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PEN gala honours Charlie Hebdo despite uproar

Timothy A. Clary, AFP I Gėrard Biard (R), editor-in-chief of Charlie Hebdo, and film critic Jean-Baptiste Thoret (L) speak during the annual PEN American Center Literary Gala on Tuesday

After a storm of controversy that revived a global debate over the ethics of French weekly Charlie Hebdo, the PEN American Center stood its ground and honoured the satirical magazine with its Freedom of Expression Courage Award on Tuesday.

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Just a week before the organisation’s annual gala, six writers said they would no longer “table host” at the fundraising event because they objected to an award which they said “valorises selectively offensive material: material that intensifies the anti-Islamic, anti-Maghreb, anti-Arab sentiments already prevalent in the Western world”.

The controversy has polarised both writers and readers in the US, where Charlie Hebdo is considered by some as fearless and by others as racist, or at best irresponsible.

Clay Risen, a historian and New York Times Op-Ed writer who signed the letter, said he was not seeking to pass judgement on Charlie Hebdo’s editorial content, although he found some of it offensive, but was eager to denounce PEN for failing to honour a “more deserving” candidate.

“If you look around the world there are any number of journalists who are working in difficult situations whether it be in Russia, or in places in the Muslim world where people are speaking out and face real threats not only from radicals but from states, and that’s the kind of writers who need to be defended,” he told FRANCE 24.

“We recognise the tragedy and that this is a momentous event for France but I don’t think it’s the most appropriate use of PEN’s resources to honour the magazine.”

‘Muslims in the West bear burden’

Rafia Zakaria, a Pakistani writer who lamented in January what she felt was a disproportionate response to the Charlie Hebdo attack compared with concern for the persistent vulnerabilities of non-Western, and especially Muslim, journalists, said that she had become a “subject of much vitriol” following her comments.

“I support free speech, I abhor murder but I do not think Hebdo deserves an award, because it legitimises Islamophobia as an acceptable prejudice,” Zakaria told FRANCE 24.

Zakaria rejected claims by Charlie Hebdo and its supporters that it has the absolute right to target whomever it pleases.

“The award imagines that the ‘right to offend' can be freely exercised by all,” she said.

“But this is a lie. Most Muslims in the West bear the burden of being labelled terrorists or terror sympathisers, their activities are surveilled by governments, their mosques are infiltrated by FBI agents and their children are bullied in schools.

“To make fun of their identity and faith beliefs is legally permissible; it is not in my opinion morally laudable or courageous.”

‘We don’t eat children’

PEN's executive director Suzanne Nossel, who chose to honour Charlie Hebdo, was eager to stress that the award was not based on literary merit but on the “courage” of a group of writers who “continue to occupy a space which is precariously dangerous because they’re subject to misinterpretation”.

She was speaking at a debate hosted by New York University on Tuesday where Charlie Hebdo's editor-in-chief Gérard Biard and film editor Jean-Baptiste Thoret sought to address the controversy ahead of the gala.

Biard opened his comments by saying: “We don’t eat children and we don’t eat believers,” the first of many jokes that drew a sometimes uneasy laughter from the crowd.

Speaking more seriously, Biard said that Charlie Hebdo never sought to target worshippers of any faith but rather the powers that “claim to represent them”.

“It’s not about faith, it’s about politics,” Biard said. “We don’t mock or attack people, we mock or attack institutions, representatives, powers. We have always been anti-racist, and we fight against all discrimination.”

Film editor Thoret went further, saying that he believes the magazine’s cartoons had been misunderstood. If people “made the effort to really understand what our cartoons are about, then they wouldn’t be offended,” he said.

‘Protest a disgrace’

That was a sentiment echoed by many attendants at the gala on Tuesday, who were, unusually for the event, greeted by a heavy presence of counter-terrorism police at the entrance.

Writer Adam Gopnik, who knew one of the slain cartoonists, Wolinski, said the cultural divide had led to misunderstanding.

“French satirical history accepts that you will be ferociously blasphemous and sacrilegious, without necessarily violating the rights of individuals,” Gopnik told FRANCE 24. “I think the majority of my friends who are not here tonight do not understand that tradition, don’t speak French and have no familiarity with the cartoonists.”

Salman Rushdie was less diplomatic.

“It’s a disgrace that writers who should think before they speak should shoot from the hip like this,” he told FRANCE 24. “I hope they are ashamed of themselves.”

Far-right favour

Charlie Hebdo won unlikely support this week in the United States, where mocking or chiding Islam is an activity largely reserved for the Christian right-wing, after Sunday’s attack on an anti-Islam event in Texas. The “draw the Prophet Mohammed” contest, organised by a group which has been labelled by rights activists as an anti-Islam hate organisation, saw some commentators draw parallels with the January attack on Charlie Hebdo, a pairing which Charlie Hebdo is keen to dismantle.

Thoret forcefully rejected any analogies between Charlie Hebo and the American Freedom Defense Initiative. Speaking of the group’s leader, he said “Pamela Geller is obsessed with Islam. She wakes up thinking about Islam. I wake up thinking about coffee.”

In the past 10 years, Charlie Hebdo has featured Islam on only seven of more than 500 covers.

The problem with anti-Islamic sentiment in France, NYU history professor Ed Berenson said on Tuesday, is that in their staunch determination to remain secular, many French people have failed to acknowledge that their treasured 'laicité' remains thoroughly Catholic.

“What we really get with laicité is a secularised version of French Catholicism, which is one reason why a fair number of French Muslims have a problem with the invocation of it” he said.

But PEN’s Nossel argued that Charlie Hebdo must continue to avoid self-censorship, despite upsetting minorities such as Muslims, using the US as an example of a failure to merit truly free speech.

“For us it comes in a larger context where we do see threats to the space of free speech,” Nossel said, citing the US government's reluctance to mention Muslim extremism during a recent conference on religious extremism.

“It does seem provocative, they want to get their message across without provoking a backlash,” she said. “But that impulse that goes too far can distort and narrow the discourse”.

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