Round-up: Charlie Hebdo and the PEN Courage Award

Charlie Hebdo is not a racist publication. But even if it was, its stand against fundamentalist religion took courage and should be applauded.


Charlie Hebdo is not a racist publication. But even if it was, its stand against fundamentalist religion took courage and should be applauded.

Freedom of expression is being debated yet again, and this time my colleagues at the PEN American Center are in the middle of the discussion.  Six of its members have withdrawn as ‘literary hosts’ from the annual fundraising gala, in protest at the decision to award Charlie Hebdo a ‘Freedom of Expression Courage’ award.

In the New York Times, Peter Carey, one of the boycotting authors, is quoted as saying:

“A hideous crime was committed, but was it a freedom-of-speech issue for PEN America to be self-righteous about?”

Salman Rushdie was also quoted in the New York Times piece, defending the award:

“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,” Mr. Rushdie said. “What I would say to both Peter and Michael and the others is, I hope nobody ever comes after them.”

He was less polite on Twitter, however:

To be absolutely clear: The PEN American Center stood by its decision, and issued a further statement:

The rising prevalence of various efforts to delimit speech and narrow the bounds of any permitted speech concern us; we defend free speech above its contents. We do not believe that any of us must endorse the content of Charlie Hebdo’s cartoons in order to affirm the importance of the medium of satire, or to applaud the staff’s bravery in holding fast to those values in the face of life and death threats. There is courage in refusing the very idea of forbidden statements, an urgent brilliance in saying what you have been told not to say in order to make it sayable.

This is a crucial point.  Cartoons that satirise religious figures have, in recent years, become ‘off-limits’ to most publishers, regardless of their content.  Even after the attacks, amid the ‘Je Sui Charlie’ hysteria, very few media outlets felt able to publish the completely benign front cover of Charlie Hebdo published the week after the murders.  The Charlie Hebdo project was to reject the consenus that such images were unpublishable.  That was an important and necessary act of publication and took courage.

These kinds of controversies always prompt opinion pieces.  Here in the UK, journalists with a strong record defending free speech criticised the author’s decision.  Padraig Reidy on the Little Atoms website askedWhy is solidarity so difficult for some writers?‘.  Nesrine Malik wrote that

It is hard to understand how PEN, an organisation that defends freedom of expression, is somehow departing exotically into uncharted territory by honouring a magazine with a freedom of expression award.

Another of the boycotting writers, Francine Prose, explained her decision in the Guardian:

As a friend wrote me: the First Amendment guarantees the right of the neo-Nazis to march in Skokie, Illinois, but we don’t give them an award. The bestowing of an award suggests to me a certain respect and admiration for the work that has been done, and for the value of that work and though I admire the courage with which Charlie Hebdo has insisted on its right to provoke and challenge the doctrinaire, I don’t feel that their work has the importance – the necessity – that would deserve such an honor.

To my mind, this is a slightly confused position, because the award is specifically for courage rather than content.  My colleague Jo Glanville, director of English PEN, expanded on the point about courage in an opinion piece first published in The Bookseller. She also explained why it is particularly important to defend speech that offends us:

One of the writers, Francine Prose, a former PEN President,  who decided to withdraw from the gala in protest, was reported as saying that giving an award signified “admiration and respect” for the winner’s work. “I couldn’t imagine being in the audience when they have a standing ovation for Charlie Hebdo.” But Charlie Hebdo is in fact being recognised for its courage: the courage to publish in the face of threats and intimidation, and the courage to continue publishing after the shocking murders in January.

We are more used to seeing that courage at a greater distance – in Mexico, Russia, Bangladesh or Egypt – and feel safe celebrating writers and journalists who may be prosecuted for outraging public morals in their own culture. On our own doorstep, when faced with a satirical publication that provokes and offends, there is an underlying view implicit in the protest of Peter Carey and fellow writers that this kind of speech is not worth defending. … Yet one of the most important, if uncomfortable, responsibilities for any free speech advocate is to defend the right to express speech which may be shocking, disturbing or offensive. Without that broad defence, the limits of everyone’s speech, as well as writers and publishers, are at risk of being restricted to suit the political agenda or prevailing morality, at a cost to artistic licence as well as individual freedom.

