Charlie Hebdo, PEN and the “wrong” kind of free speech

Teju Cole, Rachel Kushner, Peter Carey, Michael Ondaatje, Taiye Selasi and Francine Prose are very clever people. Kushner’s The Flamethrowers, for example, is one of the most dazzlingly brilliant novels in years. So you would think that at least one of them could muster a justification for their decision to withdraw from the forthcoming PEN gala, at which Charlie Hebdo will receive the annual Freedom of Expression Courage Award, that wouldn’t make you want to bang your head against your desk. Apparently not.

Explanations have come in dribs and drabs. The longest, and worst, was published yesterday by Francine Prose — a former PEN President, no less. It opens with a classic case of the Liar’s But, where the whole paragraph preceding “but” is disingenuous blather: “tragic murders”, “nothing but sympathy”, “abhor censorship”, blah blah blah. This is the language of the politician, not the novelist, lacking both intellectual honesty and emotional truth. It’s only there to pay lip-service to the nine staff members murdered by Islamist gunmen on January 7 so that Prose can get on with the business of denigrating them.

At least she doesn’t indulge in victim-blaming to the grotesque extent that Garry Trudeau did recently, but she saves her most offensive claim till last. “The narrative of the Charlie Hebdo murders – white Europeans killed in their offices by Muslim extremists – is one that feeds neatly into the cultural prejudices that have allowed our government to make so many disastrous mistakes in the Middle East.” Narrative. Neatly. No doubt the victims would have preferred a more ambiguous story arc as long as it left them still breathing. The flipside of Prose’s claim is that the “narrative” is inconvenient for her. (Even in edited form: she fails to mention that copy editor Mustapha Ourrad was Algerian-French; that the Kouachi brothers also killed a maintenance worker and two police officers, one of whom was a Muslim; and that their friend Amedy Coulibaly murdered four customers in a kosher supermarket because they were Jewish.) Just because Islamophobes capitalised on the fact that Islamist extremists went on a killing spree, it doesn’t mean that Islamist extremists didn’t go on a killing spree. Prose is right to say that the murders were seized upon by people with an axe to grind and “many innocent Muslims have been tarred with the brush of Islamic extremism”. But all tragedies are politicised, and the subsequent opportunism doesn’t change the facts. This was a religious execution.

In his statement, Teju Cole brought up the Rushdie affair. “L’affaire Rushdie (for example) was a very different matter, as different as blasphemy is from racism. I support Rushdie 100%, but I don’t want to sit in a room and cheer Charlie Hebdo. This distinction seems to have been difficult for people to understand.” Leaving aside Cole’s contentious claim that the magazine was flat-out racist, it’s a distinction that the Kouachis themselves didn’t make. They weren’t machine-gunning cartoonists for the crimes of racism or Islamophobia. Even the most vile and unapologetic racists are very rarely murdered. No, they were punishing the crime of blasphemy. I’d be interested to learn of any other cases, in any other countries, in which PEN members have snubbed journalists who were murdered on this basis.

One of the great fallacies in the debate about Charlie Hebdo, articulated by Garry Trudeau, is the binary distinction between punching up and punching down, as if there were a ladder of power and a simple diagram to decide between “good” and “bad” satire. If you think the magazine was only attacking French Muslims, then it was punching down, but its obvious target was religious fundamentalism. In the era of Islamic State, Boko Haram and Wahhabism, it’s idiotic to equate religious extremism with powerlessness. Teju Cole listed some people he felt were more deserving of the award, including persecuted Saudi blogger Raif Badawi. Does he not realise that Badawi’s enemies are the same as Charlie Hebdo’s? If the Kouachis had been raised in Saudi Arabia rather than France, they would be the kind of men who would be flogging Badawi with enthusiasm. Outside of rock-solid dictatorships like North Korea, there is no force more brutally intolerant of freedom of expression.

