journal irresponsable

Earlier this week six writers – Peter Carey, Michael Ondaatje, Francine Prose, Teju Cole, Rachel Kushner and Taiye Selasi – withdrew from the PEN American Center’s annual gala on 5 May in protest against the free speech organization’s decision to give the French satirical magazine Charlie Hebdo its annual Freedom of Expression Courage Award. In an email to PEN, Kushner said she was withdrawing because of Charlie Hebdo‘s ‘cultural intolerance’ and its promotion of ‘a kind of forced secular view’. Carey criticised ‘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’.

In my original post on the Charlie Hebdo killings back in January, I challenged ‘the pusillanimity of many so-called liberals, their unwillingness to stand up for basic liberal principles, their readiness to betray the progressives within minority communities’ and observed that such pusillanimity both ‘allows Muslim extremists the room to operate’ and ‘helps nurture anti-Muslim sentiment’. That criticism holds for the current controversy, too. I am publishing here a response to the critics of  PEN America by Jo Glanville, director of English PEN, which has been published also in The Bookseller. I am also reprinting below an extract from ‘Lost in Translation’, an article by the writer Leigh Phillips, first published in January in the magazine Ricochet, which explains how much of the left gets it so wrong about Charlie Hebdo – and about free speech. Do read the full original version, too. My thanks to both Jo and Leigh for contributing to Pandaemonium – and for helping maintain the defence of free speech.

Jo Glanville
The Charlie Hebdo principle
April 2015

The distaste of eminent writers such as Peter Carey at PEN American Center’s decision to honour Charlie Hebdo at its gala next month, highlights once again the fundamental inconsistency that underpins attitudes towards free speech. Within days of the ‘Je Suis Charlie’ outpouring of solidarity, French police were arresting citizens for glorifying terrorism, while David Cameron’s government was busy pushing a counter terrorism bill through Parliament that would severely curtail universities’ liberty as a forum for freedom of expression. We may be used to the double standards of politicians, but what about writers?

Becoming a member of PEN (one of the oldest human rights organisations in the world, and the largest international community of writers) means pledging ‘to oppose any form of suppression of freedom of expression in the country and community to which [writers] belong, as well as throughout the world wherever this is possible’. That’s a sentiment one would hope any writer might be happy to support and PEN depends, on a regular basis, on its members speaking out and standing up for fellow writers at risk. That’s the source of its influence and moral authority.

One of the writers, Francine Prose, a former PEN President, who decided to withdraw from the gala in protest, was reported as saying that giving an award signified ‘admiration and respect’ for the winner’s work. ‘I couldn’t imagine being in the audience when they have a standing ovation for Charlie Hebdo.’ But Charlie Hebdo is in fact being recognised for its courage: the courage to publish in the face of threats and intimidation, and the courage to continue publishing after the shocking murders in January.

We are more used to seeing that courage at a greater distance – in Mexico, Russia, Bangladesh or Egypt – and feel safe celebrating writers and journalists who may be prosecuted for outraging public morals in their own culture.


On our own doorstep, when faced with a satirical publication that provokes and offends, there is an underlying view implicit in the protest of Peter Carey and fellow writers that this kind of speech is not worth defending. Carey questioned whether it even was a freedom of expression issue; the writer Deborah Eisenberg voiced concerns (as have many others) about Charlie Hebdo’s ‘denigrating portrayals of Muslims’. Yet one of the most important, if uncomfortable, responsibilities for any free speech advocate is to defend the right to express speech which may be shocking, disturbing or offensive. Without that broad defence, the limits of everyone’s speech, as well as writers and publishers, are at risk of being restricted to suit the political agenda or prevailing morality, at a cost to artistic licence as well as individual freedom.

Most of the great free speech battles in history have been fought over issues that were not deemed deserving of defence. The subjects of the famous obscenity prosecutions of the 70s in the UK (the Oz trial or Linda Lovelace’s memoir) were seen as publications of no merit. But what was at stake, as in the case of Charlie Hebdo, was the principle: the freedom to publish and the freedom to write. A freedom on which all writers depend. Victory in court (in the face of moral outrage) led to greater freedom for publishers and writers. In one of his last interviews, the writer and barrister John Mortimer, who famously defended both the Oz and the Lovelace trials, spoke of the retreat from ‘the abiding principle … that you lived in a country where you could read anything you like’. The growth of the idea that we should at all costs avoid causing offence (and that this may be even more important than defending the right to free speech) continues to undermine that principled protection for freedom of expression.

