The frat-boy humour magazine Charlie Hebdo is unfortunately back in the news. Six writers who were scheduled to be ‘table hosts’ at the annual PEN American Center gala in New York – tickets start at $1250 – have refused to attend after it was announced that the surviving staff of Charlie was to be awarded the PEN/Toni and James C. Goodale Freedom of Expression Courage Award at the dinner. The response to the six has been almost uniformly negative. Salman Rushdie, for one, who has turned PEN American into his little fiefdom, charmingly tweeted that they are ‘pussies’. Others have even accused the writers of being apologists for terrorism.
Any discussion of Charlie must begin with the requisite throat-clearing. Of course one believes in absolute freedom of speech. Of course the murder of the magazine’s cartoonists and editors was deplorable. But the question here is not whether they are victims of free speech – of course they are – but whether they are heroes of free speech, deserving of a prize for ‘courage’. To put it another way: Are they Pim Fortuyn or Martin Luther King?
They are indeed courageous for ‘soldiering on amid devastating loss’, as a PEN statement puts it. The same is equally true for many hate groups, terrorist cells and so on. But an award to Charlie celebrates them not only for continuing to speak. It implicitly affirms that what they have to say is valuable.
Charlie’s defenders tend to make three arguments: first, that they are the continuation of a long line of French satirists, from Voltaire on. (To which one can only sigh: poor France!) Second, that they are ‘equal opportunity’ offenders. This neatly avoids the fact that, for a bunch of white guys in a Catholic country, making fun of the pope is not the same as categorising a beleaguered minority in that country as moronic towel-heads. Third, we have been told that Charlie is actually anti-racist. When they portray the minister of justice, Christiane Taubira, who is black, as a monkey, or the pregnant sex slaves of Boko Haram as welfare queens, they are not satirising black people, but white people who vilify black people. It’s a fine distinction, no doubt lost on anyone who is not white.
If PEN wants to award the courageous, there are many in the world who are facing imprisonment, exile and death for leaking government documents, exposing corruption and repression, genuinely speaking out in the name of freedom of expression. This PEN award is merely the latest instance in the now-rampant free expression of gentlemanly Islamophobia.