Prominent authors protest, boycott New York event honouring Charlie Hebdo

Novelist Michael Ondaatje does a reading at the now-defunct Borders store in Singapore in 2005. -- PHOTO: THE STRAITS TIMES
Novelist Michael Ondaatje does a reading at the now-defunct Borders store in Singapore in 2005. -- PHOTO: THE STRAITS TIMES

NEW YORK (REUTERS) - The French satirical weekly Charlie Hebdo, targeted in a deadly attack earlier this year by Islamist gunmen, will be honoured on Tuesday at a New York gala under heavy security, organisers said.

But at least six prominent authors said they have withdrawn from the event.

The award from the PEN American Centre comes two days after two gunmen opened fire at a Texas exhibit of caricatures of the Prophet Mohammed, depictions that Muslims consider offensive.

Drawings of the founder of Islam were also at the heart of the January attack on Charlie Hebdo's Paris offices that killed 12 people. Al Qaeda's branch in Yemen claimed responsibility for the attack, saying the weekly had insulted the Prophet Mohammed with its cartoons.

PEN's decision to give the Freedom of Expression Courage Award to Charlie Hebdo prompted six prominent writers to withdraw from the event and more than 100 others to write a letter of protest, said PEN, an organisation advocating on behalf of writers persecuted because of their work.

One novelist who withdrew, Rachel Kushner, said she was not comfortable with Charlie Hebdo's "cultural intolerance", PEN said.

Authors Peter Carey, Michael Ondaatje, Francine Prose, Teju Cole, and Taiye Selasi, also withdrew, the New York Times reported.

The attack has raised questions about religious tolerance and censorship in France, which has a 5 million-strong Muslim community.

Police and federal agents planned security for months ahead of the Texas event on Sunday, and the two gunmen were killed after opening fire in a parking lot outside the exhibit.

PEN organisers said security would be "increased" at Tuesday's event.

Gerard Biard, Charlie Hebdo's editor in chief, and Jean-Baptiste Thoret, a staff member who arrived late for work on the day of the attack, are scheduled to accept the award, PEN said.

The French cartoonist Luz, who drew the "Tout Est Pardonne (All Is Forgiven)" cover featuring the prophet after the attacks, said last week he had tired of drawing Mohammed and would stop.

The award will be presented by French-Congolese writer Alain Mabanckou, author of Memoirs of a Porcupine.

"It is the role of the satirists in any free society to challenge the powerful and the sacred, pushing boundaries in ways that make expression freer and more robust for us all,"said PEN executive director Suzanne Nossel in announcing the award. "Charlie Hebdo deserves to be recognised for its dauntlessness in the face of one of the most noxious assaults on expression in recent memory."