Salman Rushdie, a notable supporter of English PEN and the PEN American Center, who has excoriated the withdrawal of Carey and others from the gala, was similarly criticised 26 years ago for causing gratuitous offence (by fellow writers) after the fatwa. Roald Dahl even called him a dangerous opportunist. There may be ‘good faith differences of opinion within our community’ as PEN American Center generously acknowledged on Sunday but it’s in the interests of all writers to stand up for the principle. ‎

Leigh Phillips
Lost in translation
January 2015

The last few days have been a humiliation for the anglophone left, showcasing to the world how poor our ability to translate is these days, as so many people have posted cartoons on social media that they found trawling Google Images as evidence of Charlie Hebdo’s ‘obvious racism’, only to be told by French speakers how, when translated and put into context, these cartoons actually are explicitly anti-racist or mocking of racists and fascists.

The best example here is the very widely shared cartoon by the slain editor Stéphane Charbonnier, known as Charb, of a black woman’s head on a monkey’s body above the phrase Rassemblement Bleu Raciste (Racist Blue Rally). The French are aware that the woman in the cartoon is the justice minister, Christiane Taubira, and that the red, white and blue flame in the cartoon is the logo of the Front National, which had recently gotten into hot water for publishing a photograph of a baby monkey and the words ‘At 18 months’ next to a picture of Taubira and the word ‘Now’. The Front National’s slogan is Rassemblement Bleu Marine (Navy Blue Rally), a play on the name of their leader, Marine Le Pen. It is obvious to any French person familiar with the political context that the cartoon is mocking the racism of the Front National and indeed Taubira herself, in the wake of the massacre, has mounted repeated defences of Charlie Hebdo.

boko haram

Another would be the cartoon of pregnant Boko Haram sex slaves under the slogan ‘Hands off our benefits!’ which many English leftists held to be a self-evidently racist commentary on the Muslim ‘demographic threat’, when the cartoon is actually a clunky ‘first-world problems’ commentary on complaints over the French government restricting child benefits for top earners, suggesting that rich French people really have nothing to complain about compared to people’s travails in northeast Nigeria.

In an extremely widely shared post, Jacob Canfield at The Hooded Utilitarian showcased a series of Charlie Hebdo cartoons and declared, ‘Its staff is white. Its cartoons often represent a certain, virulently racist brand of French xenophobia. While they generously claim to ‘attack everyone equally,’ the cartoons they publish are intentionally anti-Islam, and frequently sexist and homophobic.’

First of all, its staff is not all white, not that a small newspaper with a tiny all-Caucasian employee roll is automatically a signifier of racism in any case. Copy editor Moustapha Ourrad, for example, was among those murdered by on Wednesday. Next, the cartoon that Canfield feels is homophobic, of a male Charlie Hebdo writer kissing an imam under the words ‘Love is stronger than hate’, was the cartoon that filled the front cover in 2011 the week after the paper’s offices had been firebombed by Islamists, completely destroying all their equipment, for printing an edition ‘guest edited’ by the Prophet Mohammed to celebrate the election of the Muslim Brotherhood-affiliated Islamists of the Ennahda party in Tunisia. This was also the time of growing conservative opposition to gay rights, culminating in the country’s massive right-wing Catholic anti-gay-marriage protests of recent years. Five months earlier, the government had crushed legislation to legalize same-sex unions.

In this context, the cartoon can only be seen as expressly anti-homophobic, giving a big, wet, cheeky kiss to the likely homophobic Islamists who had tried to kill them. (One friend told me after I explained the context behind this cartoon that it was still problematic because ‘at a time when Muslims in Western countries are the target of Islamophobic prejudice, we should be sensitive to their religious sensibilities. A cartoon of two men kissing is offensive to them’. To my mind, if there’s anything homophobic going on here, it’s the idea that gays should hide themselves so as not to offend those who maintain a hatred of homosexuals.)


How can we trust these leftists’ critical analyses of other events in foreign lands such as Ukraine, Syria or Mali if it turns out they haven’t done their due diligence as researchers when it comes to the far more accessible French context? These otherwise well-meaning but non-French-speaking knights-in-social-media-armour have embarrassed themselves by spouting off about things they know not quite enough about. This is not clear-headed thinking. This is not leftist or anti-racist thinking. It is an illogical, self-destructive, identity politics mess where all accusations of racism are instantly believed and anyone who raises questions is racist themselves. Accusations of racism (indeed any accusations) must be substantiated by the accuser, not automatically presumed to be true. Automatic presumption of racism without substantiation is not anti-racism; it is cowardice and vanity, as it suggests the individual is more interested in ensuring he or she does not appear racist rather than in actually countering racism.

