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…

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.