Six PEN members (“The Six”) have opted out of a gala that would award a Freedom of Expression Courage award to the French satirical newspaper Charlie Hebdo. I titled this post “Boycott Michael Ondaatje” because his is the only name I recognize from the list of writers that also includes Peter Carey, Francine Prose, Teju Cole, Rachel Kushner, and Taiye Selasi. We should boycott all of them, but let’s start with Ondaatje.
In general, I think boycotts are rather dumb, but since The Six have engaged in their own form of silly symbolic irrelevence, I might as well join in. What’s their beef? Kushner pointed out Charlie Hebdo’s “cultural intolerance”; Carey took time to point out the “cultural arrogance of the French nation”; and Cole accused the magazine of being Islamophobic. You can read their thoughts in detail here, although I would not fault you for avoiding their imbecilic and boorish excuses.
If all of this seems familiar to you, it’s probably because this is yet another example of intellectual cowardice in the face of threats to freedom of thought and speech. The Six should know better. Let me take you back in time to Valentine’s Day, 1989. The Ayatollah Khomeini of Iran has just taken the plunge into literary criticism by giving Salman Rushdie’s The Satanic Verses a terrible review, calling for the author’s death and the deaths of anyone involved with the novel’s publication.
Rushdie’s novel remains a galvanizing work of fiction, and the Khomeini’s fatwā stands. Not much has changed. Rushdie was accused of insulting Muslims by using an ancient legend about the Prophet Muhammad in his novel, but as journalist Douglas Murray has pointed out, depicting and insulting Muhammad is permitted under British law and moreover, freedom of expression is a centerpiece of liberal democratic values.
Murray’s response is consistent with those of Rushdie’s other defenders at the time of the fatwā, like the late Christopher Hitchens, who attempted to remind the world of the rights to free speech and freedom of and from religion. Others were not so quick: much like today’s vanguard of Western self-hatred, writers Roald Dahl and John Le Carre accused Rushdie of sensationalism and insensitivity, and the Archbishop of Canterbury argued for an expansion of Britain’s blasphemy laws to include Islam.
More striking than the critical reactions was the relative silence of the intellectual and artistic communities. Did their silence come from a fear of reprisal or a tacit agreement with the fatwā? We cannot be certain, although one possible explanation for this lack of nerve comes from Walter Laqueur, whose argues in After the Fall: The End of the European Dream and the Decline of a Continent, that Europe has a “crisis of lack of will, inertia, tiredness, self-doubt, a lack of self-confidence.” Perhaps we now have an attitude of appeasement, and the six writers mentioned are just the latest to flee from their duty to support their fellow writers and journalists.
Regarding the current issue, Rushdie said it best: “If PEN as a free speech organization can’t defend and celebrate people who have been murdered for drawing pictures, then frankly the organization is not worth the name.”