Another writer to weigh in was Nick Cohen.  In a response to Francine Prose’s article, Cohen declared in the Spectator that the stand taken by the six writers was the “literary indulgence of murder“.

I admire

Anyone oblivious to the facts may be forgiven after reading this for concluding Charlie Hebdo is a racist magazine, analogous to Der Sturmer and without any redeeming features. Racism and hate speech carry a toxicity which shouldn’t be applauded with an award for courage, it is suggested. Bravery means Chelsea Manning and Julian Assange. Bravery doesn’t mean a magazine that attacks the earth’s downtrodden 1.6 billion Muslims.

But Charlie Hebdo are not racist and their staff were not murdered for racism and hate speech. They were murdered for depicting a religious figure. Rewarding them with an award for bravery therefore constitutes an endorsement of a liberal ideal: people in free societies have the right to offend religious beliefs unencumbered by the threat of murder and intimidation; this right must be reaffirmed and encouraged, especially after an attempt at enforcing blasphemy law through murder.

Is Charlie Hebdo Racist?

Is Charlie Hebdo racist?  The current debate has meant that articles arguing that it is not have been shared and read once more.  I have read a few helpful pieces over the last couple of days that  I missed in January.

The Understanding Charlie Hebdo website points to a statistical analysis of the magazine’s satirical targets carried out by Le Monde.  The vast majority of the mockery is reserved for politics and politicians.  Only 38 front covers in the past decade mocked religion, and of those only 7 targeted Islam alone.  Christianity was attacked at three times the rate.

unes-charlie-statsThe site also analyses some of Charlie Hebdo’s more controversial covers—translating them and putting them in the context of the French political and cultural situation in which they were meant to be read.

As well as the accusation of outright racism, a corollary charge levelled at Charlie Hebdo is that it attacked embattled minorities in France.  In an article posted yesterday,  the cultural critic Dorian Lynskey took on this point:

One of the great fallacies in the debate about Charlie Hebdo, articualted by Garry Trudeau, is the binary distinction between punching up and punching down, as if there were a ladder of power and a simple diagram to decide between “good” and “bad” satire. If you think the magazine was only attacking French Muslims, then it was punching down, but its obvious target was religious fundamentalism. In the era of Islamic State, Boko Haram and Wahhabism, it’s idiotic to equate religious extremism with powerlessness. Teju Cole listed some people he felt were more deserving of the award, including persecuted Saudi blogger Raif Badawi. Does he not realise that Badawi’s enemies are the same as Charlie Hebdo’s? If the Kouachis had been raised in Saudi Arabia rather than France, they would be the kind of men who would be flogging Badawi with enthusiasm.

Kenan Malik points to a fascinating article by Leigh Phillips, written in the week after the Charlie Hebdo killings.  By giving a more detailed history of Charlie Hebdo‘s emergence and political influence in France, and by setting out the political biographies of the murdered cartoonists, he comprehensively (to my mind) refutes the charge of racism.  But then he concludes:

I offer all this history as background, as additional context that has been ignored by the “Je ne suis pas Charlie” critics. But I’ll go further: It shouldn’t even matter.

Even if Charlie Hebdo were a racist publication, the murders would still be an assault on freedom of speech, and leftists should still rise up with all the indignation that so many French people have righteously displayed. Not because, as elites have it, the Paris massacre is an attack on “Western values,” values that plainly do not exist outside of hackneyed, hypocritical bromide, but because freedom of speech is a left-wing issue. Indeed, it is the most important issue we should concern ourselves with. Everything else we ever do depends on this foundational freedom.