But this episode is about more than just the willful ignorance of a unilingual left luxuriating in its whipped-up dander; there are deeper worries about how such left and liberal critics are approaching freedom of speech in general. The whole affair is quite the nadir for the identitarian left, an object lesson in how its current tendency toward a censorial, professionally offence-taking prudishness is limiting the left’s advance, cutting us off from how most ordinary people live their lives and navigate prejudice, and a breach with hundreds of years of leftist thought and practice with respect to the enduring question of freedom.

Charlie Hebdo is, above all, a child of the upheaval of May 1968. It was founded in the wake of the publication ban on its predecessor, Hara-Kiri Hebdo, after the latter cheekily poked fun at the right-wing president and hero of the Resistance, Charles de Gaulle, upon his death.

It was born a left-wing publication, indeed a far-left publication, brimming with insolence and bile for capitalist, governmental and clerical elites. In the English-speaking world, malheureusement, we don’t really have a tradition of satirical newspapers quite like Charlie Hebdo or its rival Le Canard Enchainé (‘The chained-up duck’), which combine cheeky editorial cartoons with investigative journalism and opinion. The closest approximation would be Private Eye in the United Kingdom. But the format has spread throughout the francophone lands, with imitators in Belgium, Switzerland and French-speaking Africa, both sub-Sahara and the Maghreb.

Charlie also embraces a politics of anti-clericalism — a species of militant secularism that targets priests, monks, nuns, bishops, popes, rabbis and, latterly, imams and mullahs specifically as individuals (believed to be pompous, hypocritical figures preaching a morality that they do not observe themselves) and not just as representatives of a religion — that dates back to the original Jacobins in the French Revolution. Anti-clericalism has also existed in varying forms in Spain, Latin America, Québec, Russia and contemporary Iran.

Carli-Hebo-ilustracije10-670x873 copy

The targeting of Catholic priests by anarchist revolutionaries during the Spanish Civil War and Orthodox priests by Bolsheviks were two of its most violent expressions. But anti-clericalism never really existed in the same way in the Protestant (and thus anglophone) world due to the break with Rome in the 16th and 17th centuries and Protestantism’s transformation of an individual’s relationship with the church hierarchy and God himself. Related to this, the paper’s style of comedy, gouaille — a bawdy, impertinent, insolent, often obscene humour corrosif — is a part of a Parisian tradition that finds its origins in the time of the French Revolution as well, and which Arthur Goldhammer, the translator of Thomas Piketty’s Capital in the 21st Century, explains well: ‘It’s an anarchic populist form of obscenity that aims to cut down anything that would erect itself as venerable, sacred or powerful.’

It’s not witty. If anything, it’s rather juvenile. In mocking the idea that there should be no graven images of Mohammed, one of Charlie’s cartoons was of a naked prophet with a star instead of a bumhole under the slogan ‘A star is born’. It’s puerile, infantile, not infrequently unfunny. It’s fart jokes. It’s whoopie cushions. It’s Monty Python’s masturbation-themed and Vatican-mocking ‘Every sperm is sacred’ sketch.

Leftists must make a distinction between blasphemy and racism. The two are not the same thing. No one has the right not to be offended. This is not an arcane point. After decades of legal abeyance, blasphemy and ‘religious insult’ laws are making a comeback.

Meanwhile, for the most part, Charlie Hebdo’s politics have been progressive. SOS Racisme, the main anti-racist NGO in the country, has partnered with Charlie in the past in campaigns against anti-immigrant politics, such as a joint campaign in 2007 against DNA testing for migrants aiming to be reunited with their families. Following the massacre, the organization offered its support to the newspaper and denounced the attack as an assault on free speech. The editor murdered this week by the Islamist gunmen, Charb, was a long-time member of the French Communist Party, supported the new far left Front de Gauche, opposed the adoption of the proposed neoliberal European constitution in 2005 and illustrated Marx: A User’s Guide, the 2014 book by the late, brilliant socialist author Daniel Bensaïd. One of those killed, Bernard Maris, was on the scientific council of ATTAC, the NGO critical of corporate-led globalization, ran for the Greens, was a critic of EU austerity and the eurozone, and wrote for a number of other left-wing publications.


