The writers who have decided to boycott the PEN American Center’s annual gala in New York on Tuesday, an event at which the courage of Charlie Hebdo is to be honored, rely on five arguments.
The dissenters cannot, they say, endorse the editorial line of a publication that specializes in “criticizing Islam.”
This argument fails on two counts. It fails first because paying tribute to the courage of a team that fought to the death to defend and embody the values of freedom of expression for which PEN is supposed to stand has, by definition, nothing whatsoever to do with whether one approves or disapproves of its editorial line.
And second it fails because characterizing Charlie Hebdo as a newspaper obsessed with some strain of Islamophobia is an error that the most basic fact-checking could have dispelled: is it really necessary to point out that, of the last 500 covers of the paper, no more than 30 took aim at religion? And that, of those 30, just seven—seven!—took issue with Islam? And that the two most problematic cartoons, those that unleashed, in 2006 and 2015, the worldwide explosion of criminal violence of which the massacre of January 7 was the apogee, did not attack Islam as such but rather that distortion of Islam, that insult to and caricature of Islam that is radical Islam? That is a fact.
Nevertheless, insist 150-odd writers who believe that Charlie Hebdo has already had, as Joyce Carol Oates had the gall to utter, enough publicity, seven, even two, are too many. Especially when we are dealing with caricatures inspired (sic) by “hate” and “racism.”
This argument reveals complete ignorance about the history of a paper that has always been in the forefront of the struggle against racism, as expressed in its support for SOS Racisme in the 1990s, its organization of large democratic rallies in the early Sarkozy years, and its firing of the cartoonist Siné for anti-Semitism. It also attests to a misunderstanding of freedom of thought and of the First Amendment, as well as of the boundary that divides criticism of an idea from hostility to those who hold it; the deconstruction of dogma from calls to murder those who follow that dogma; and the gentle Cabu, who poked fun at all systems of belief and all forms of bigotry, from the former actor Dieudonné, who misses the days when the Jewish journalists he doesn’t like could be marched off to a gas chamber.
Argument number three: We accept the boundary, they say. But it is tenuous, fragile. And when you’re dealing with a community that is itself fragile and vulnerable because it still bears wounds from the humiliations of the colonial era, prudence is called for. Let us skip over this vision, itself exquisitely humiliating, of a community reduced to a bunch of simple-minded individuals punch-drunk from poverty and incapable of understanding that the famous drawing of a benevolent human prophet, an apostle of kindness and tolerance, who was frustrated that it was “hard to be loved by idiots,” did not stigmatize the prophet’s message but amplified and saved it.
This habit of consigning Muslims to the colonial past of their grandparents, of declaring that a certain segment of the French population of which “a large percentage” are “devout Muslims” (how much do the boycotters really know about this?) were “shaped by the legacy of France’s various colonial enterprises” and that this is the source of their suffering today, has one effect and one only: to distract us from the other possible causes of that suffering; to divert the attention of those sufferers from the abuses of power of, for example, imams trained in Qatar, Saudi Arabia, or Yemen; and, along the way, to ignore the very real humiliation represented by the spectacle of assassins executing courageous journalists in the name of the Quran.
The fourth argument is no less than shameful. It is the argument of arrogance. Yes, you read that right. The word was indeed spoken. As if this little newspaper, penniless from its origins, libertarian by temperament and doctrine, hostile to all forms of power and self-importance, somehow falls on the dark side of power because only one of the 12 victims (copyeditor Moustapha Ourrad) was from the community “marginalized and victimized” by the neocolonial arrogance of France. As if, in a mirror image, the assassins were somehow on the side of resistance against that power, on the side of the victimized and humiliated.
I’m sorry, American friends, but it was by the same reasoning that many Europeans hesitated, on September 11, 2001, to take the side of the 2,958 victims of the attacks carried out by 19 representatives of the “party of the humiliated” against the world capital of “imperialism.” And it is the same reasoning that I myself confronted when, the following year, I carried out my investigation into the death of Daniel Pearl, that other young hero who, like the editor of Charlie Hebdo, preferred to die on his feet rather than live on his knees but who made the mistake, in the eyes of the French equivalents of Francine Prose, Rachel Kushner, and Teju Cole, of being (i) Jewish, (ii) American, and (iii) a correspondent for a newspaper that they saw as a symbol of the reigning power.
And now for the last argument, which would be laughable if the situation were not so tragic. According to Australian novelist Peter Carey, two-time winner of the Booker Prize, PEN is called upon to defend a writer only when he or she is a victim of censorship … by a government!
By that standard, so much for essayist Ayaan Hirsi Ali, who is threatened not by the Dutch government but by the killer of Theo Van Gogh and his followers from the red mosque of Islamabad. By the same standard, must we abandon Taslima Nasreen, who has lived for 20 years under threat, not from the now secular government of Bangladesh, but from the fundamentalists hordes of the entire Indian subcontinent? And how should the writers of the United States and world have reacted if Salman Rushdie, once the Iranian government lifted its fatwa, had been seriously threatened by nongovernmental jihadists affiliated, for example, with Al Qaeda or the so-called Islamic State?
I think back to PEN’s timidity in the face of the Stalinist terror of the 1930s and the post-Stalinist terror of the 1950s.
And to the deplorable Congress of Dubrovnik of 1933, at which the predecessors of Peter Carey refused to take a position against the book-burnings in Germany.
The truth, the sad and terrible truth, is that we are once again in the midst of one of those episodes of collective blindness—or fear—of which the intellectual history of the last century gave us so many examples.
The differences are that, this time, the scene is not Europe but the United States and that the party of courage, honor, and decency seems, for the moment, to have won out.
But for how long?
Translated from the French by Steven B. Kennedy.