Free Expression

Salman Rushdie slams fellow writers for boycotting ceremony to honour 'Charlie Hebdo'

Michael Ondaatje, Peter Carey and Teju Cole pull out of PEN Gala, claiming to be offended by the French magazine's portrayal of Muslims and other disenfranchised groups.

The writer Salman Rushdie has sharply criticised several of his fellow literary stars, including Michael Ondaatje, Peter Carey and Teju Cole, for withdrawing from an event to be organised by the free-speech organisation PEN next month at which the French satirical magazine Charlie Hebdo will be given an award.

Six writers ‒ Carey, Ondaatje, Francine Prose, Cole, Rachel Kushner and Taiye Selasi ‒ informed the organisers of the PEN Gala that they were offended by the French magazine's portrayals of Muslims and “the disenfranchised generally", the Guardian reported.  They were among 60 writers who were to act as hosts for the event, the newspaper said.

Prose, a former PEN American president, told the Associated Press on Sunday that she was "quite upset" when she heard about the PEN/Toni and James C. Goodale Freedom of Expression Courage Award being given to the magazine, whose offices were attacked by Islamist gunmen in January, leaving 11 people dead. Prose said that while was in favour of “freedom of speech without limitations” and that she “deplored” the January shootings, the award signified “admiration and respect” for the winner’s work.

“I couldn’t imagine being in the audience when they have a standing ovation for Charlie Hebdo,” Prose said.

In a message on Facebook, Rushdie, a previous winner of the award, took exception to this position, describing it as a “very, very bad move”.

“This is a clear cut issue,” he wrote. “The Charlie Hebdo artists were executed in cold blood for drawing satirical cartoons, which is an entirely legitimate activity. It is quite right that PEN should honour their sacrifice and condemn their murder without these disgusting ‘buts’."

The Hebdo killings, Rushdie wrote, is a “hate crime, just as the anti-Semitic attacks sweeping Europe and almost entirely carried out by Muslims are hate crimes. This issue has nothing to do with an oppressed and disadvantaged minority. 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.”

He concluded, “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.”

In a post titled Rejecting the Assassin's Vote on its website, PEN America explained the rationale for the award.
"Only a handful of people are willing to put themselves in peril to build a world in which we are all free to say what we believe. In continuing publication after their offices were firebombed in 2011 and again after the massacre in January, Charlie Hebdo’s current staff have taken that exact position.

The 'assassin's veto' over speech has become a global phenomenon in recent years and, even more vividly, in recent months, when we've seen killings not just in Paris but also in Copenhagen and Bangladesh. Reflecting the intensification of violent intolerance for speech considered offensive by some, former PEN American Center President Salman Rushdie has commented that while he would write The Satanic Verses again today, he does not believe that he would survive the reprisals in this era.

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. 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 rising prevalence of various efforts to delimit speech and narrow the bounds of any permitted speech concern us; we defend free speech above its contents. 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. There is courage in refusing the very idea of forbidden statements, an urgent brilliance in saying what you have been told not to say in order to make it sayable.

There are powerful disincentives to challenging head-on the willful shrinking of the space for free speech: doing so poses grave risks of reputation and safety. In the aftermath of the Hebdo attacks, we saw a spike in PEN new memberships from writers, many of whom wrote eloquently about being inspired by the attacks to defend free speech more intently. Charlie Hebdo's refusal to retreat when confronted with these threats, coupled with their magnanimity in the face of tragedy, have similarly motivated us to present them with the 2015 PEN/Toni and James C. Goodale Freedom of Expression Courage Award at the PEN Literary Gala on May 5.

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."


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“My body instantly craves chai and samosa”

German expats talk about adapting to India, and the surprising similarities between the two cultures.