The paper has no set editorial line per se, and its journalists frequently disagree publicly, but among the favourite targets of its cartoons and journalism are the far right and other partisans of anti-immigrant politics, corporate malfeasance, banker shenanigans, cuts to public health care, tax havens, and the arms industry. A scoop in Charlie from last November, for example, revealed threatening text-message extortion of an assistant of a right-wing senator already indicted in an investigation into municipal vote buying. The paper is a furious opponent of the Israeli government’s regular assaults on Gaza. It defended Roma against government round-up and deportation. Charlie Hebdo is part of the ‘mental furniture’ of the left in France.

As Charb wrote in Le Monde in 2013, ‘It’s no secret: the current editorial team is split between supporters of the left, the far left, anarchism and environmentalism. Not everyone votes, but we all popped the champagne when [conservative president] Nicolas Sarkozy was defeated in May 2012.’

Of course, nothing stops one from being racist and otherwise left-wing, just as there are sexist animal rights campaigners and homophobic trade unionists. But describing Charlie as a ‘racist publication’ makes readers think that the paper is akin to the house journal of the National Front.

Charlie, like many organizations, is a jumble of good and bad politics. In the wake of the attacks on the Twin Towers, the editor at the time, Philippe Val, like Christopher Hitchens, took a ‘clash of civilizations’ turn that infused the paper. If the mockery of imams was just in keeping with the anti-clerical tradition, and obscene cartoons also targeted the Catholic hierarchy, there now seemed to be an undue emphasis on Islam. It also — like many on the French left, even anti-war campaigners — backs the contemporary ideology of laïcité. Strictly translated, laïcité is the French for secularism, but the translation doesn’t do it justice. It’s a sort of state-enforced anti-religionism rather than a simple government neutrality in the face of different faiths as exists in the US (but not in Canada), but typically focused overwhelmingly on Islam.


They are right, those who say it is hypocritical to be raising the banner of freedom of expression today if one did not raise it in the face of the headscarf and burqa bans. (Formally, in 2004, it was the wearing of ‘conspicuous religious symbols in schools’ that was restricted and, in 2010, face coverings in public, including motorbike helmets and balaclavas, were outlawed, but everyone knows who was being targeted). But the obverse of this is also correct: If you opposed the headscarf and burqa bans, then today you must rally to the defence of freedom of expression with respect to Charlie Hebdo.

There is hypocrisy elsewhere as well. If Charlie typically rested unbothered by accusations of Islamophobia, its famed fearlessness reached its limit when cartoonist Maurice Sinet (nom de plume Siné) faced accusations of anti-Semitism. In 2008, Siné wrote in a column about rumours that President Nicolas Sarkozy’s son was to convert to Judaism prior to marrying the heiress of household appliance multinational Darty, joking, ‘He’ll go a long way in life, that little lad’. He was prosecuted for incitement to racial hatred, as the sentence allegedly linked Jewishness with financial success, although the judge dismissed the case. Siné was in any case fired by Val, a decision that was defended by a series of right-wing intellectuals and attacked by their left-wing counterparts as a betrayal of free speech.

As a result of Philippe Val’s post-9/11 Hitchensian tubthumping, as we in English might describe his stance, a number of journalists felt they could not in conscience continue to work for the newspaper and quit, publicly criticizing the paper. Many people who claim to ‘criticize everything’ actually don’t criticize everything equally, and in fact do single out certain racialized minority groups for unique opprobrium and so genuinely are prejudiced in some way. Many of the current wave of New Atheists such as Sam Harris, Richard Dawkins and Bill Maher are examples of this: they claim to be criticizing all religions, but in fact reserve special criticism for Islam.

However, there is a difference between a left-wing newspaper gone rotten and a racist publication. For all of Hitchens’ support for the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq, I couldn’t at any point suggest he was a racist.

je suis charlie

I offer all this history as background, as additional context that has been ignored by the ‘je ne suis pas Charlie’ critics. But I’ll go further: It shouldn’t even matter.

Even if Charlie Hebdo were a racist publication, the murders would still be an assault on freedom of speech, and leftists should still rise up with all the indignation that so many French people have righteously displayed. Not because, as elites have it, the Paris massacre is an attack on ‘Western values’, values that plainly do not exist outside of hackneyed, hypocritical bromide, but because freedom of speech is a leftwing issue. Indeed, it is the most important issue we should concern ourselves with. Everything else we ever do depends on this foundational freedom.

The left would do well to remind itself that freedom of speech is not a pick-and-choose buffet dinner. Throughout our history, from Robespierre to Stalin, every time we have spurned this freedom as a bourgeois bagatelle, as a trinket to be set aside for the sake of solving allegedly more worrying social injustices, disaster has swiftly struck.

