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New York (AFP) — Six prominent novelists are boycotting a New York literary gala next week to protest against French satirical magazine Charlie Hebdo being honored with a freedom of expression award.

Australia’s Peter Carey, Canada’s Michael Ondaatje, British-born Taiye Selasi, and Americans Teju Cole, Rachel Kushner, and Francine Prose have withdrawn from the May 5 PEN American Center gala.

They informed PEN over the weekend of their decision not to attend the glittering annual event, which is also a key fund-raiser, a month after the Charlie Hebdo award was first announced.

“They’ve all been in touch with us to say they didn’t feel comfortable attending,” PEN executive director Suzanne Nossel said.

Carey, a two-times Booker Prize winner, told The New York Times that the award stepped beyond PEN’s traditional role of protecting freedom of expression against government oppression.

“A hideous crime was committed, but was it a freedom-of-speech issue for PEN America to be self-righteous about?” the newspaper quoted him as saying in an email interview.

“All this is complicated by PEN’s seeming blindness to the cultural arrogance of the French nation, which does not recognize its moral obligation to a large and disempowered segment of their population.”

On January 7, two brothers claiming to avenge the magazine’s depiction of the Prophet Mohammed — offensive to Muslims — stormed the Charlie Hebdo offices in Paris, killing 12 people.

The killings sparked debate about freedom of expression and the central role that secularism plays in French public life in contrast to the primacy of religious freedom in the United States.

The Times said Kushner was withdrawing out of discomfort with what she called the magazine’s “cultural intolerance” and promotion of “a kind of forced secular view.”

“In recent years the magazine has gone specifically for racist and Islamophobic provocations,” Nigerian-American novelist Cole wrote in a New Yorker article shortly after the attacks in January.

Nossel said more than 800 writers, publishers, editors and supporters were expected to attend the gala, but that no one else apart from the six had communicated their intention not to come.

“We respect their views,” Nossel said. “There’s been a lot of heated exchange about this on social media this morning and that can be healthy but from our perspective we’re a big tent and there’s a lot of room at PEN for differences of opinion.”

Nossel said PEN had anticipated “some degree of controversy” when the organization decided to award the prize in late January but was taken aback by the “intensity” of Monday’s debate.

“We welcome the dialogue and the debate and we recognize that people need to follow their conscience, but there has been no question in our mind in terms of going forward,” she said.

PEN wrote on its website that it did not believe Charlie Hebdo‘s intent was to “ostracize or insult Muslims, but rather to reject forcefully the efforts of a small minority of radical extremists to place broad categories of speech off limits.”

British writer Salman Rushdie, who went into hiding after a 1989 fatwa called for his death over his book The Satanic Verses, said his old friends, Carey and Ondaatje were “horribly wrong.”

“If PEN as a free speech organization can’t defend and celebrate people who have been murdered for drawing pictures, then frankly the organization is not worth the name,” he told the Times.

Photo: (©afp.com / Carl Court) Peter Carey, a two-times Booker Prize winner, said the freedom of expression award stepped beyond the PEN group’s traditional role of protecting freedom of expression against government oppression, the Times reported

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