When PEN decided to award the first PEN/Toni and James C. Goodale Freedom of Expression Courage Award to the French satirical magazine Charlie Hebdo, the group surely thought it was honoring bravery in defense of free speech. This was a magazine that kept publishing after its offices were firebombed by Islamists in 2011, and kept publishing after nine staffers were murdered by Islamists in January. Compare that to, say, Yale University Press, which dropped the illustrations for Jytte Klausen’s book about the Danish Muhammad cartoons after the book’s first printing, or Random House, which canceled publication of Sherry Jones’s The Jewel of Medina, a novel about Muhammad’s wife Aisha. Both publishers cited fears of violence. Those fears were not irrational: The home of the publisher who picked up Jones’s novel was firebombed—and the book was dropped. Violence works.
Courage is not enough, though, for the six novelists—Francine Prose, Teju Cole, Michael Ondaatje, Peter Carey, Rachel Kushner, and Taiye Selasi—who have withdrawn from participation in PEN’s awards gala on May 5. Kushner criticized the magazine’s “cultural intolerance” and support for “a kind of forced secular view.” Writing in The New Yorker after the murders, Cole condemned Charlie Hebdo for racism and Islamophobia. Carey had trouble with the concept of freedom of speech being restricted by anything but government. Salman Rushdie then called the writers “pussies” on Twitter, which didn’t help.
“Charlie Hebdo’s work is not important,” Francine Prose told me. “It’s not interesting.” She said she was offended by Charlie’s crude cartoons of the Prophet and its mockery of the religion of France’s marginalized Muslim community: “It’s a racist publication. Let’s not beat about the bush.” She compared the magazine’s Muslim caricatures to Goebbels’s anti-Semitic propaganda: “I don’t see a difference, really. It’s the same big noses and thick lips.” She pointed out that many dozens of Mexican and Russian journalists had been killed for reporting on government corruption in their countries. Why not honor them? (The imprisoned Azerbaijani journalist Khadija Ismayilova is receiving the night’s other award.)
I’ve known Francine since we were in college, and admire her and her writing enormously. I agree with her that there’s a distinction between supporting freedom of speech and honoring the speech itself. It’s probably safe to say that if PEN believed Charlie was the Völkischer Beobachter of our day, it wouldn’t be giving the magazine an award, no matter how many of its editors had been massacred. I don’t agree that the Muhammad cartoons are in a different key than the magazine’s rude caricatures of the pope or Hasidic rabbis or the Virgin Mary just after being raped by the three kings, but maybe that’s in the eye of the beholder. In any case, Charlie is a small satirical magazine run by aging ’60s leftists who spend the vast bulk of their column inches attacking the National Front and other French conservatives, with frequent jabs at the Catholic Church. Those immersed in French cartoon culture have pointed out that the offensive drawings circulating on the Internet are, in context, the opposite of what they appear to some American readers: not endorsements, but indictments, of the racist and anti-immigrant views of right-wing French politicians. After the murders, Rushdie tweeted that the president of SOS Racisme, the premier anti-racist group in France, had called Charlie Hebdo “the greatest anti-racist weekly in the country.” Justice Minister Christiane Taubira, whom opponents of the award described as “a black woman drawn as a monkey” in its pages, also paid tribute to the magazine.