So why does Prose believe Charlie Hebdo doesn’t deserve the award? “Our job, in presenting an award, is to honour writers and journalists who are saying things that need to be said, who are working actively to tell us the truth about the world in which we live.” Well, murderous extremism in the name of God is, unfortunately, a truth about the world in which we live. “That is important work that requires perseverance and courage.” OK. Even if you hate the Charlie Hebdo staff, you’d have to grant them those two qualities. But wait. “And this is not quite the same as drawing crude caricatures and mocking religion.” Why is this not the same? She doesn’t say. Pussy Riot made crude music and offended religious believers by performing in a church, but nobody boycotted their award last year. And isn’t there something insidious about suggesting that mocking religion is unworthy? Unnecessary? Progressives usually go to the barricades to insist that mocking religion is a valid form of freedom of speech.

I’ve genuinely been trying to understand why these six writers feel compelled to take a stand against Charlie Hebdo — why they cannot bear even to sit in the same room while the award is being presented. Perhaps they suspect that PEN is secretly led by racists and neocons with a grudge against Islam. Perhaps they really believe that the magazine, whose regular targets included the political elite and the Front National, was an intolerably racist enterprise. To illustrate the distinction between tolerating speech and endorsing it, Prose actually stooped to a comparison with neo-Nazis in Illinois; Deborah Eisenberg went further and mentioned Julius Streicher’s Der Stürmer. There must be something that has led them to throw a basic principle under the bus. Jo Glanville, director of English PEN, clarified that principle in a blogpost yesterday:

Charlie Hebdo is in fact being recognised for its courage: the courage to publish in the face of threats and intimidation, and the courage to continue publishing after the shocking murders in January. We are more used to seeing that courage at a greater distance – in Mexico, Russia, Bangladesh or Egypt – and feel safe celebrating writers and journalists who may be prosecuted for outraging public morals in their own culture. On our own doorstep, when faced with a satirical publication that provokes and offends, there is an underlying view implicit in the protest of Peter Carey and fellow writers that this kind of speech is not worth defending.… Yet one of the most important, if uncomfortable, responsibilities for any free speech advocate is to defend the right to express speech which may be shocking, disturbing or offensive. Without that broad defence, the limits of everyone’s speech, as well as writers and publishers, are at risk of being restricted to suit the political agenda or prevailing morality, at a cost to artistic licence as well as individual freedom.

Charlie Hebdo is not being honoured because it was doing the bravest, most important work in the world — braver and more important than the work of Cole’s preferred candidates, including Edward Snowden and Chelsea Manning. It is not being honoured for its unfailingly progressive values and always punching in the “right” direction. It is being honoured because nine staff members and contributors were murdered in cold blood by fanatics who found their cartoons offensive. I struggle to come up with a definition of freedom of speech, or of courage, that doesn’t cover what they did, and the price they paid for it.

Salman Rushdie has sharply criticised the six. He knows full well what it’s like to not be the perfect poster-boy for freedom of speech. During the Satanic Verses affair, Roald Dahl, John le Carré and John Berger accused him of reckless arrogance and “insensitivity”. Former president Jimmy Carter called the novel “a direct insult to those millions of Moslems whose sacred beliefs have been violated”. Le Carré has since apologised and those attacks, levelled at a man facing a death sentence for writing a novel, now seem horribly misguided. Not because he wasn’t arrogant (he is rather) or insensitive (that was the point), but because they tried to make him less worthy of solidarity from fellow writers. It was the “wrong” kind of free speech, just as Charlie Hebdo’s is. Such criticisms are absolutely valid in the pages of the TLS or the NYRB but when lives are threatened or taken, the arithmetic changes. There’s an obligation to try to separate matters of taste from questions of principle.

My question for the six boycotters is this: if you cannot physically bear to sit in a room and show solidarity with people who have been murdered for drawing cartoons — murder being the most terminal form of censorship — then what is the point of belonging to PEN at all?


  1. Great article. When I first read Prose’s piece the word which leapt out at me was “narrative”. I found it disturbing, but couldn’t quite put my finger on why. Thank you for articulating my sense of unease.

