Thirty years ago, PEN Canada, a non-partisan organization that supports freedom of expression in Canada and writers endangered around the world, staged an extraordinary coup in Toronto. Held in support of award-winning English novelist Salman Rushdie, it went on to have international ramifications – with this country at the root of it.
In 1992, Rushdie was in his fourth year of hiding, under constant police protection for fear of his life. Three years earlier, Ayatollah Khomeini of Iran had issued a fatwa calling for his murder, and the murder of those associated with his novel, The Satanic Verses. Khomeini claimed the novel insulted Islam, though his son admitted later that he never read it.
Internationally, political will to stand up to such an astonishing public threat against a private citizen of another country was sadly lacking. But no country was willing to act alone. Louise Dennys, then president of PEN Canada, told the head of the International Salman Rushdie Defence Committee that she believed Canada could break the impasse.
A handful of PEN members – Louise, with Ric Young, John Ralston Saul, Adrienne Clarkson, Marian Botsford-Fraser and Clayton Ruby – hatched an ambitious plan to persuade the Canadian government to condemn Iran’s state-sanctioned act of terrorism against Rushdie. The strategy: to use the annual PEN Canada Benefit to showcase public support for Rushdie in the country and galvanize the government in Ottawa to take the issue to the United Nations. They needed to bring Rushdie to Canada and draw intense media coverage.
This was no easy matter. It required absolute secrecy, the support of MI6 in Britain alongside CSIS and the RCMP in Canada, and a frantic last-minute search for means – ultimately, a private jet offered by an anonymous donor – to bring Rushdie across the Atlantic when the initial flight plan fell through.
Miraculously, they managed it. On Dec. 7, 1992, Rushdie appeared as a surprise guest on stage at the Winter Garden Theatre before an astonished audience of a thousand people. There was a collective gasp as the crowd rose to its feet in applause, even as they suddenly became aware of the 60-some security personnel present in the theatre, talking into their sleeves.
And then Bob Rae, premier of Ontario at the time, came on stage and embraced Rushdie, the first head of government anywhere to publicly stand with him. Rae called upon all governments to “do the right thing.”
It did not end there. The small delegation flew straight to Ottawa. Overnight, a morning press conference was convened. A few hours later, Barbara McDougall became the first secretary of state of any country to meet with Rushdie. Jean Chrétien, then the leader of the Official Opposition, walked him over to the House of Commons where he testified before the Parliamentary Sub-Committee on Development and Human Rights.
The result was electrifying. Within 48 hours, Canada became the first country in the world to pass a unanimous, all-party resolution condemning the Iranian government for its shameful record on human rights, demanding the withdrawal of the fatwa. Three months later, at the instigation of the Canadian government, the United Nations Commission on Human Rights in Geneva passed a resolution condemning Iran’s actions and calling for sanctions.
Remarkably – and sadly, given the cause – a full generation after the epochal 1992 benefit, the organization is again holding an event to stand with Rushdie after the horrific attack on him in August at the Chautauqua Institute, in upper New York State. Together with the Toronto International Festival of Authors, Penguin Random House Canada and the Writers Trust, PEN Canada will hold a reading of Rushdie’s works on Sept. 27.
The event will feature prominent writers, many of them alumni of the 1992 benefit: Margaret Atwood, Adrienne Clarkson, John Irving, Ian McEwan, Deepa Mehta, Rohinton Mistry, John Ralston Saul, Shyam Selvadurai and Nobel Peace Prize laureate Maria Ressa. It will be hosted by Matt Galloway of CBC Radio’s The Current, and will be broadcast in an upcoming episode of that program.
The attack on Rushdie occurred while he was on stage to discuss the U.S. being a sanctuary for exiles. Early in the fatwa he had decided that his life’s work would be to speak for others in jeopardy, while continuing to write.
A year after the 1992 benefit, Rushdie called to thank PEN Canada and the many who did so much to bring it to pass. He also said: “I will remember Toronto for the intellectual tolerance and wisdom of those who had been offended by my writing, but – in recognition of the fundamental human importance of freedom of expression – had allowed me to pass through Canada without a threat, without a single threat.”
He remembered, too, the passionate commitment to that same freedom shown by the media of Canada who rallied in support of him, speaking out against the silence that terrorism imposes, and ensuring that Ottawa heard the public’s support – that thunderous applause at the Winter Garden Theatre.
What did we learn? That it does work to speak out. When we speak out in support of Salman Rushdie on Sept. 27, we speak out for the future of free inquiry; opinion and debate, for our love of reading and writing; and against escalating book-banning. We speak out on behalf of those whose right to peaceful freedom of expression is being repressed.
Rushdie said 30 years ago, as he has said ever since, that his story, terrible as it is, is not unique. It is representative of the experiences of all those throughout the world who are silenced by repressive regimes. Indeed, we continue to be reminded daily of the fragility of the right to free expression, and the need to defend it today, tomorrow and every day.
We must keep speaking out, for all of us.
Grace Westcott is the President of PEN Canada.