Writers split over freedom of expression award for ‘Charlie Hebdo’


Published on 3 May, 2015 in Scroll.in

The PEN award amounts to supporting the content of the satirical magazine, argue a growing number of dissenting authors.

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Support versus reward. It is this question that has brought about a fissure among authors following the decision of PEN America to honour the French magazine Charlie Hebdo with the PEN/Toni and James C. Goodale Freedom of Expression Courage Award on May 5.

Following the lead of six well-known authors to drop out of the list of 60 hosts – all writers – at the PEN gala where the award is to be given, a total of 145 writers, and counting, have distanced themselves from the decision to honour Charlie Hebdo. The six authors are Peter Carey, Michael Ondaatje, Francine Prose, Teju Cole, Rachel Kushner and Taiye Selasi.

Widespread opposition

What began as a selective protest, therefore, has now spread into a wider movement of writers questioning PEN’s choice on the grounds that it is one thing to support freedom of expression, and quite another to endorse what is being said through an award. Among the 145 writers, besides the six named, are Deborah Baker, Siddhartha Deb, Eve Ensler, Ru Freeman, Uzma Aslam Khan, Amitava Kumar, Joyce Carol Oates, Kamila Shamsie and Padma Venkatraman.

Their fundamenal argument: while Charlie Hebdo’s cartoons were considered satire and part of its strategy of being an equal opportunities offender, this equal opportunity led to unequal effects in an unequal society. The joint statement by the protesting writers says:

Our concern is that, by bestowing the Toni and James C. Goodale Freedom of Expression Courage Award on Charlie Hebdo, PEN is not simply conveying support for freedom of expression, but also valorizing selectively offensive material: material that intensifies the anti-Islamic, anti-Maghreb, anti-Arab sentiments already prevalent in the Western world.

American short-story writer Deborah Eisenberg questioned PEN’s decision in an email by openly claiming that the magazine’s work is “intended merely as representative mockery of any and all religions.” In her letter to PEN’s Executive Director Suzanne Nossel she wrote, “But freedom of expression too, is a very broad designation. Anything at all can be expressed, and just because something is expressed doesn’t ensure that it has either virtue or meaning.”

Nigerian-American writer Teju Cole too made it a point to clarify his position in a statement he gave to The Intercept: “I support Rushdie 100%, but I don’t want to sit in a room and cheer Charlie Hebdo.” He wished to reserve any further comments when we approached him for an elaborate response.

Rushdie takes on the naysayers

Soon after the six authors pulled out from the literary gala, author Salman Rushdie criticised their stance in a Facebook post. Rushdie has been a PEN president in the past and who better than him would understand being the victim of an attack on freedom of expression, after having spent over a decade in hiding after the Iranian theocrat Ayatollah Khomeini issued a fatwa against him for writing The Satanic Verses (1988).

PEN American’s decision remains unaltered. Suzanne Nossel in her email response to Eisenberg did make an attempt to reason with the nature of their selection: “It is work available to us, not the objectives behind it, which we experience and judge.”

The events of January 7, 2015, when two hooded gunmen forced themselves into the office of Charlie Hebdo, the French satirical weekly newspaper in Paris, and sprayed the air with bullets that left ten staff members (columnists, cartoonists and its editor-in-chief Stéphane Charbonnier) and two security personnel dead, led to a furious debate almost immediately, with opinions anticipating the current divide amongst writers.

Rushdie himself has been unequivocal in his disapproval of the stance taken by those opposing the award to Charlie Hebdo. Writing when it was still the six original protesters who had made their position being public, Rushdie said, “These six writers have made themselves the fellow travellers of that project. Now they will have the dubious satisfaction of watching PEN tear itself apart in public.”

Nuanced conflict

PEN had stated explicitly that the award is to “affirm the principles” that the magazine stands for and not a statement of agreement with its contents. In a sense, therefore, those in favour of the award do not necessarily disagree with the contention that Charlie Hebdo’s cartoons may well have appeared offensive to groups of people already marginalised and deprived of equality.

Their argument is that the heinous crime of murdering the Charlie Hebdo cartoonists demands the strongest possible statement of support for freedom of expression, without making exceptions for the supposedly mitigating circumstances of those who considered themselves offended and chose to kill in retaliation. It is a difficult argument to counter.

So, while the objections of the 145 writers protesting against the award also carry their own inexorable logic, their decision cannot have been easy, for they are no less firm in their support of free speech either. Personal friendships between certain writers may be under pressure as a result of the difference in their positions. But will this crack in the wall against intolerance widen in the future?

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