In circulation is a petition in which members of PEN are disassociating themselves from the decision of the PEN American Center to honor the French satirical magazine, Charlie Hebdo, with the Freedom of Expression Courage Award. By the most recent count, it has 145 signatures, and has been signed by esteemed authors such as Teju Cole, Junot Díaz, Joyce Carol Oates, and the poet Charles Simic.
Why? While the petition begins by acknowledging the tragedy of the murder of many of Charlie Hebdo’s staff in January, it calls the decision to recognize Charlie Hebdo “disheartening” for “valorizing selectively offensive material” that intensifies “anti-Islamic” and “anti-Arab sentiments.”
The petition not only accuses Charlie Hebdo of being Islamophobic and racist, it claims that its depictions of Muhammad “must be seen as being intended to cause further humiliation and suffering [emphasis added]” to a “section of the French population that is already marginalized, embattled, and victimized.” In other words, through their powers of clairvoyance, the signatories claim to know the malignant intent of the cartoonists.
While this feud might seem like an inconsequential dust-up between literary figures over politics, aesthetics, and other abstractions that make this disagreement over rival interpretations practically insoluble, the validity of the accusations is actually uniquely testable.
First, the charge of racism. While it is superficially true that many of the cartoons indulge in stereotypical caricatures, such drawings are meant to stress their absurdity in order to undermine the imagery and rhetoric deployed by the French right.
One example is the depiction of French Justice Minister Christiane Taubira, born in French Guiana, as a monkey. However, this cartoon was a response to an image shared on Facebook by a National Front politician who not only endorsed a drawing of Taubira as a lower primate, but who declared on French television that she should be “in a tree swinging from the branches rather than in government.”
At the funeral for Bernard Verlhac, the Charlie Hebdo cartoonist who parodied the original, genuinely racist drawing of her, Mme. Taubira praised him and his colleagues, calling them “sentinels…who watched over democracy.”
Another cartoon depicts pregnant sex slaves of Boko Haram shouting, “Don’t touch our welfare!” in order to lampoon the notion that indolent, terrorist-spawning immigrants are abusing the generosity of the French welfare state.
Many of Charlie Hebdo’s cartoons undermine racism in this way, though its subtleties and allusions are lost on its critics, including the signatory Jon Wiener, whose confessed unfamiliarity with French culture did not stop him from defaming the magazine for its “disgusting cartoons.”
It is for this reason that, following the initial dissent by six PEN members against the organization’s announcement to honor Charlie Hebdo, the president of SOS Racisme, a leading anti-racism organization in France, wrote that “Charlie Hebdo is the greatest anti-racist weekly in this country.”
Finally, the evidence against the charge of racism and “anti-Maghreb” sentiment (the Maghreb is the region of North Africa west of Egypt) can simply be found by looking at Charlie Hebdo’s staff – past and present. Among the victims was Mustapha Ourrad, an Algerian-born copyeditor for the magazine who apparently was not “shaped by the legacy of France’s various colonial enterprises” in the same way that the murderous Kouachi brothers were, whose parents also descended from Algeria (a former French colony). The same is true for Ali Dilem, an Algerian-born cartoonist who joined Charlie Hebdo in February 2015.
Even more tenuous is the accusation that Charlie Hebdo is Islamophobic. According to a study by the French newspaper Le Monde, which analyzed 523 of its covers from 2005 to 2015, only seven pertained to Islam (as compared to 21 for Christianity). What better scientific and empirical rebuttal is there to accusations like the one from Al Jazeera America commentator Rafia Zakaria that “[t]he magazine has a history of singling out Muslims for jabs and ridicule.”
While most of these cartoons do depict Muhammad, some of them self-evidently challenge rather than perpetuate the notion that Islam is a violent religion. One cartoon following the violent reaction to the Danish cartoon scandal features Muhammad weeping with the words “Muhammad overwhelmed by fundamentalists” and “It’s tough being loved by idiots.”
Another cartoon shows a black-clad ISIS fighter beheading Muhammad who pleads, “I’m the prophet, idiot!” to which his executioner replies, “Shut up, infidel!” It is difficult to interpret the cartoon in any other way but as implying that ISIS is an organization of zealots who are misapplying the teachings of its founder.
While some Muslims in France were appalled by the cartoons – one kebab store owner told a reporter that he thought the cartoons “hurt” and that people should “leave religions alone” – many Muslims expressed solidarity with Charlie Hebdo and defended its right of free expression.
One Muslim butcher in Paris told a reporter for The Local, “[T]hey can do what they want.” Commenting on his station in French society, he added, “The Muslim community isn’t in danger, I don’t think I am or my family.”
As Adam Gopnik pointed out in The New Yorker, perhaps no group in France has been more marginalized – while also facing direct violent attacks — than the staff of Charlie Hebdo (in 2012, it had a circulation of only 60,000, compared to a French Muslim population of approximately six million). Its members – ornaments of the 1968-era of left-wing anarchism and dissent — have not only “punched up” (to quote Charlie Hebdo critic and cartoonist Garry Trudeau) but have also “punched out” in all directions at nearly every constituency of French society.
