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Salman Rushdie Condemns Attack on Charlie Hebdo in PEN Statement: ‘We Must Defend the Art of Satire’

Salman Rushdie has condemned the apparent militant Islamist attack on the Paris office of French satirical magazine Charlie Hebdo, in which 12 people were killed.

Four of the magazine’s cartoonists, including its editor, are among the dead.

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English PEN responded to the incident on their website, calling it a “shocking assault on press freedom and free speech”, and published a statement by Rushdie.

Rushdie’s brief message reads:

Religion, a mediaeval form of unreason, when combined with modern weaponry becomes a real threat to our freedoms. This religious totalitarianism has caused a deadly mutation in the heart of Islam and we see the tragic consequences in Paris today. I stand with Charlie Hebdo, as we all must, to defend the art of satire, which has always been a force for liberty and against tyranny, dishonesty and stupidity. ‘Respect for religion’ has become a code phrase meaning ‘fear of religion.’ Religions, like all other ideas, deserve criticism, satire, and, yes, our fearless disrespect.

Rushdie himself was famously at the centre of controversy in the Islamic world in the 1980s and 1990s, following the publication of his novel, The Satanic Verses. In what is considered a watershed in cultural relations between Islam and the West, Iranian religious leader Ayatollah Khomeini proclaimed a fatwā requiring Rushdie’s execution, which forced the author to live under police protection for many years. In 1998, the Iranian government stated that it no longer supported the fatwā, although it remains in place as only Ayatollah Khomeini, who passed away in 1989, can rescind it.

In light of the Charlie Hebdo tragedy, a message sent from imprisoned Syrian journalist Mazen Darwish to Rushdie in October last year is prescient.

Rushdie was the recipient of the 2014 PEN Pinter Prize, awarded annually to a British writer “of outstanding literary merit”. The prize is shared with an “international writer of courage” who has been “persecuted for speaking out about their beliefs”, chosen by English PEN’s Writers at Risk Committee in association with the winner. Rushdie chose to share his award with Darwish, who is being held in Adra Prison in Damascus, awaiting trial on charges of “publicising terrorist acts”. Darwish managed to smuggle a letter from his cell, which was read at the award ceremony. In it, he addressed Rushdie directly:

Allow me to take advantage of controversial writer Salman Rushdie’s presence among you this evening to tell him this: although we may have deeply disagreed with your views, we committed an unforgivable sin in the Arab world when we responded with indifference to the fatwas and calls for your death. So indifferent were we that we colluded – even if just by our silent complicity – in excluding and eliminating difference, while acting as if the whole thing had nothing to do with us. And so here we are today, paying the high, bloodsoaked price of that collusion, and finding ourselves the main victims of the obscurantist ideology now infiltrating our homes and our cities. What a great shame that it has taken us all of this bloodshed to arrive at the belief that we are the ones who will pay the price for preventing those with whom we disagree from expressing their views – and that we will pay with our lives and our futures. What a shame this much blood has had to be spilled for us to realise, finally, that we are digging our own graves when we allow thought to be crushed by accusations of unbelief, calling people infidels, and when we allow opinion to be countered with violence. The disastrous consequences of this are clearly evident today across the Arab world, and especially in Syria, my country, where the ugliest forms of fascism and the dirtiest kinds of barbarism are practised in the name of both patriotism and Islam in equal measure.

But when did patriotism come to mean erasing citizenship and ripping apart the motherland?!

And when did Islam come to mean killing the human spirit and destroying moral values?!

Rushdie has continued the debate on Twitter, stating: “When you commit murder because somebody says things you dislike you cross the frontier between civilisation & barbarity.”

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