In January 2015, Muslim terrorists massacred cartoonists and writers at the Paris offices of the satirical magazine Charlie Hebdo, proclaiming to be avenging Islam’s prophet. The rampage, which included the murders of hostages at a kosher market, prompted global leaders and throngs of citizens to rally in support of free expression. But was the support genuine?
In this Broadside, Andrew C. McCarthy explains how leading Islamists have sought to supplant free expression with the blasphemy standards of Islamic law, gaining the support of the U.S. and other Western governments. But free speech is the lifeblood of a functioning democratic society, essential to our capacity to understand, protect ourselves from, and ultimately defeat our enemies.
Yet the award has become controversial, attacked by a group of writers who presume to lecture murder victims on not provoking their murderers.
“If the publication’s equal-opportunity offenders had been assaulted by right-wing extremists for their savage mockery of anti-immigrant politicians, or opponents of gay marriage or Catholicism, surely the dissenting writers would be all for recognizing Charlie Hebdo.”
These dissenters are an unabashed fifth column undermining PEN America’s devotion to free expression so as to carve out a safe space for Islam from the barbed speech inherent to a free society.
They oppose the killing of the Charlie Hebdo journalists — thanks, guys — but otherwise agree with the jihadis that the publication was out-of-bounds.
“This is a version of Garry Trudeau’s argument that Charlie Hebdo was ‘punching downward’ against the defenseless, when satire should punch up against the powerful. This is a bizarre notion of power. The weapon of choice of Charlie Hebdo’s cartoonists was the pen; the weapon of choice of their assailants was the firearm.”
Novelists Peter Carey, Michael Ondaatje, Francine Prose, Teju Cole, Rachel Kushner and Taiye Selasi have withdrawn from the gala
Jennifer Schuessler writes: The decision by PEN American Center to give its annual Freedom of Expression Courage award to the French satirical newspaper Charlie Hebdo has prompted six writers to withdraw as literary hosts at the group’s annual gala on May 5, adding a new twist to the continuing debate over the publication’s status as a martyr for free speech.
“In an email to PEN’s leadership on Friday, Ms. Kushner said she was withdrawing out of discomfort with what she called the magazine’s ‘cultural intolerance’ and promotion of ‘a kind of forced secular view’…”
The novelists Peter Carey, Michael Ondaatje, Francine Prose, Teju Cole, Rachel Kushner and Taiye Selasi have withdrawn from the gala, at the American Museum of Natural History in Manhattan. Gerard Biard, Charlie Hebdo’s editor in chief, and Jean-Baptiste Thoret, a Charlie Hebdo staff member who arrived late for work on Jan. 7 and missed the attack by Islamic extremists that killed 12 people, are scheduled to accept the award.
“By attacking a powerless, disenfranchised minority with crude, vulgar drawings closer to graffiti than cartoons, Charlie wandered into the realm of hate speech.”
— Disgraced, formerly relevant, pro-censorship cartoonist Garry Trudeau
In an email to PEN’s leadership on Friday, Ms. Kushner said she was withdrawing out of discomfort with what she called the magazine’s “cultural intolerance” and promotion of “a kind of forced secular view,” opinions echoed by other writers who pulled out.
“A hideous crime was committed, but was it a freedom-of-speech issue for PEN America to be self-righteous about? All this is complicated by PEN’s seeming blindness to the cultural arrogance of the French nation, which does not recognize its moral obligation to a large and disempowered segment of their population.”
— Pro-censorship Francophone author Peter Carey
Mr. Carey, in an email interview yesterday, said the award stepped beyond the group’s traditional role of protecting freedom of expression against government oppression.
“A hideous crime was committed, but was it a freedom-of-speech issue for PEN America to be self-righteous about?” he wrote.
“We all knew this was in some ways a controversial choice. But I didn’t feel this issue was certain to generate these particular concerns from these particular authors.”
— Andrew Solomon, the president of PEN
He added, “All this is complicated by PEN’s seeming blindness to the cultural arrogance of the French nation, which does not recognize its moral obligation to a large and disempowered segment of their population.”
Andrew Solomon, the president of PEN, said on Sunday that the six writers were the only ones that he knew of among the dinner’s several dozen literary hosts who had reconsidered their participation in the gala, which occurs during the group’s annual World Voices Festival, a weeklong event that brings dozens of writers from around the globe to New York City.
Mr. Solomon said he knew the award to Charlie Hebdo might be controversial, but added he was surprised less by the criticism itself than by the vehemence of some of it, as well by the timing — less than two weeks before the gala, a major fund-raiser that draws a star-studded crowd of more than 800 writers, publishers and supporters.
“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.”
— Andrew Solomon and Suzanne Nossel, in a letter sent to the PEN board
“We all knew this was in some ways a controversial choice,” he said. “But I didn’t feel this issue was certain to generate these particular concerns from these particular authors.”
“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. What I would say to both Peter and Michael and the others is, I hope nobody ever comes after them.”
— Salman Rushdie, former PEN president who lived in hiding for years after a fatwa in response to his novel The Satanic Verses
The withdrawals reflect the debate over Charlie Hebdo that erupted immediately after the attack, with some questioning whether casting the victims as free-speech heroes ignored what some saw as the magazine’s particular glee in beating up on France’s vulnerable Muslim minority. Read the rest of this entry »