    The strange thing is, I thought the Charlie Hebdo murders would, once and for all, reveal a dividing line between liberals and reactionaries (for want of a better term): actual cartoonists – cartoonists! – actually being gunned down in the actual centre of an actual Western European city, all for blasphemy. I suppose it has done, just not quite in the way I expected.

  2. I fully agree with everything you’ve written here, excellent stuff.

  3. RE: “I’ve genuinely been trying to understand why these six writers feel compelled to take a stand against Charlie Hebdo — why they cannot bear even to sit in the same room while the award is being presented.”

    Allow me to suggest an explanation: they are, despite, if not, indeed partly because of, the “cleverness” you say they possess, still a group of moral morons. I don’t think that a person so morally lost as these six are can in fact be anything even remotely resembling a notable and important author. They’re hacks because, as their pathetically ridiculous arguments indicate, before a signal moral challenge, they fail miserably.

  4. Perhaps,as well as being confused by the important right to give offence (without being racist) , they are simply scared of being killed ?

  5. Reblogged this on Eyes Like Squares.

  6. “I disapprove of what you say, but I will defend to the death your right to say it.” Can’t put it any better.

  7. Thank you for this brilliant article. I rarely concur with writers of opinion pieces entirely but in this case I can’t find a single point I would not agree on. Excellent.

  8. Excellent indeed. One minor typo: no “e” at the end of “Front National”

    • Thanks. Will change.

      • Great piece, would it be cruel to ask for some paragraph breaks?

  9. Reblogged this on Fallacy hunting.

  10. liberals say conservatives are evil; conservatives say liberals are stupid. These are the Stupid Six.

  11. PEN has honored Amiri Baraka. Was there any condemnation by any of these people then. Certain leftists seem more concerned with the idea CH has a pro-Jewish/anti-Muslim bias (which is also free speech) then the fact 4 people were massacred by a black Muslim for being Jewish. You notice those complaining about racism never bring that one up. If Jews massacred media outlets with an anti-Jewish/pro-Muslim bias 100% of the Islamic media and 99.5% of the western leftist media would be gone.

  12. You are confusing consequences with outputs.

  13. When the Charlie Hebdo murders took place I was doing some work at a weekly print magazine with a satirical cartoon on the cover. I suggested we pen something in a tribute to our fallen comrades. The Editor point blank refused. “It’s got nothing to do with us..” he said.

  14. Merci. Thank you for this brilliant paper. I totally agree. If you can read French, I recommend this interview of Luz, one of the CH redaction who was late. It’s intelligent, and could explain CH’s spirit – which, as anything else, is not simple, caricatural, regimented…

  15. That was good and clear, bravo! You get the impression that there are an awful lot of people out there whose moral compasses are spinning crazily in a storm of fear and self-righteousness.

  16. Yeah the Hebdo thing kinda made me ponder over the subject of censorship, both the directly imposed variety and the self censorship that arises from coercion. That coercion is usually not quite so direct as the threat of bullet to the head but it’s much more prevalent than it ever used to be. It’s so prevalent that it seems that the only expressions of idea or opinion I do encounter, that are not fettered by circumspection, are those conveying the threats and sanctioning the atrocities associated with coercive censorship.

    Obviously the situation is different in France, quite how different I’m not sure, what I am sure of is that, anyone here, who wanted to publish the kind of material published in Hebdo would face quite heavy state sponsored sanction. This is where things start to concern me because that sanction wouldn’t necessarily be, according to the de jure status regarding censorship. The state here, no longer restricts itself to such legal resources to acquire such goals but instead is likely to utilize more diverse threats to subdue expression. I’m not that interested in publishing Hebdo like material or even scrawling it into graffiti but those threats impinge the personal liberties of everyone.

