Booker Prize-winning author Salman Rushdie has warned against the “alarming” threats to freedom of expression around the world, including in India, as he accepted the Freedom to Publish honour at the British Book Awards, known as the Nibbies, in London.
In a video message from New York on Monday night, the 75-year-old Mumbai-born author who has lived under the shadow of a fatwa since The Satanic Verses was published in the 1980s said it was important to continue to fight for the freedom to express and to publish.
“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,” said Rushdie in his first public address since a knife attack on him in August last year.
“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,” he said.
“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's quite remarkably alarming, and we need to be very aware of it and fight against it very hard,” he added.
Sporting an eye patch on his right eye, which was injured in the life-threatening knife attack, the British American novelist also called on publishers who “bowdlerise” classic works of authors like Roald Dahl and Ian Fleming to resist that pressure and allow books “to come to us from their time and be of their time”, because anyone who does not agree with that sentiment can choose not to read those books.
“The idea that James Bond could be made politically correct is almost comical,” said Rushdie, of Fleming's most famous creation.
“Don't try and remake yesterday's work in the light of today's attitudes,” he said, adding that he was proud to receive the Freedom to Publish award on behalf of everyone fighting the fight to defend freedom of expression. It is only the second time the Freedom to Publish award has been conferred since it was first introduced last year.
“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,” said Philip Jones, chair of the British Book Awards judges and editor of the UK magazine The Bookseller.
The award was introduced at the awards ceremony in London by British-Bangladeshi author of ‘Brick Lane' Monica Ali, who described Rushdie as a “tireless champion of artistic and journalistic freedom” in the 34 years since the fatwa was issued against him by Iran's leadership calling on Muslims to assassinate the author for an allegedly “blasphemous” novel.
“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,” noted Index on Censorship, an organisation associated with the British Book Awards and campaigning for freedom of expression.