It’s a simple distinction, but somehow it’s been overlooked by a lot of those who support the decision by PEN to give its “Freedom of Expression” award to Charlie Hebdo. Those who signed the protest against the award (I was one of them) agree that Charlie Hebdo had a right to publish cartoons about Islam, no matter how disgusting, and not be killed for doing it. The question is whether Charlie Hebdo should be given an award for publishing them.

I’ve been a huge fan of Katha Pollitt for decades. In defending the PEN award in The Nation, it’s clear that she understands the distinction here. But a lot of others don’t. For example, David Remnick, editor of The New Yorker, said “It was right to defend Salman Rushdie when he was under attack and it is right to defend those under attack now.” But we all agree that Charlie Hebdo should be defended. The question is whether their cartoons should be celebrated. The writer Kurt Andersen declared that “this is one of those incidents that makes a clear line, and you’re on either one side or the other.” He means that if you’re against the award, you’re for the murderers. Actually I’m not, and neither is Joyce Carol Oates or Rachel Kushner or Peter Carey or Francine Prose, former president of PEN, all signers of the protest letter.

The issue is the cartoons. We are told we don’t understand them; Katha says they are really “indictments of the racist and anti-immigrant views of right-wing French politicians.” Others have said the cartoons “speak truth to power.” The most objectionable one I’ve seen is labeled “Mohammed,” and shows the Prophet naked on his hands and knees with his ass in the air, inviting anal sex; the cartoonist has drawn a star over his anus, and the caption says “a star is born.” In a second cartoon, an ugly naked Mohammed figure in the same pose is asking the director filming him,  “Do you like my ass?”  The line is Brigitte Bardot’s, in Contempt, from 1963, and the director in the cartoon is Jean-Luc Godard–a brilliant reference, but easy to see why young Muslims might not get it.  (you can see the cartoons at )

The Charlie Hebdo cartoons, Katha says, are really “the opposite of what they seem to American readers”; you have to be “immersed in French cartoon culture” to understand them. Maybe so—I’m certainly not. In fact, the context of the cartoon “a star is born” is not hard to find: Charlie Hebdo was commenting on the notorious YouTube video, “The Innocence of Muslims,” released in 2012, which, according to The New York Times, depicts the Prophet Mohammed as “a buffoon, a womanizer, a homosexual, a child molester, and a greedy, bloodthirsty thug.” Charlie Hebdo here seems to be piling on, rather than indicting the French right for racism. It’s hard to imagine that a French Muslim would see these “star is born” cartoons in Charlie Hebdo as anything other than horribly offensive. Sometimes, as Katha says, “the road of excess leads to the palace of wisdom”—but what exactly is the wisdom one arrives at on this particular road?

Garry Trudeau and others criticized Charlie Hebdo for ridiculing the weak and the powerless in France today. In response, Katha argues that the cartoons in fact mock the powerful—fundamentalist Muslim authorities who oppress women. But take a look at those cartoons again; they’re not about defending Muslim women from fundamentalist imams; they are about “Mohammed” inviting anal sex. I doubt that secular or moderate French Muslim women would see these cartoons as representing their views or defending their position; I imagine it would have the opposite effect and draw them back into the fold to defend Islam.

If Hillary Clinton were portrayed in the same pose as Mohammed in these cartoons—naked ass in the air, inviting anal sex—and then some angry feminists shot and killed the editors who published the cartoon, we would all defend the editors’ right to publish. But would PEN give them an award? I doubt it—even though you might say it would take “courage” to publish such a cartoon. As Francine Prose said, I’m glad the ACLU defended the Nazis’ right to march in Skokie, and I’m also glad they didn’t give the Nazis an award for marching in Skokie. (That’s not to say the murdered Charlie Hebdo’s editors were Nazis—they were “aging sixties leftists”—my people!)

And yes it’s true that Charlie Hebdo also ridiculed Christianity and Judaism. But they are not getting an award for ridiculing Christians—and PEN would never give them an award for having the courage to ridicule Jews.