  17. Brilliantly put. Articulates what we’re all thinking so well.

  18. I see mocking Islamic fundamentalism not only as a freedom, but as a necessity. The Jihadis attract in the West by presenting the lure of “coolness”, violent resisters willing to take on the corrupt west. Tough Guys, who know the Truth, and won’t simply behave as they are told by society.
    Deploy that on angst-ridden disaffected youths, and yes, some of them will sign on.
    Mockery is a weapon against this. It is not enough to portray them as dangerous and violent- that’s part of their attraction! Portraying them as silly and stupid, on the other hand, hurts. THAT is why they react to that, above all other things.
    What Spike Jones, Charlie Chaplin, Walt Disney, and other artists of many genres did to Nazism in the 30’s and 40’s is what ought to be done to AQ, ISIS, Boko and company today.

  19. Reblogged this on danniecool.

  20. Honoring their reward would give them martyr status, which can only come if killed at the hand of some type of evil or oppressor. They aren’t willing to accept that the killers did so in the name of Islam, thus they aren’t willing to accept that the writers died for anything meaningful.

    • *award

  21. Ahsud

  22. ey this was a really nice and eye catching article. I have written a short nine chapter story and I’m still posting it. Please feel free to visit my account and check it out, it would mean a lot to me. Also leave feedback so i may know how you feel about the story. Have a lovely day. I hope to being friend with you. Follow me to get new chapters. Keep up the goodwork! Practice makes perfect. Thanks in advance!

  23. Interesting article and I agree with a lot of what you have written. However, if you try to see things from the Six perspective there’s nothing else they could really do. Say if you do believe that the Charlie Hebdo work was frequently racist, hate inciting, or broadly painting a whole culture with the same brush, or maybe even all of the above, you would find it against your morals to have to celebrate their work.

    Because you cannot honour their bravery in this case without honouring their work.

    If you truly believed that their articles and cartoons were against everything you believed then you have just as much right to refuse to celebrate it as they had to write it in the first place.

    Just an alternative view. The power of the spoken word is a tremendous thing, perhaps these six can not bear to add their voice to the Charlie Hebdo’s work.

    • It is really hard for me to view CH the way the six do – ‘frequently racist, hate inciting, or broadly painging a whole culture with the same brush’ – because this is against the evident truth. CH were not bigots of any kind. To persist in seeing them so in the face of overwhelming evidence against this, points to a mindset in the 6 that is extremely worrying. A mindset that sets a ‘narrative’, a pre-existing construct, above verifiable facts. If we cannot react to actual reality as it unfolds and instead look must look inwardly to ‘narratives’ , we are lost. In their own erudite, literary way, these writers have become what they have tried not to be – bigots.

      • I’m afraid you can’t have it both ways. You can’t with one hand allow CH to express themselves in a way which, which did frequently make perfectly valid cultures feel undermined or attacked albeit not intentionally, and then with the other forbid the 6 to express themselves. Free speech is free speech. Just because you can’t see their point of view doesn’t make them a bigot any more than it makes CH racist. At the end of the day we can only do and support causes that we can live with. The 6 cannot support CH.

    • Personally I have no problem with the six, and their dozens of supporters, expressing their opinion. I just think it’s profoundly wrong and the evidence of CH’s racism is flimsy, in some cases based on a complete misreading of the cartoons.

      • I guess what you see as misreading and flimsy is the foundation of their argument. All literature and art is open to interpretation, what you see is not what they see. I applaud anyone who stands up for what they believe in, expecting them to always be right is another matter!

  24. Reblogged this on oddrops and commented:
    Excellent piece on the six wankers…

  25. nice

  26. “That is important work that requires perseverance and courage.And this is not quite the same as drawing crude caricatures and mocking religion.”

    God those lines infuriate me on so many levels. So, the tacit insinuation is that it is courageous of Prose to withdraw from PEN because of what she believes in (which is not Charlie Hebdo’s work) but not so courageous for Charlie Hebdo to have braved repeated threats to life from Islamic fundamentalists for what they believed in? Is she just being contrary for the heck of it or am I missing a crucial point hidden somewhere under those tons of holier-than-thou self righteousness?

    And which moral yardstick are they measuring the ‘crudeness’ of Charlie Hebdo’s work on? Where exactly does murdering/beheading innocents fall on that yardstick? Even debating what may or may not be made fun of, and whether religion falls under the may-not category, what’s cruder than that really?