Gopnik writes of Charlie Hebdo:
Few groups in recent French history have been more passionately “minoritarian”—more marginalized or on the outs with the political establishment, more vitriolic in their mockery of power, more courageous in ridiculing people of far greater influence and power. They were always punching up at idols and authorities.
Indeed, Charlie Hebdo’s implicit mission is to challenge all claims to authority, infallibility, and sanctity. As the new editor-in-chief, Gerard Biard, said following the attack, “If we say to religion, ‘You are untouchable,’ we’re fucked.”
Herein lies Charlie Hebdo’s distinct social value that needs affirmation. Charlie Hebdo has been one of the few magazines to refuse to cower to threats of violence or supplications to use free speech “responsibly.” (In the past, Charlie Hebdo has brilliantly satirized this notion by printing a “responsible” edition with blank columns and empty image boxes.)
The magazine’s great service is to puncture the taboo around criticizing Islam, a religion, as Christopher Hitchens often put it, that “makes rather large claims for itself.” Sheltering any ideology – especially a religion with a war-making founder and holy texts that, according to mainstream interpretation, sanction violence, religious intolerance, and laws that treat women, homosexuals, and non-believers unequally if not unjustly – is inherently dangerous.
This taboo has been enforced from all sides and in various forms: leaders of the United States, the United Kingdom, and France itself, for instance, insist that Islam is a religion of peace and offers no justification for violence. The world’s largest Islamic organization, the OIC, lobbied the United Nations to pass a resolution banning the defamation of religion. Critics of Islam such as Ayaan Hirsi Ali, Pamela Geller, and Bill Maher are protested and shouted down as guest speakers – that is, when they are not disinvited.
Moreover, Muslim advocacy groups such as the OIC, CAIR, and other organizations track and smear critics of religion like Sam Harris and Robert Spencer as “Islamophobes” to muzzle and shame them through litigation, public pressure, and blacklisting. Artists and bloggers from Scandinavia to Bangladesh are killed for criticizing and mocking Islam’s foundational doctrines and figures, and when these massacres over cartoons occur, most of the mainstream media choose not to show them out of “respect” and fear (but, upholding its high standard of propriety, the New York Times will show an image of the blood-soaked offices where Charlie Hebdo’s staff was gunned down).
The media practices self-censorship to protect Islam from criticism in other ways. On the BBC in the U.K., for instance, Douglas Murray observed after the Charlie Hebdo massacre that there is a prophetic precedent and thus a theological justification for the assassination of critics of Muhammad, since Muhammad once ordered the death of (among others) a poetess who had mocked him, Asma bint Marwan. Murray’s debate partner in this segment, a Muslim activist working to de-radicalize extremists, insisted Murray was wrong and refused to proceed until the BBC agreed to edit that comment out of their pre-recorded discussion. The BBC obliged.
It is impossible to have an intelligent debate about Islam and the actions of its followers with so much political correctness, intimidation, and violence swirling about. Charlie Hebdo’s contribution has been to counteract the aura of taboo and self-censorship – if through nothing else than by reminding the West that while Islam may prohibit graphical depictions of the prophet, in secular societies, individuals are not encumbered by these religious injunctions. But, one may ask, is crude humor the best way to preserve and exercise free expression in the market of ideas?
Writing in January, IVN contributor Michael Austin makes a distinction between satire and mockery: satire criticizes behavior to steer it toward improving humanity, he claims, while mockery is just cheap, easy ridicule. The former is constructive; the latter “has virtually no value as a form of persuasion.”
I, on the other hand, side with Thomas Jefferson – at least when it comes to the value of mockery toward religious belief. Commenting on his own rhetorical approach to addressing the arcane concept of the trinity, he wrote, “Ridicule is the only weapon which can be used against unintelligible propositions. Ideas must be distinct before reason can act upon them.”
Phrased in this way, mockery is not opposed to satire or even reasoned criticism; it can enable it, especially in an era where many Westerners are receptive to the allure of anodyne platitudes that promise moderation, consensus, and the supposed end of ideological warfare between competing secular worldviews and religious dogmatisms. But, to repeat Gerard Biard, “If we say to religion, ‘You are untouchable,’ we’re fucked.”
So, not only are the PEN petitioners wrong about the charges of racism and Islamophobia, they are also wrong to imply that Charlie Hebdo’s content disqualifies it for the award (no one, to my knowledge, has stated the magazine lacks the courage for which it is primarily being recognized). In an age of unaccountable politicians and the growing power of reactionaries – from far-right parties to religious fundamentalists – as well as the babel of euphemistic language that shelters them, Charlie Hebdo’s directness, iconoclasm, and omnidirectional social criticism deserve to be celebrated. They deserve this award.