#100PENMembers No.14: Salman Rushdie

Salman Rushdie is not only a prominent PEN Member of several decade’s standing, and a fierce free speech advocate, his 1988 novel, The Satanic Verses was also the subject of one of the organisation’s most high profile and most divisive free expression battles.

Sir Salman Rushdie. Photo: Brad Trent/Redux/Eyevine

Rushdie took on the Presidency of PEN America from 2004-2006, and created the PEN World Voices Festival in 2005, an annual week-long event drawing writers from around the world. He received the English PEN Pinter award in 2014

As a young writer, Rushdie attended the 48thNew York PEN Congress in 1986, where along with other delegates including J. M. Coetzee, Susan Sontag, Nadine Gordimer, Edward Said and others, he debated ‘The Writer’s Imagination and the Imagination of the State’. 

Retrospectively, he viewed this discussion as a debate about the role of literature in the waning years of the Cold War. Two years after the New York Congress, however, he would find himself and his novel, The Satanic Verses confronting a very different set of free speech issues, and testing PEN’s cohesion in ways that had not been seen since the 1933 Dubrovnik Congress.

The Rushdie case exposed a rift in PEN – particularly between its Eastern and Western centres. It ignited debates about the rights – and limits – to free expression in the context of different global understandings of blasphemy, the persecution of religious minorities and linguistic harm. 

The circumstances around the publication, global controversy and murderous reception of  The Satanic Versesare well known. Considered blasphemous under Islamic state and religious law, Iran’s religious leader, the Ayatollah Khomeini, called for Rushdie’s death and one Islamic group offered a financial reward for the author’s killing. Rushdie was forced into hiding, in fear of his life.

A truly global case of literary censorship, suppression and persecution, International PEN’s intervention was inevitable – the threat to Rushdie’s life directly contravened all of its principles and policies in defence of literary 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.

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

On 2nd March 1989 the ‘World Statement of Writers in Support of Rushdie’, signed by more than 1000 writers, was sent to governments, newspapers and the UN. 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 the PEN organisation itself, pitting national centres against one another. The Indian Centre was circumspect in its support of Rushdie, choosing to refrain from public defences of the author in order to avoid offending the sensibilities of Indian Muslims. Its long-running publication The Indian PENnot only published a skit that referred to Rushdie as ‘Mr Satan’, they also ran a review which advocated banning The Satanic Verses ‘without reading’ it. The issue split apart PEN members at the 1990 PEN congress in Funchal, Madeira, with English PEN protesting by quoting Heinrich Heine: “You start by banning books. The next day you burn books. And the day after that you burn people.’ 

Most Centres agreed with English PEN that they could not support the banning of any book  or threats of violence towards authors. 

However, while PEN members did not advocate banning Rushdie’s novel, the PEN archives show that a number of them argued that the novel raised issues around the limits to literary expression. Edward Said, in a collection of essays published by PEN America in 1989 which reflected on Rushdie’s novel, both condemned the violent threats to Rushdie’s life, and also questioned the way the book played into existing East-West, colonial and postcolonial power structures. He argued that for many Muslims the question over Rushdie’s book was ‘why must a Moslem [sic], who could be defending and sympathetically interpreting, now represent us so roughly, so expertly and so disrespectfully to an audience already primed to excoriate our traditions, reality, history, religion, language, and origins?’ 

The fatwa was renewed in 2016. Thirty years on, the Rushdie debate remains a serious faultline in the history of free speech.

In our 2018 podcast Professor Anshuman Mondal explores the Rushdie affair and its implications for free speech debates. 

Read more about the Satanic Verses controversy in our PEN Case Study.

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.

IMG_1324 1

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.