The cultural similarities between Germany and India are well known, especially with regards to the language. Linguists believe that Sanskrit and German share the same Indo-Germanic heritage of languages. A quick comparison indeed holds up theory - ratha in Sanskrit (chariot) is rad in German, aksha (axle) in Sanskrit is achse in German and so on. Germans have long held a fascination for Indology and Sanskrit. While Max Müller is still admired for his translation of ancient Indian scriptures, other German intellectuals such as Goethe, Herder and Schlegel were deeply influenced by Kalidasa. His poetry is said to have informed Goethe’s plays, and inspired Schlegel to eventually introduce formal Indology in Germany. Beyond the arts and academia, Indian influences even found their way into German fast food! Indians would recognise the famous German curry powder as a modification of the Indian masala mix. It’s most popular application is the currywurst - fried sausage covered in curried ketchup.

It is no wonder then that German travellers in India find a quite a lot in common between the two cultures, even today. Some, especially those who’ve settled here, even confess to Indian culture growing on them with time. Isabelle, like most travellers, first came to India to explore the country’s rich heritage. She returned the following year as an exchange student, and a couple of years later found herself working for an Indian consultancy firm. When asked what prompted her to stay on, Isabelle said, “I love the market dynamics here, working here is so much fun. Anywhere else would seem boring compared to India.” Having cofounded a company, she eventually realised her entrepreneurial dream here and now resides in Goa with her husband.

Isabelle says there are several aspects of life in India that remind her of home. “How we interact with our everyday life is similar in both Germany and India. Separate house slippers to wear at home, the celebration of food and festivals, the importance of friendship…” She feels Germany and India share the same spirit especially in terms of festivities. “We love food and we love celebrating food. There is an entire countdown to Christmas. Every day there is some dinner or get-together,” much like how Indians excitedly countdown to Navratri or Diwali. Franziska, who was born in India to German parents, adds that both the countries exhibit the same kind of passion for their favourite sport. “In India, they support cricket like anything while in Germany it would be football.”

Having lived in India for almost a decade, Isabelle has also noticed some broad similarities in the way children are brought up in the two countries. “We have a saying in South Germany ‘Schaffe Schaffe Hausle baue’ that loosely translates to ‘work, work, work and build a house’. I found that parents here have a similar outlook…to teach their children to work hard. They feel that they’ve fulfilled their duty only once the children have moved out or gotten married. Also, my mother never let me leave the house without a big breakfast. It’s the same here.” The importance given to the care of the family is one similarity that came up again and again in conversations with all German expats.

While most people wouldn’t draw parallels between German and Indian discipline (or lack thereof), Germans married to Indians have found a way to bridge the gap. Take for example, Ilka, who thinks that the famed differences of discipline between the two cultures actually works to her marital advantage. She sees the difference as Germans being highly planning-oriented; while Indians are more flexible in their approach. Ilka and her husband balance each other out in several ways. She says, like most Germans, she too tends to get stressed when her plans don’t work out, but her husband calms her down.

Consequently, Ilka feels India is “so full of life. The social life here is more happening; people smile at you, bond over food and are much more relaxed.” Isabelle, too, can attest to Indians’ friendliness. When asked about an Indian characteristic that makes her feel most at home, she quickly answers “humour.” “Whether it’s a taxi driver or someone I’m meeting professionally, I’ve learnt that it’s easy to lighten the mood here by just cracking a few jokes. Indians love to laugh,” she adds.

Indeed, these Germans-who-never-left as just diehard Indophiles are more Indian than you’d guess at first, having even developed some classic Indian skills with time. Ilka assures us that her husband can’t bargain as well as she does, and that she can even drape a saree on her own.

Isabelle, meanwhile, feels some amount of Indianness has seeped into her because “whenever its raining, my body instantly craves chai and samosa”.

Like the long-settled German expats in India, the German airline, Lufthansa, too has incorporated some quintessential aspects of Indian culture in its service. Recognising the centuries-old cultural affinity between the two countries, Lufthansa now provides a rich experience of Indian hospitality to all flyers on board its flights to and from India. You can expect a greeting of Namaste by an all-Indian crew, Indian food, and popular Indian in-flight entertainment options. And as the video shows, India’s culture and hospitality have been internalized by Lufthansa to the extent that they are More Indian Than You Think. To experience Lufthansa’s hospitality on your next trip abroad, click here.

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This article was produced by the Scroll marketing team on behalf of Lufthansa as part of their More Indian Than You Think initiative and not by the Scroll editorial team.