slider top

Why We’re Honoring Charlie Hebdo

By Andrew Solomon and Suzanne Nossel

PEN logo

An organization that champions dissidents must embrace dissent in its ranks. Over the last week, PEN American Center has been criticized by many writers, including some of our members, over our decision to present our PEN/Toni and James C. Goodale Free Expression Courage Award to Charlie Hebdo, the French satirical magazine that was the target of a murderous attack in January. The heated debate proves the relevance of groups devoted to freedom of expression. It also demonstrates that in an open society, well-intentioned people with shared values can interpret and weigh principles differently.

Although censorship has traditionally been the province primarily of governments, attempts to curb speech are likewise undertaken by vigilantes who employ threats and violence. In the last few months we have seen shootings at Charlie Hebdo and at a free-speech event in Copenhagen; the hacking to death of two Bangladeshi atheist bloggers, one of them an American; a death threat against an Australian political cartoonist by jihadists; and the gunning down of a Pakistani social activist.

These audacious attacks aim to terrorize a worldwide audience into silence on subjects that, though sacred to some, affect many others and must not be above debate. While this is hardly the only free-speech issue on PEN’s long agenda of American and global concerns, the spate of homicides gives it particular urgency.

Great satirists — Jonathan Swift, Rabelais, Voltaire, Alexander Pope, Mark Twain, Stanley Kubrick — have all offended and been excoriated for it; Daumier was imprisoned after depicting a grossly overweight king excreting favors. Satire is often vulnerable to being construed as hate speech, especially at first blush. Many contemporary American voices jeer at vulnerabilities as a means of unmasking them — think of Joan Rivers, Richard Pryor, Eddie Murphy, Louis C.K., South Park or The Colbert Report.

Charlie Hebdo’s staff members knew that producing satire aimed at venerated targets was dangerous. Their valor lies in their dauntless fortitude patrolling the outer precincts of free speech. While many question the defense of that far-flung territory because of the bigotry that can lurk there, Charlie Hebdo has guarded it vigilantly, keeping it open for all should a time come when we, too, may need to challenge taboos and risk sacrilege. Without those who stake out the border provinces, we would all be forced to dwell in an ever-shrinking expressive terrain.

Six writers of tremendous distinction — Peter Carey, Teju Cole, Rachel Kushner, Michael Ondaatje, Francine Prose and Taiye Selasi — have sent notes to us indicating that they were not comfortable attending our gala on Tuesday, in light of the award. Many other writers of distinction — including Paul Auster, Adam Gopnik, Siri Hustvedt, Porochista Khakpour, Alain Mabanckou, Azar Nafisi, Salman Rushdie, Simon Schama and Art Spiegelman — have made statements (some in public and some in private) in support of the award. Our goal has been to avoid a reductive binary; this is a nuanced question, and all of these writers have made persuasive moral arguments.

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. The question for us is not whether the cartoons deserve an award for literary merit, but whether they disqualify Charlie Hebdo from a hard-earned award for courage. (The gala on Tuesday will also honor Khadija Ismayilova, an Azerbaijani journalist in jail for exposing rampant corruption.)

Charlie Hebdo’s murdered editorial director, Stéphane Charbonnier, said he aimed to “banalize” all areas of discourse that were too fraught to discuss. He maintained that generations of satire of Catholicism had made the lampooning of it — and thereby, the legitimate discussion of it — unobjectionable, and he felt that the same could be achieved with Islam and other topics.

That the cartoons were not intentionally racist does not preclude their being experienced as racist. Cartoons can and do offend. Yet Christiane Taubira, the black French justice minister who was parodied as a monkey in a cringe-worthy cartoon, delivered a poignant elegy at the funeral of one of her supposed tormentors, Bernard Verlhac, known as Tignous, saying that “Tignous and his companions were sentinels, lookouts, those who watched over democracy,” preventing it from being lulled into complacency.

The leading French anti-racism organization, SOS Racisme, has called Charlie Hebdo “the greatest anti-racist weekly in this country.” Its current editor, Gérard Biard, says it deplores all forms of racism. According to Le Monde, of 523 Charlie Hebdo covers published from 2005 to 2015, only seven singled out Islam for ridicule (ten were cited as mocking multiple religions); many more mocked Christianity and the racism of the French right.

Charlie Hebdo’s cartoons resist religious extremists’ attempts to redraw the boundaries of free speech by using violence. They do so in defense of norms to which free societies subscribe. Anti-Muslim prejudice in the West is a serious matter. So is fundamentalism, Islamist or otherwise. Feeding off one another, both ills threaten civil liberties and tear at social fabrics. But a statement or an award that addresses one problem does not thereby deny or acquiesce to the other. The distressing absence of broad respect toward Muslims in France does not undercut Charlie Hebdo’s bravery in defending the right to be disrespectful.

Andrew Solomon is the president, and Suzanne Nossel the executive director, of PEN American Center.