By Jacob Mchangama

In January 2015, Islamic terrorists murdered 12 people at the French satirical magazine Charlie Hebdo for depicting the Prophet Muhammad. When PEN America honored the magazine with its Freedom of Expression Courage Award that same year, the organization received backlash from prominent members.

Then-PEN president Andrew Solomon stood by the decision, saying that the controversy was a reminder that the “defense of people murdered for their exercise of free speech is at the heart of what PEN stands for, so is the unfettered articulation of opposing viewpoints.”

Standing up for free speech principles against religious extremism, it turns out, was the right call since it remains a real threat to authors and speakers around the world. At a book talk in August 2022, novelist and former PEN America president Salman Rushdie was stabbed 15 times by an assailant who admired Iran’s theocratic regime that issued a fatwa against Rushdie back in 1989 for the supposed blasphemy of his novel The Satanic Verses.

But now PEN America finds itself embroiled in another controversy about first principles.

The organization felt compelled to cancel its 2024 World Voices Festival after around 30 writers withdrew from the event backing protesters who claimed PEN America’s approach to the war between Israel and Hamas was “tepid.” In other words, PEN America stood by its explicit mission to promote free expression and remain neutral on sharply contested matters of geopolitics and armed conflict.

An open letter from writers and translators nominated for the PEN America Literary Award argued that they “cannot, in good faith, align with an organization that has shown such blatant disregard of our collective values… We refuse to be honored by an organization that acts as a cultural front from American imperialism.”

Never mind that PEN America has provided financial assistance to Palestinian writers, issued many statements condemning the suppression of pro-Palestinian speech on college campuses, spoken out against postponing awards for Palestinian authors, and criticized the cancellation of film screenings for documentaries critical of Israel. The now-canceled World Voices Festival would have also featured several Palestinian writers.

Regardless, the authors of the open letter contend that PEN America’s leadership should be replaced with staff that will make a bold declaration that would firmly align with one side. But this would be a grave mistake.

PEN America’s very purpose is “to protect free expression in the United States and worldwide” and to “champion the freedom to write… unite writers and their allies to celebrate creative expression and defend the liberties that make it possible.” PEN America’s mission is not to advance the political or ideological goals of a specific portion of the diverse range of writers around the globe. To succumb to external and internal pressures to take positions on contentious policy issues threatens to undermine its very purpose and its efforts on other issues.

Read More