PEN Case Study: Salman Rushdie

One of the most famous cases in PEN’s history of campaigning for free expression was the case of Salman Rushdie.

The case raised a number of serious issues around free expression and religious freedom, issues which would become increasingly important in the decades to come.

It concerned the publication of Rushdie’s novel The Satanic Verses (1988) which was considered blasphemous under Islamic state and religious law.

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Photograph courtesy of the Harry Ransom Center at the University of Texas, Austin.

As a consequence the religious leader of Iran –  the Ayatollah Khomeini – called for Rushdie’s death and  one Islamic group even went so far as to offer a financial reward for the killing of the writer.

Rushdie was forced into hiding, in fear of his life.

PEN’s intervention in the case was inevitable – the threat to Rushdie’s life directly contravened all of its policies on free expression.

PEN joined the International Committee for the Defence of Salman Rushdie and his Publishers, just six days after the Ayatollah’s pronouncement, beginning a long campaign to defend Rushdie.

By 2nd March 1989, writers around the world presented their World Statement of Writers in Support of Rushdie to governments, newspaper and the UN.

The statement was signed by more than 1000 writers including PEN members and Centres.

Vigils were held outside the United Nations in New York and at other key government buildings in other cities around the world.

Letters were sent to the Iranian government and to individual national governments by PEN Centres in countries as diverse as Argentina, India, Mexico, France,

PEN worked with organisations such as the Society of Authors, the Booksellers Association, the Publishers Association and Article 19.

However, the matter divided PEN itself, pitting national centres against one another and causing rifts within International PEN itself.

While PEN was united in its condemnation of the death penalty for any writer, many members were critical of the book and some Centres refused to support the campaign at all.

The Rushdie affair raised the issue within PEN and the wider world of how far free expression arguments could be supported if they involved the endangering of other freedoms, such as religious freedom.

It marked an extremely high profile engagement with issues of free expression for PEN and placed a great deal of pressure on the organisation to present a united front, which they did.

However, in terms of our research, it is fascinating to revisit the Rushdie files to explore not only the debates which took place behind the scenes within PEN itself, but also to view the case in light of more recent free expression events, such as Charlie Hebdo.

Indeed, the balancing of these rights and freedoms have become even more delicate in recent years, as free speech and free expression arguments have been employed to defend hate speech or incitement – as Rachel Potter will discuss in her forthcoming post on free speech and the Alt-Right.

 

 

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