Shaming writers for not supporting Charlie Hebdo’s PEN award is actually anti-free speech

The satirical magazine is infamous for its cartoon renderings of religious and political figures.
The satirical magazine is infamous for its cartoon renderings of religious and political figures.
Image: Reuters/Eric Gaillard
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The PEN American Center will give its annual Freedom of Expression Courage prize to the French political-satire weekly, Charlie Hebdo. In response, six prominent writers—Teju Cole, Rachel Kushner, Francine Prose, Michael Ondaatje, Peter Carey, and Taiye Selasi—have withdrawn as “literary hosts” for the organization’s May 5 awards gala.

According to The New York Times:

“Ms. Kushner said she was withdrawing out of discomfort with what she called the magazine’s ‘cultural intolerance’ and promotion of ‘a kind of forced secular view,’ opinions echoed by other writers who pulled out. Mr. Carey, in an email interview yesterday, said the award stepped beyond the group’s traditional role of protecting freedom of expression against government oppression. ‘A hideous crime was committed, but was it a freedom-of-speech issue for PEN America to be self-righteous about?’ he wrote.”

The “hideous crime” in question, of course, is the Jan. 7 attack on Charlie Hebdo’s Paris editorial offices, in which 12 staffers were killed by Islamic extremists. The attackers were purportedly motivated by the magazine’s depictions of the prophet Mohammed—a practice forbidden by some interpretations of Islam.

In the aftermath, Charlie Hebdo has been widely lauded as a symbol of secular free speech—making it, theoretically speaking, an appropriate honoree for PEN, an organization which works “to ensure that people everywhere have the freedom to create literature, convey information and ideas, to express their views, and to make it possible for everyone to access the views, ideas, and literatures of others.”

Still, these six writers have declined to take part. And the pushback has been merciless:

Salman Rushdie says PEN is “holding firm,” but seems to have glossed over the fact that none of these writers has actually demanded that the organization revoke any honors for Charlie Hebdo. Teju Cole and Francine Prose have written essays explaining their respective rationales, both of which rightly assert the freedom of an individual to abstain from paeans to an entity whose philosophies or politics they do not personally endorse. In other words, these writers are exercising their right to free thought and speech; swimming against a tide of conventional opinion, which can have a particularly strong undertow in literary and media circles.

It goes against both the ethos of PEN and free-speech advocacy as a whole to insist that these six writers shut up and smile, thereby implying tacit approval for Charlie Hebdo’s content. This may upset some secularist sensibilities—but what is the point of publications like Charlie Hebdo if not the preservation a universal right to offend?