The Charlie Hebdo PEN award for courage is misplaced

Carolyn Moynihan
May 7 2015
Reproduced with Permission

A civil war has broken out amongst America's literati over the Charlie Hebdo murders in January.

On one side, there is the executive of the US branch of PEN, a world-wide association of writers which defends free speech and promotes human rights. Last Tuesday, it granted its Toni and James C. Goodale Freedom of Expression Courage Award to Charlie Hebdo, a French satirical magazine, eight of whose staff, along with four other people, were killed by the Muslim Kouachi brothers.

On the other side are scores of its members, including major writers like Peter Carey and Michael Ondaatje, who refuse to be associated with the award because Charlie Hebdo inflamed hatred for a dispossessed minority like French Muslims.

In the literary world, this is bigger, much bigger, than the recent Mayweather-Pacquiao "Fight of the Century". So big that Britain's leading news magazine, The Economist, felt obliged to take sides. It defended the event, while effectively rebuking the 200-odd writers who openly refused to participate in it or support it.

"PEN is not giving Charlie Hebdo the 'We Like Your Cartoons' award, or the 'Most Incisive Social Commentary' award or the 'We Agree with Everything You Stand For' award. The Goodale prize is for courage," The Economist pointed out . It also attempted to defend Charlie Hebdo's idea of free speech with a distinction between blasphemy (insulting religious ideas) and hate speech (inciting people to violence against others).

This defence limps on both counts - that of courage, and the kind of "speech" represented by Muhammad cartoons.

The "courage" in question was the persistence of the magazine, in the face of death threats, in publishing cartoons of the Prophet, something highly offensive to devout Muslims, who generally regard any depiction of their founder as blasphemous, let alone those that mock him and his teaching. The writers who objected to the award said this amounted to cultural intolerance and victimisation of Muslims in France.

In terms of the risks the Charlie Hebdo staff took, their refusal to make an exception for Islam in their project of slinging mud at religion -- and everything else to the right of their 1960s revolutionary politics - could be called courage. But courage implies nobility, and the nobility of the cause of free speech is not advanced by lampooning religious figures - not just of Islam -- who are revered by billions of people.

One of the cartoonists, Renald Luzier, told a French magazine last week that he is tired of drawing Muhammad pictures and is not going to do any more. Perhaps he has also thought better of it.

The Economist concedes that the cartoons that Charlie Hebdo published "were often insulting, juvenile and crude" and that those who produced them may have lacked good taste and cultural sensitivity. But the oracle of liberalism insists that Muhammad cartoons can be honoured as courageous free speech because they were only mocking the ideology of Islam and not the people who hold that faith.

"In secular France, the law distinguishes clearly between blasphemy, or insulting religious ideas, which is not outlawed, and hate speech, or inciting people to violence against others, which is banned. In 1789, before the French revolution, blasphemy laws carried the death penalty; they were scrapped in 1881, as part of a bloody struggle against Catholicism. In other words, for Charlie Hebdo, as for French law, insulting an idea or an ideology is acceptable, however puerile or tasteless the manner in which it is done; insulting, let alone threatening, a group of people is not."

The same defence was put forward by Gerard Biard, Charlie Hebdo's top editor, in an interview with the New York Times : "When we mock a religion, we don't knock believers, we don't mock people," he said. "We mock institutions. We mock ideas."

But how tenable, really, is this distinction between the beliefs of people and the people themselves?

Clearly, for Muslims, it is not. Neither is it for Christians - and for every cover insulting Islam, Charlie Hebdo has published three insulting the Catholic faith (7 and 21 respectively). These include what The Economist describes as "an image of a toothy Virgin Mary, her legs apart, giving birth to baby Jesus".

Such an image can make a devout Catholic suffer - or become enraged, since it is his Mother who is being insulted. To Christians, the nativity of Christ is not just a religious idea, it is a redemptive fact. The Virgin Mary is a real, transcendently holy person, not just a statue or a picture on the wall. Christ is a Divine Person. The Pope - represented in one CH cartoon as being sodomised by priests - is his representative on earth. Insult these figures and you are insulting and wounding the people who love them, pray to (or for, in the case of the Pope) them, and are united with them by mystical bonds.

Muslims could say something similar about the Prophet. So let's not pretend that an insulting depiction of a holy or divine person is merely a poke at religious doctrines, something that adherents of a faith can shrug off because it does not touch their heart or soul. The Enlightenment notion of abstract, bloodless, religious ideas simply does not correspond to Christian beliefs, nor Muslim beliefs evidently. It might work for Theosophy, or Anthroposophy, or the French Revolution's Cult of Reason, but not for these faiths.

So is religion completely above criticism? Of course not.

There is plenty of scope within free speech for mocking individual Muslims or Christians who do not live up to the ideals of their faith. There is scope for criticising the doctrines of any faith, the way they are expressed or applied in practice. But mocking and degrading revered religious figures comes too close to hatred of believers themselves for comfort - or for intellectual honesty among those who want to preserve free speech.