4 thoughts on “Round-up: Charlie Hebdo and the PEN Courage Award”

  1. To illustrate the fact that “western values plainly do not exist outside of hackneyed, hypocritical bromide,” I will here re-post a comment I’ve posted on several other sites discussing the Charlie Hebdo award, including the NYTimes:

    Given PEN’s principled stance on Charlie Hebdo, one must wonder why the organization has chosen to remain silent about the controversial criminalizing, right in the cultural capital of America, of inappropriately deadpan email parodies, documented at:

    For what is documented there is a highly publicized prosecution for criminal satire, involving inappropriately deadpan email parodies sent out in the midst of a roiling academic controversy. Consider the trial judge’s explicit declaration that the defendant’s “criminal intent brought you a parody over the line,” or the prosecution’s declaration that the defendant is a “menace” because he “knows how to twist language, stir up controversy.” This is what happens when we decide to criminalize forms of expression that we really don’t like.

    In fact, the danger set by this American legal precedent is so clear that it prompted the chief judge of New York’s highest court to warn in a dissenting opinion that the case will “penalize and chill speech that the constitution protects,” and that the legal rationale employed to justify the prosecution “amounts to an atavism at odds with the First Amendment and the free and uninhibited exchange of ideas it is meant to foster.”

    So again, one must wonder: why not a word from PEN about a case confronting us with the limits of parody and having such obvious consequences for thousands of sharp-witted Internet combatants? Does PEN actually, behind the grand veneer, believe that intellectual provocateurs should be imprisoned when prosecutors and criminal court judges “really don’t like” their provocative speech? Is it that “trolls” behind Internet campaigns concerning academic controversies (as opposed, say, to ones behind campaigns for divestment in South Africa) are not worthy of protection? How would that fit in with freedom of conscience? Such freedom exists or doesn’t exist, depending on whether PEN decides it does?

    [End of comment]

    P.s. in response to my comment, one interlocutor objected that the criminal defendant in New York was “seeking revenge against specific individuals,” which according to him is not a matter of free expression. As I indicated in my reply, however, countless writers through the ages have sought precisely that, including even the likes of Dante, to say nothing of the author of the famous Letters from Obscure Men, many of which were “signed” by well-known academics of the time, and were so deadpan that they were initially taken for the “real thing” until their satirical nature was clarified in a second edition. Since their anonymous author could not be found, the Letters themselves were banned by Pope Leo X in 1617; would PEN have approved of that little book-burning action?

    And one final point: the real gist of the objection seems to be to suggest that the defendant in New York is guilty of libel, which is something that shouldn’t be of concern to PEN. Again, I beg to differ. Libel was decriminalized in most American states half a century ago, and if it’s currently in the process of being re-criminalized in New York, as it were through the back door, that is a huge matter for concern, even bigger than criminal satire, and one would naturally expect PEN to be vigorously combating such a prospect.

    1. I can’t speak for PEN America.

      English PEN leads the libel reform campaign on this side of the Atlantic. The campaign has always been clear that reputation is something that should be protected in civil law and that a sensible balance should be struck between the rights of reputation and free speech.

      Separately, PEN has supported campaigns to liberalise parody exemptions to copyright law in the EU.

      I don’t know about the Golb case and daren’t comment from a position of ignorance. But if he’s been impersonating someone else and causing damage to their reputation as a result, then clearly it’s right for the courts to step in.

      1. Well, do you mean the civil courts or the criminal courts? If the latter, considerable free-speech difficulties loom on the horizon. What if Golb mocked (impersonated) someone else in “confessions” portraying the mocked (impersonated) individual as admitting to misconduct in which he actually did engage? Is that a matter for the criminal courts? Given the prevalence of such discourse on the Internet today (cf. groups like the Yes Men who regularly pull precisely this kind of stunt), whether or not the criminal courts should be involved in such disputes would seem to pose a huge issue for PEN.

  2. I myself have long been amazed that PEN, together with the ACLU, is not fighting the Golb case tooth and nail. Quixote does not go far enough in his comment above. His “what if” hypothetical, as emerges from the material collected on the site he links, is exactly what is involved here. See, in particular,

    PEN understandably wishes to avoid a political conflict with academics at NYU (one of its American host institutions) but it does not have to take sides in the underlying dispute to realize that the issue here is practically identical to what has been at the core of the fight to decriminalize libel in England and elsewhere.

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