A number of prominent literary figures are publicly protesting the decision by the PEN American Center to honor the French satirical newspaper Charlie Hebdo with its annual Freedom of Expression Courage award, arguing that it is not courageous to ridicule an oppressed minority.
Writers Michael Ondaatje, Peter Carey, Francine Prose, Teju Cole, Rachel Kushner, and Taiye Selasi are among those who have stated that they are withdrawing from serving as "table hosts" during the award ceremony at the PEN Literary Gala to be held at the American Museum of Natural History in New York City on May 5.
Twelve people were killed in the January 7 attack by alleged Islamic extremists on the Charlie Hebdo headquarters in Paris, sparking international outcry as well a highly-publicized march, which featured a number of world leaders who were there to denounce the terrorists' assault on the freedom of expression.
In an email exchange published by the Intercept between PEN executive director Suzanne Nossel and award-winning short story writer Deborah Eisenberg, Eisenberg questioned PEN's decision to uphold the magazine despite its "tasteless and brainless" attacks on Muslims.
Following the official announcement in March, Eisenberg wrote:
Charlie Hebdo is undeniably courageous in that it has continued irrepressibly to ridicule Islam and its adherents, who include a conspicuously and ruthlessly dangerous faction. But ridicule of Islam and Muslims cannot in itself be considered courageous at this moment, because ridicule of Islam and Muslims is now increasingly considered acceptable in the West. However its staff and friends see it, Charlie Hebdo could well be providing many, many people with an opportunity to comfortably assume a position that they were formerly ashamed to admit. This is not a voice of dissent, this is the voice of a mob.
Eisenberg also challenged Charlie Hebdo's alleged commitment to "equal opportunity offense" toward all organized religion, given their editorial record and history of suppressing anti-Semitic jokes.
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In an email exchange with the Associated Press, Rachel Kushner, whose novel The Flamethrowers was nominated for a National Book Award, said that she had joined the protest out of discomfort with what she said was the magazine’s "cultural intolerance" and promotion of "a kind of forced secular view."
And author Teju Cole, who himself was nominated for a 2015 PEN Literary Award, told the Intercept: "I’m a free-speech fundamentalist, but I don’t think it’s a good use of our headspace or moral commitments to lionize Charlie Hebdo in particular."
Reporting on the controversy, Intercept journalist Glenn Greenwald notes that the argument "highlights how ideals of free speech, and the Charlie Hebdo attack itself, were crassly exploited by governments around the world to promote all sorts of agendas having nothing to do with free expression."
"Celebrating Charlie Hebdo was largely about glorifying anti-Muslim sentiment; free expression was the pretext," Greenwald writes.
In blog post on Sunday, PEN American defended its decision saying the organization is committed to upholding "free speech above its contents."
The post continues: "We do not believe that any of us must endorse the content of Charlie Hebdo's cartoons in order to affirm the importance of the medium of satire, or to applaud the staff’s bravery in holding fast to those values in the face of life and death threats. There is courage in refusing the very idea of forbidden statements, an urgent brilliance in saying what you have been told not to say in order to make it sayable."
However, two-time Booker Prize winner Peter Carey told AP that despite the "hideous crime committed," PEN American was stepping outside of its commitment to protect freedom-of-speech from government suppression. "All this is complicated by PEN’s seeming blindness to the cultural arrogance of the French nation, which does not recognize its moral obligation to a large and disempowered segment of their population," Carey wrote.