Ronald Harwood: Lifelong Free Expression Campaigner and PEN President Emeritus

Photograph: Richard Saker/The Observer

Sir Ronald Harwood, President of English PEN (1989-1993) and of PEN International (1993-1997) has been a key figure in campaigning for free expression across the world.

A familiar name in PEN’s meeting minutes from the 1980s and 1990s, Harwood was still lending his name to campaigns calling out the persecution of writers around the world in the years leading up to his death on 8th September 2020 aged 85.

He is perhaps best known for his Oscar-winning adaptation, The Pianist (2002) of Wladyslaw Szpilmann’s book about the Warsaw ghetto.

Harwood was born in Cape Town, South Africa, Ronald Horwitz to Jewish Lithuanian refugee Isaac Horwitz and his wife Isobel.

As English President during the Salman Rushdie affair he played a crucial role in consultations with the British government, defending Rushdie on the world stage and conveying the views of British writers to the other members of International PEN and to the media.

When Rushdie’s novel The Satanic Verses came out in 1988 its depictions of the Prophet Mohammed and other key figures from Islamic scripture caused huge offense in the Muslim world.

This led to riots and angry protests in the UK, widespread calls to ban the book and eventually to the declaration of a fatwa by Ayatollah Kohmeini, calling on all pious Muslims to kill Rushdie in order to defend the honour of the faith and the Prophet.

Rushdie’s book was controversial, even within PEN itself, but figures like Harwood were among those pushing for the organisation to defend it.

One incident in particular, from the 1990 International PEN Congress in Funchal, Madeira finds Harwood defending Salman Rushdie in front of members from across the world.

Harwood has discovered a particularly damning condemnation of Rushdie’s book The Satanic Verses, published in Indian PEN, the publication of the Indian PEN Centre. Harwood brings it to the attention of the Congress not, for the ‘savage criticism which the writers was perfectly entitled for make’ but the second part of the article which as Harwood explains was ‘more serious in terms of what International PEN stood for’ particularly as this piece had been published by and presumably reflected the views of Indian PEN.

Harwood’s chief condemnation was not that the writer found the book offensive but the PEN members had advocated burning it without reading it.  Harwood then quotes Heine: ‘You start by banning books. The next day you burn books. And the day after that you burn people.’

Whilst Harwood does not wish to make an evaluative case on the basis of the relative merits of Rushdie’s work, like many of his generation and particularly as himself the child of a Lithuanian refugee, he views free expression as an unassailable part of maintaining a healthy society and political discourse.

To learn more about the Rushdie affair and PEN’s involvement in it, see our Case Study and also listen to Professor Rachel Potter and Professor Anshuman Mondal discuss the scandal thirty years on…

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