What is Controversial in PEN Award to Charlie Hebdo

Date: 07 May 2015

Region: USA and worldwide

charlie_hebdoThe satirical magazine Charlie Hebdo received the much disputed PEN Freedom of Expression Courage award on Tuesday night in New York.

Despite the opposition of more than 200 of its members and the withdrawal of 6 writers as table heads, PEN American Center, a global literary community protecting free expression and celebrating literature, decided to honour the magazine that suffered the murder of 10 of its editorial staff in the 7 January attacks.

When receiving the award, Gérard Biard, Editor-in-Chief of Charlie Hebdo, said: “I perfectly understand that a believer can be shocked by a satirical cartoon about Mohammed, Jesus, Moses or even the Pope. But growing up to be a citizen, is to learn that some ideas, some words, some images, can be shocking. Being shocked is part of a democratic debate. Being shot is not.”

Some sensibilities should not restrain other people’s opinions – argued Biard and its colleague Jean-Baptiste Thoret – because the magazine’s shocking content actually helps combat those extremists who are against free speech. The two journalists also clarified that that Charlie Hebdo is not against religion, but against the political use of religion.

The PEN decision to honour Charlie Hebdo was far from being unanimous among its members. Two weeks before the gala event, several writers objected it. They claimed that while offensive speech, such as the magazine’s cartoons, must always be protected as free speech, this does not mean that it should be rewarded and celebrated.

The objecting authors wrote an open letter to PEN to dissociate from the award and express their opposition.  “In the aftermath of the attacks,” the letter reads, “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.” The protesting writers believe that the cartoons “cause further humiliation and suffering” to French Muslims who are already “marginalized, embattled, and victimized.”

A heated debate followed.

Among the writers who supported publicly PEN’s decision are Adam Gopnik, staff writer for The New Yorker, and the novelist Salman Rushdie. Rushdie, who was under police protection after a after a fatwa was issued against him, bluntly expressed his disappointment towards the protesting writers on twitter, to then apologise for his words. More articulately he then 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. What I would say to both Peter and Michael and the others is, I hope nobody ever comes after them.”

Francine Prose, who withdrew from the gala together with the novelists Peter Carey, Michael Ondaatje, Teju Cole, Rachel Kushner and Taiye Selasi, expressed her dismay in The Guardian. Declaring herself as a strong defender of the right to free speech, regardless of how racist and disagreeable it is, Prose makes a difference between allowing anyone to express their own opinions and endowing a prize. “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.”

Why didn’t PEN honour Edward Snowden, Chelsea Manning, the Mexican journalist Lydia Cacho, or the Saudi blogger Raif Badawi? They all “have also paid steeply for their courage, but whose ideals are much more progressive than Charlie’s,” says Teju Cole.

In an op-ed contribution in the New York Times, PEN’s President Andrew Solomon and Executive Director Suzanne Nossel explained that “their [Charlie Hebdo’s staff member]  valor lies in their dauntless fortitude patrolling the outer precincts of free speech.” “In offering this award, PEN does not endorse the content or quality of the cartoons, except to say that we do not believe they constitute hate speech,” they said.

Nossel also engaged into a letter exchange with the writer Deborah Eisenberg, where the two meticulously explain their opposite views.

Now, after the bestowing of the award on Tuesday, the PEN controversy can be considered over, but those same questions and arguments will keep being relevant as they are the very centre of the actual debate over the boundaries between freedom of expression and hate speech.