strong internal opposition and argument over the decision of the PEN America Center to award its Freedom of Expression Courage Award to Charlie Hebdo, after the attacks in Paris. Six writers, Teju Cole, Rachel Kushner, Michael Ondaatje, Francine Prose, Peter Carey, and Taiye Selasi, declined to attend the associated gala over this issue. PEN itself announced the news under the headline “Six Pen Members Decline Gala After Award for Charlie Hebdo.”

Condemnation of the six authors’ decision was widespread. Salman Rushdie tweeted: “PEN is holding firm. Just 6 pussies. Six Authors in Search of a bit of Character.”

Charlie Hebdo has positioned itself in the firing line of this battle, refusing to accept the curtailment of lawful speech by those who meet it with violence,” ran PEN’s own statement on the issue. “It is undoubtedly true 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. Indeed, were the Hebdo cartoonists not satirical in their genesis and intent, their content and images might offend most or all of us. But, 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.”

The PEN statement added:

We recognize that these issues are complex, and that there are good faith differences of opinion within our community. ‎At PEN, we never shy away from controversy nor demand uniformity of opinion across our ranks. We will be sorry not to see those who have opted out of the gala, but we respect them for their convictions. We feel very privileged to live in an environment where strong and diverse views on complex issues such as these can take place both respectfully and safely.

However, PEN remains unapologetic, and unambiguous, about its own position. “Let us remember what this is about. Two extremists murdered 12 people at the offices of Charlie Hebdo in January because the magazine published cartoons that offended them. No expression, even if offensive, is so grave that it justifies violence,” said Salil Tripathi, Writer and former co-chair, English PEN Writers-at-Risk Committee. “There is no doubt that Charlie Hebdo’s cartoons hurt many people. There can be debates and discussions about the cartoonists’ taste and their sensitivity, about the politics of France, the status of immigrant communities, and French colonial history. None of that justifies the violence; none of that offers a reason to diminish the cartoonists’ courage; and none of that takes away their right. If we are to accept that that courage was foolish, we might as well learn to watch, measure, and swallow our words. For it is only when writers have the freedom to say the unsayable that we will begin to challenge the world as it is.”



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