    Stellar article, loved it!

  27. I agree with your perspective. At the time of the attack, there seemed to be a push for solidarity around freedom of speech /expression. I thought of playground fights – one kid picks on another or says something negative about the others mom. The other pushes or punches and causes an injury. Who is at fault, who is to blame?

  28. Right on!

    I wonder if the name Neville Chamberlain comes to anyone else’s mind when reading this protest letter. Where is the line between so-called sensitivity and appeasement? How does one call out and defy Muslim fundamentalist terrorists — whose main victims are other Muslims — except through speech, including blasphemous speech in the form of cartoons? And if one lives and works in France, then where else does one speak? Or, as members of PEN, are they actually advocating that the CH cartoonists and others pull their punches, to use Gary Trudeau’s metaphor, rather than fully express themselves, where anything to do with Islam is concerned? And who else will they deem worthy of a paternalistically pulled punch? How about a mandatory p.c. Trigger Warning on all forthcoming issues of CH?

  29. I did a whole module on controversies and censorship at University and Charlie Hebdo came up A LOT! Good to hear your perspective. Personally I feel tat cartoons are difficult: they are by nature light hearted and intended as humour, but can you truly be humorous about any religion?

    • Of course you can, otherwise you’re bowing to the restrictions imposed by religious leaders. Religion cannot be immune from mockery.

  30. A great thought provoking read!

  31. I’d like to point out that the Gala the writers have conspicuously and loudly decided to boycott is including more than the well-deserved award to Charlie Hebdo.

    Brave Azerbaijani journalist Khadija Ismayilova is being honored with the PEN/Barbara Goldsmith Freedom to Write Award. But she will not be at the Gala, either, because she is currently in detention and facing spurious charges for her fearless reporting on corruption. PEN is working hard for her release from prison. Just on Monday, she was hauled before a tribunal to answer for some of the letters she sent from detention.

    The puffed-up PEN dissidents are so full of their own imperialistic cultural blinders and egoism that they are dishonoring this courageous woman.

  32. Reblogged this on proyjaime.

  33. Reblogged this on BABAJI.

  34. Reblogged this on sugarbaby56 and commented:

  35. Life is not usually as we see it….every bad thing has a good this link to know what am talking about

  36. Reblogged this on youthfulnaija.

  37. Nice,

  38. Excellent point of view. If only we had more people with this thought process.


  40. Reblogged this on knolo0505.

  41. “Say if you do believe that the Charlie Hebdo work was frequently racist, hate inciting, or broadly painting a whole culture with the same brush, or maybe even all of the above, you would find it against your morals to have to celebrate their work.”

    There’s something else they could have done: listened to and investigated their own critics’ points which indicated that, in fact, “CH” isn’t and never has been any of these things—“racist, hate inciting, or broadly painting a whole culture with the same brush,…”

    That they didn’t already know that meant that their ignorance disqualified them from speaking from an informed point of view. You, too, unless I’m very mistaken, are just repeating, without having looked and thought about it for yourself, the nonsense and factually false charges heard about CH. I can only assume that you have practically no direct knowledge of the satirical journal to which you’ve referred in such defamatory terms.

    Et puis, parlez-vous français? _Lisez-vous français? Je ne crois que non.

  42. I agree with much of what is being said. I certainly agree that we should defend the right to freedom of expression – without it our collective struggle in the West for centuries will have all been for nothing. We should not let fear stop us being ourselves and living the way our cultures and laws permit us to. However, I wonder if attacking fundamentalists with our freedoms is not wasted on them. Should we not step up our policies for reaching out to those who are not radicalised, but who could be, by sending out a message that is not so blatantly us and them?

  43. Reading your article however well written it is made me feel confused if you were talking about “Le PEN” the famous leading familly of Front National, or talking about “PEN” the freedom expression NGO


  45. Can there exist, even in principle, speech sufficiently offensive as to “cause” violence, and by extension, if the speaker is killed by an offended person it’s no cause for concern? No, of course not.

