Six authors have withdrawn as literary hosts of the N.Y.-based PEN American Center gala in protest over the pro-free speech group's decision to give the controversial French magazine Charlie Hebdo a "Freedom of Expression Courage" award.
Writers Peter Carey, Teju Cole, Rachel Kushner, Michael Ondaatje, Francine Prose and Taiye Selasi have pulled out of the May 5 gala, the New York Times reports, citing what Kushner called the magazine's "cultural intolerance." Charlie Hebdo frequently prints images of the prophet Muhammad, and other cartoons that some Muslims find offensive.
The offices of Charlie Hebdo were attacked in January by two gunmen who killed 12 people, most of them employees of the magazine. The killers, brothers Said and Cherif Kouachi, were later shot to death by police northeast of Paris. Surviving staffers of the magazine put out a new issue just days later.
Australian novelist Carey acknowledged that the attack was a "hideous crime," but cast doubt on the idea that it was "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," Carey said in an email interview with the New York Times, "which does not recognize its moral obligation to a large and disempowered segment of their population."
PEN defended its decision to honor Charlie Hebdo in a post on its website Sunday titled "Rejecting the Assassin's Veto," which reads in part: "We do not believe that any of us must endorse the content of Charlie Hebdo's cartoons in order to affirm the importance of the medium of satire, or to applaud the staff's bravery in holding fast to those values in the face of life and death threats."
Cole, another of the authors who withdrew as a host, told the Intercept that he didn't "want to sit in a room and cheer Charlie Hebdo." Cole criticized the magazine's philosophy, writing, "I would rather honor Raif Badawi, Avijit Roy, Edward Snowden or Chelsea Manning, who have also paid steeply for their courage, but whose ideals are much more progressive than Charlie's."
Author Salman Rushdie, who was once the target of death threats for his novel "The Satanic Verses," strongly defended PEN and Charlie Hebdo on his Twitter account, and lashed out angrily at the six authors who withdrew from the gala, calling them "Six Authors in Search of a bit of Character."
Rushdie also addressed the matter in the New York Times, telling the newspaper: "What I would say to both Peter [Carey] and Michael [Ondaatje] and the others is, I hope nobody ever comes after them."