The Attacks on Charlie Hebdo’s PEN Award

On May 5 at the PEN Literary Gala, the magazine Charlie Hebdo will be awarded the PEN/Toni and James C. Goodale Freedom of Expression Courage Award. At least 204 PEN members have signed a letter objecting to the honor, complaining that Charlie Hebdo offended Muslims and therefore is unworthy of any award.

The anti-Charlie Hebdo backlash began with resistance to the “Je Suis Charlie” campaign. I can understand why some people misinterpreted “Je Suis Charlie” to mean agreement with what was printed in its pages, and why they might not wish to participate in such an endorsement, even at a time of great tragedy. But I cannot comprehend this opposition to the PEN Award for Charlie Hebdo.

According to the letter, “What is neither clear nor inarguable is the decision to confer an award for courageous freedom of expression on Charlie Hebdo, or what criteria, exactly were used to make that decision.” In fact, the criteria were probably clearer than for any of PEN’s literary awards: a group of writers were murdered for offending religious beliefs, and their colleagues displayed courage in continuing to publish and refusing to submit to terrorism. The Courage award is not an award for literary excellence or ideological agreement with the majority of PEN members.

The letter argues that the award could have gone to “any of a number of journalists and whistleblowers who have risked, and sometimes lost, their freedom (and even their lives) in service of the greater good.” That’s true. But there’s no example of any recent mass murder specifically targeting writers and artists like the attack on Charlie Hebdo.

The letter calls for a disturbing new standard for the award: expression “fastidiously exercised for the good of humanity.” How many of us could ever meet such a standard? Should “fastidiously exercised for the good of humanity” become the new standard for PEN literary awards, rather than literary excellence? Should authors be judged by the correctness of their views rather than their literary abilities?

According to the letter, “Charlie Hebdo’s cartoons of the Prophet must be seen as being intended to cause further humiliation and suffering.” This is a strange notion of a bunch of cartoonists scheming to each other, “let’s make those Muslims suffer…by drawing cartoons of religious icons.” I suppose that’s possible, but I can’t imagine how the letter writers know this “must” be the case. It seems much more likely that the cartoonists thought, “Ha, ha, let’s mock organized religion and show how ridiculous their archaic rules are by violating them.”

Of course, anyone who talks about the “suffering” of people offended by a cartoon they’ve never seen, and considers it more noteworthy than the actual suffering of people murdered for drawing cartoons, is guilty of a disturbing kind of double standard. We all suffer when artists are murdered for their ideas. We suffer from fear and self-censorship and loss of our voices.

The letter worries that “PEN is not simply conveying support for freedom of expression, but also valorizing selectively offensive material: material that intensifies the anti-Islamic, anti-Maghreb, anti-Arab sentiments already prevalent in the Western world.” But this principle is dangerous in seeking to ban all honors for “offensive” works. It’s an indisputable fact that Salmon Rushdie’s novel, The Satanic Verses, offended the sensibilities of millions of Muslims (or might have, if they had been allowed to read it). The fatwa issued by Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini of Iran to kill Rushdie (and the murder of one of his translators) was an appalling attack on free speech, regardless of whether you think Rushdie’s novel was guilty of insulting Islam.

But according to the logic of these letter writers, Rushdie could not be honored by PEN for his courage because his book offended members of an oppressed minority. Unless the letter writers endorse a kind of literary arrogance (Rushdie is a “serious” novelist, so he deserves to be defended, but lowly cartoonists should not receive awards for free speech), there is no real distinction to be made. Either you believe that all literary awards and honors should be withheld from people who publish ideas deemed offensive, or you do not. And I do not.

None of the Charlie Hebdo cartoons called for killing Muslims, or banning them from France, or silencing their freedom of speech. The cartoons simply sometimes mocked religions, including Islam.

According to the letter, “In the aftermath of the attacks, Charlie Hebdo’s cartoons were characterized as satire and ‘equal opportunity offense,’ and the magazine seems to be entirely sincere in its anarchic expressions of principled disdain toward organized religion. But in an unequal society, equal opportunity offence does not have an equal effect. Power and prestige are elements that must be recognized in considering almost any form of discourse, including satire. The inequities between the person holding the pen and the subject fixed on paper by that pen cannot, and must not, be ignored.”

No one is talking about ignoring inequities. But inequities are not cured by making certain religions immune from criticism.

And since the internet is global, does that mean anything offensive to anyone should be denounced because someone, somewhere is a member of an oppressed minority? Since Christians are oppressed minorities in certain Muslim countries, does that mean criticism of the Pope is also off-limits?

Let me also point out that irreverent atheists are a minority in every part of the world, and one of most oppressed groups in the world. Yet this letter suggests that an oppressed minority such as the anti-religious atheists at Charlie Hebdo should be silenced and condemned for expressing their ideas. Exactly why should the desire of certain oppressed Muslims to censor trump the desire of certain oppressed atheists to speak? What kind of elitist arrogance gives these writers the authority to decide that murdered cartoonists and atheists are powerful, while all Muslims are powerless?

The inequalities between these privileged, safe writers holding the pen and the corpses of the cartoonists who are the subject of their attack cannot, and must not, be ignored.

The PEN Courage Award is not the end of a conversation. This Award does not prevent anyone from talking about the genuine oppression that some Muslims experience in France and other countries. The Award does not require anyone to support the ideology of every cartoon Charlie Hebdo ever printed or to endorse its literary excellence. But the Award is an acknowledgement that a terrible crime was committed in an attempt to silence free speech, and that Charlie Hebdo responded with great courage.

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