    Yet some have taken this basic principle and extended it to one whereby there cannot exist (even in principle) speech that is seriously offensive at all. Apparently, if one calls speech “offensive” or “punching downwards” or whatever, then one has taken the side of the murderers, end of story.

    (As it happens, Trudeau in particular really did suggest that CH brought it on themselves. That’s despicable. But such a position is not a necessary condition of thinking that reasonable criticism can be made of some of the cartoons.)

    It’s perfectly sensible for anyone to defend CH as not-racist; there is a good argument for that position. But any such argument must address the actual content in question, must go further than their genuine status as martyrs for free speech. (Even a war hero can be privately racist, and this doesn’t negate the heroism.) To do otherwise is an ironic insult to their intelligence: “Charlie mocked an idol and was attacked in revenge — all hail Charlie! May it never be the target of criticism again!”

    Evelyn Beatrice Hall’s famous Voltaire quote, “I disapprove of what you say and defend to the death your right to say it”, necessarily allows for disapproval; the whole point is to square the apparent circle (what looks like a circle to human brains, with their constant need to categorize everything as “good” or “bad”). To treat disapproval as tantamount to a lack of that defense is to toss aside the whole spirit of that quote, is it not?

    Leaving aside Cole’s contentious claim that the magazine was flat-out racist, it’s a distinction that the Kouachis themselves didn’t make. They weren’t machine-gunning cartoonists for the crimes of racism or Islamophobia. Even the most vile and unapologetic racists are very rarely murdered. No, they were punishing the crime of blasphemy.

    This is a very good and important point. Is it meant as a gotcha against the PEN dissenters? That would only be the case if the PEN dissenters are hoping to be on the same side as the killers.

    Admittedly, Trudeau and others have blurred the lines here, implying that not only did CH reap what it had sown, but that the relevant thing it had sown was blasphemy rather than racism. Still, I think a coherent mindset is quite possible here, whereby some CH cartoons could be racist “despite” the fact that the cartoonists were killed for the cartoons being blasphemous. In other words, CH had sown low-level racism, but they didn’t reap it. It’s like a petty embezzler dying in 9/11 attack — Al-Qaeda wasn’t motivated by an opposition to petty embezzling.

    Oh, and in case my stance on mocking religion is unclear: Fuck Islam to hell. (This position of mine doesn’t preclude the possible existence of quasi-racist anti-Islamic sentiments, even from leftists and “equal-opportunity” offenders.)

  46. A valuable post. While I often found the work of Charlie Hebdodeplorable, their right to publish it in a free society such as France’s is beyond question, as is the courage (if not the good sense) to continue to publish such provocation in the face of death threats, and even after such threats had been carried out.

  47. Reblogged this on eyesforfries.

  48. great

  49. There is no such thing as a “wrong kind” of free speech. It is either free or it isn’t. When one group of people has the power to make the thoughts and opinions of others “unacceptable” or “unsafe to speak in public” you have censorship and tyranny.

  50. If anything, it shows how ahead of their times Charlie Hebdo is! They make fun of politics and that’s what these types of awards are all about. It’s about what’s best for the PEN foundation and their lead sponsors! Charlie Hebdo has the balls to put their lives on the front line and they made the ultimate sacrifice for it. The pen organization shivers of the thought of losing their lead beneficiaries. Who’s really pushing the limits on free speech?

  51. Reblogged this on Open the Vox and commented:
    Je suis Charlie!!!

    Here’s a great article about the recent Charlie Hebdo veto of the PEN award for free speech! I felt I should get my 2 cents in before they refuse my comment still awaiting approval!

    If anything, it shows how ahead of their times Charlie Hebdo is! They make fun of politics and that’s what these types of awards are all about. It’s about what’s best for the PEN foundation and their lead sponsors! Charlie Hebdo has the balls to put their lives on the front line and they made the ultimate sacrifice for it. The pen organization shivers of the thought of losing their lead beneficiaries. Who’s really pushing the limits on free speech?

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