It’s not about Islam, it’s about courage: Authors protesting Charlie Hebdo’s PEN award are missing the point –

One of the better commentaries on the Charlie Hebdo and PEN controversy by Laura Miller:

It isn’t always easy to judge where power resides. Islamophobia is a real problem, but so is Islamic fundamentalism — and even just good ol’ fashioned patriarchal religious authoritarianism. Most of the targets of Muslim extremism are other Muslims. Muslim writers, artists and cartoonists are subject to religious censorship on a routine basis across the Muslim world. Islam cannot be simply or easily equated with victimhood, even if Muslims are discriminated against in French society.

And yet even in France, extremist Muslims seized the power to impose the ultimate punishment on the staff of Charlie Hebdo for, in the words of Salman Rushdie, “drawing pictures.” They were able to do so only with the backing of an organized, well-funded international network that, when it comes to criticism of their beliefs, would gladly shut down the speech rights of everyone, regardless of faith or nationality. The attack on Charlie Hebdo was a significant initiative in their campaign to do just that. It was not a one-off, or an uprising of the powerless, even if its organizers are able to play on real grievances to hoodwink young men into executing homicidal and suicidal actions.

As I’ve written before, Charlie Hebdo’s humor is too crude and obvious to appeal to me, but I’m predisposed to favor anyone who takes religious authorities down a peg. Raised in the Catholic Church, I regard anti-clerical campaigns as anything but passé; my own experience suggests to me that some French Muslims might find irreverent portrayals of the prophet, however crass, to be a crowbar prying open the confining box of tradition and piety. I don’t think anyone should be forced into secularism, but history tells us that this is far less of a threat than the compulsion — enforced by the state or by a more intimate community — to believe and observe. For this reason, I feel that no religion should be shielded from ridicule and satire; organized religion is always a form of power.

Rushdie has excellent cause to fear violent Islamic extremism, which Charlie Hebdo always maintained was the true object of its mockery. It’s likely that Eisenberg, a Jew, and Cole, a black man, have a heightened sensitivity to scenarios in which racial caricatures appear in publications indulged or encouraged by a prejudiced state. And from what my French friends tell me, there are all kinds of cultural signals in those cartoons that Anglophones miss, leading them to radically misinterpret the jokes. We’re all entitled to interpret them in our own way, of course, and even to repudiate them for what we think we see there. But what we can’t do with any real credibility is decide what they mean to somebody else.

It’s not about Islam, it’s about courage: Authors protesting Charlie Hebdo’s PEN award are missing the point –

And the contrary view by Philip Slayton and Tasleem Thawar of PEN Canada which I find less convincing, as it only focuses on one community, not recognizing that Charlie Hebdo, as noted above, aims for equity among the largely religious groups it offends:

Clearly, Charlie Hebdo’s right to publish should be defended. But does an obligation to defend something entail an obligation to celebrate it? We often recognize and celebrate writers who are silenced by the state or other powerful groups – still the primary threats to free speech around the world. And PEN has always been committed, as stated in the PEN charter, to dispelling race, class and national hatreds. This is why celebrating Charlie Hebdo is complicated. While Charlie Hebdo journalists were victims of a horrific attack on free expression, there are good arguments that regardless of their intentions, their work can be used to promote hate and further marginalize an already disenfranchised community.

The same argument holds true for PEN American’s impending celebration of Charlie Hebdo. Certainly Charlie Hebdo was courageous in continuing to publish, despite threats and, indeed, the murders of its journalists. In awarding this prize, PEN American clearly distinguishes between agreeing with Charlie Hebdo’s message, and applauding their bravery. But, as the six writers who are boycotting the PEN Gala are aware, despite intentions, the PEN award may very well be perceived as an endorsement of a magazine that continues to lampoon a disempowered group with scathing and provocative cartoons, and used to bolster the arguments of those who seek to further marginalize them. No organization can expect unwavering support from within its ranks when it makes difficult choices on sensitive matters. PEN represents writers with widely differing viewpoints – it has always embraced controversy and encouraged dissent.

 We celebrated Charlie Hebdo’s right to offend – and some took offence 

About Andrew
Andrew blogs and tweets public policy issues, particularly the relationship between the political and bureaucratic levels, citizenship and multiculturalism. His latest book, Policy Arrogance or Innocent Bias, recounts his experience as a senior public servant in this area.

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