Author says freedom of expression has never been under greater threat in the West in his lifetime
The publishing industry last night paid tribute to Sir Salman Rushdie, who was presented with the British Book Award for the Freedom to Publish. The award, supported by Index on Censorship, is given to authors, publishers or booksellers who make an exceptional stand for free expression.
Last August Rushdie survived an assassination attempt when he was attacked by an Islamist extremist at the Chautauqua Institution in New York State.
The award was presented by fellow author Monica Ali, who told guests at the Grosvenor House hotel in central London: “No one has been more courageous, more steadfast, more brilliant in the pursuit of truth and artistic freedom than tonight’s recipient… Every nation, every group, clan or community is worthy of serious dissidents and deserves to have them. Now, more than ever, we have to hold fast to the absolute centrality of freedom of thought and the freedom to express that thought.”
Rushdie, who accepted the award by video link (see image above), added: “We live in a moment, I think, at which freedom of expression, freedom to publish has not in my lifetime been under such threat in the countries of the West.
“Obviously, there are parts of the world where censorship has been prevalent for a long-time, quite a lot of the world – Russia, China, in some ways India as well. But in the countries of the West, until recently, there was a fair measure of freedom in the area of publishing. Now I am sitting here in the US, I have to look at the extraordinary attack on libraries, and books for children in schools. The attack on the idea of libraries themselves. It is quite remarkably alarming, and we need to be very aware of it, and to fight against it very hard.”
Index has stood shoulder-to-shoulder with Rushdie since he found himself at the centre of a controversy about his novel The Satanic Verses, published in 1988. Following a death threat issued in a “fatwa” by the Iranian supreme leader Ayatollah Khomeini, Index was active in the support campaign for the writer.
A citation from Index to mark the award read: “We can only aspire to his intellectual curiosity, his generosity towards other writers and the level of courage he has always shown in facing down the enemies of free expression. Last year’s attempt on the life of Salman Rushdie was designed to silence one of the most important voices of our times. His survival is a tribute to his courage and determination.”
Philip Jones, chair of the British Book Awards judges and editor of The Bookseller, said: “There can scarcely be a more important winner of this prize at a more important moment. Freedom to Publish is about the right to read, write, speak and hear without interference, and without the dire consequences so often now threatened by those who would restrict, censor and circumscribe. More than most, Rushdie has lived his defiance, and continues to pay a huge price for it. His cause belongs to all of us.”
You can watch his acceptance speech below.