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French writers question US protest against Charlie Hebdo free speech award

Covers of Charlie Hebdo on display at the Angouleme cartoon festival in January 2015
Covers of Charlie Hebdo on display at the Angouleme cartoon festival in January 2015 AFP/Pierre Duffour

Dozens of Anglophone writers have objected to a free speech prize to be given to Charlie Hebdo on Tuesday. After the PEN America Center, which awards literary prizes and defends free expression, announced it was honouring Charlie Hebdo, which was the target of an Islamist attack in Paris in January, six prominent members announced they would boycott the awards ceremony.

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The writers object to rewarding a publication that published cartoons offensive to Muslims.

Charlie Hebdo staff members say that the protesters do not understand what the prize stands for. Many French writers agree.

“Freedom of speech starts exactly when you disagree with what people have to say,” French novelist Nelly Alard told RFI. “I think [Charlie Hebdo] were defending an idea of freedom, and to me it makes sense to give them this award for that.”

She says non-French writers may not appreciate the cultural significance of the weekly paper that has been around in some form or another since 1970.

“I think seen from the States now, in the world that we’re living in now, with no sense of the history of the newspaper, Charlie Hebdo can be misunderstood,” she said. “I grew up with Charlie Hebdo … I didn’t buy Charlie Hebdo. I disliked a lot of their drawings. But I also knew it was not a racist paper. It was defending the right to laugh at everything.”

Not everyone agreed with that right. On 7 January, 12 people, including the magazine's top cartoonists, were gunned down at their office in Paris. The gunmen said it was in revenge for the magazine's publishing of drawings of the Prophet Mohammed.

The writers protesting against the the decision to give the magazine the PEN/Toni and James C. Goodale Free Expression Courage Award dislike those same cartoons.

More than 200 writers have joined the initial six protesters to sign an open letter which states: “To the section of the French population that is already marginalised, embattled, and victimised, a population that is shaped by the legacy of France’s various colonial enterprises, and that contains a large percentage of devout Muslims, Charlie Hebdo’s cartoons of the Prophet must be seen as being intended to cause further humiliation and suffering.”

Phlip Gourevitch, an American writer and a PEN member, has criticised his fellow writers.

“This letter is misguided and misinformed and misinterprets Charlie Hebdo fundamentally,” he told RFI. The magazine always purported to be anti-racist, and “it was recognised as such by absolutely everyone in the entire political French spectrum”.

He calls the protest “an invented complaint by people who are essentially saying that the French don’t understand their own newspaper and its role in their own culture.”

Blasphemy

French writers see Charlie Hebdo as continuing a long tradition in France of criticising religion.

“It’s our tradition to be against … the power of religion,” writer Capucine Motte told RFI, echoing the attitude of many colleagues who see mocking religion as a right, won from centuries of struggle against a powerful Catholic Church.

“When we comment on the US, we understand that they are much more tolerant towards religion, and God is a really important part of their everyday life,” she said. “For us it’s not like that.”

“In France we have this tradition of being so offensive to religion,” French novelist Laurent Binet told RFI. “We don’t like when religion has too much power. Any religion.”

He says Charlie Hebdo deserves the PEN award for challenging the rules.

“Among the rules, I think God’s rules are the worst, because you can kill in the name of it,” he said. “So I think their struggle was brave and deserved to be honoured.”

The protesters wrote in their letter that “the magazine seems to be entirely sincere in its anarchic expressions of principled disdain toward organised religion. But in an unequal society, equal opportunity offence does not have an equal effect.”

Gourevitch points out that the “but” in the sentence is problematic.

“To say that they deserve free speech, but they don’t deserve to be awarded, is not to me a convincing position,” he said. “We would award speech that we think is meritorious. That’s really what they’re saying.”

For him, there is no question that the magazine deserves the award.

“They faced a crushing threat. They faced the prospect, clearly announced, of assassination," he said. "They continued to say what they felt they had the right to say. They met violence with words, and were met with violence because of their words. That’s the definition of a free speech cause."

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