Salman Rushdie has accused fellow authors of being “pussies” for boycotting an event organised by the free-speech organisation PEN at which the French satirical magazine Charlie Hebdo is to be given an award.

The Booker Prizewinner Peter Carey, The English Patient author Michael Ondaatje and at least four other writers have withdrawn from the PEN American Centre gala in New York next week.

The move is in protest at the decision to give the Freedom of Expression Courage award to the magazine, which they are unhappy at supporting due to the offence it has caused to some Muslims.

Carey, joined in opposition to the award by Francine Prose, Teju Cole, Rachel Kushner and Taiye Selasi, questioned whether the January attack on the magazine’s Paris offices, in which 12 staff were killed, was a “freedom-of-speech issue” for the human rights organisation to be “self-righteous about”.

But Rushdie, a former PEN president who lived in hiding for years after a fatwa in response to his novel The Satanic Verses, was highly critical of the authors who withdrew in protest at the magazine’s cartoons.

“The award will be given. PEN is holding firm. Just 6 pussies. Six Authors in Search of a bit of Character,” tweeted Rushdie, though he later said he should not have used the word to describe them.

Although Carey and Ondaatje were friends of his, they had got this issue “horribly wrong,” he said. “If PEN as a free-speech organisation can’t defend and celebrate people who have been murdered for drawing pictures, then, frankly, the organisation is not worth the name".

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