Freedom of speech is no liberal bauble. It is the first freedom, upon which all other liberties depend.

Longue vie à Charlie Hebdo.

The cover image is from a cartoon about Charlie Hebdo by Marshall Ramsey in the Mississippi Clarion Ledger, 8 January 2015.


  1. I loathe Charlie Hebdo and try not to look at it. That is my right. What is not right is to boycott its award celebrating freedom of speech. Its inclusive, savage satire is deeply offensive. That is its job. Our job is to let it cry out as one of thousands of different voices articulating and challenging the complexity of human beliefs and prejudices.

  2. Fayyaz

    Charlie Hebdo had every right to insult and satirize. But we are also missing the point when we make Charlie Hebdo a symbol of courage and free speech. We are all well aware that Charlie Hebdo refuse to publish some anti-semite material and its staff members resigned in protest. Charlie Hebdo has the right , but it is not a role model for freedom of speech or courage. Mr. Kenan and others are gravely mistaken to support the award for Charlie Hebdo, unless the award represents only one incidence and not the history of Magazine.

    • revelator60

      Charlie Hebdo’s editor fired a writer because he refused to apologize for making an apparently anti-Semitic statement about a specific living individual. It’s a much different case from printing a bawdy picture of a long-dead religious figure–and Charlie Hebdo was only too happy to give Moses and Jesus even naughtier treatment than Mohammed. It also published many cartoons that were fiercely critical of Israel’s policies toward Muslims. And let’s not forget its “Untouchables” cover…
      Charlie Hebdo is unquestionably “a role model for freedom of speech or courage.” Despite being fire-bombed and subjected to death-threats, its staff persevered in its insistence that free speech included the right to disregard religious taboos. And when its staff was slaughtered, the remnants of the magazine continued in their mission, printing an issue whose cover reinforced their stand and yet carried a message of reconciliation. That is certainly worth an award.

      • Fayyaz

        “Charlie Hebdo’s editor fired a writer because he refused to apologize for making an apparently anti-Semitic statement about a specific living individual.”
        Are you serious? You are now making exceptions for free speech. Ok, has charlie Hebdo made fun of Holocaust-ever? or victims of 9/11?

        • revelator60

          You seem a bit confused. A magazine editor doesn’t violate free speech when he fires a writer. Freedom of speech means precisely that he has the right to publish what he likes in his magazine. And if he thinks a writer has gone out of his way to slander an individual, he has the right to fire him.
          I haven’t read every issue of Charlie Hebdo, but I wouldn’t be surprised if they made cartoons involving the Holocaust or 9/11, though I doubt they involved mocking the victims. Nor were its cartoons of Mohammed meant to mock all Muslims–just those fanatics who think depicting the prophet merits punishment.

    • Fiona

      Hebdo published plenty of offensive satire involving Israel and rabbis

      The incident you refer to – firing Sinet, was a lot more complicated and more akin to dismissal for failing to apologize for slandering an individual. See this article

      Charlie Hebdo may have been inconsistent from time to time. They were not perfect and they were not saints. Those who lack perfection are often the most courageous in our society are they not?.

      I’ll take an occasionally wrong Charlie Hebdo over blameless cowards like the writers at PEN who protested this award any day. Thank you Kenan for defending Charlie every time it is needed. Thank you.

      • Fayyaz

        “Charlie Hebdo may have been inconsistent from time to time”
        If they were not consistent then on what basis the award is given? The PEN should explain the criteria?. .

        Following is the excerpt fromThe Guradian from your link on firing of Sinet. I would love to hear from Mr. Kenan on the firing of Mr. Sinet.
        “But for his collaborator and founder of Charlie Hebdo, François Cavanna, they were ‘one of Siné’s more extreme jokes, certainly dangerous but rare’. Other colleagues supported the cartoonist’s ‘right to provoke’. Many have signed the petition of support.”

        It seems more like a sympathy ward than any thing else.

    • First, my apologies for not responding before – I have been caught up with other issues. Yes, one can criticize Charlie Hebdo for its treatment of Siné; I myself pointed out in my very first piece on this issue back in January that ‘Charlie Hebdo itself has equivocated’. One can also debate Charlie Hebdo‘s attitudes towards Islam, and towards laîcite (as Leigh Phillips does in his essay). But if awards were given only to people who were entirely consistent and beyond criticism, I doubt if any awards would ever be given. Awards are given to humans, not saints. So we can debate Charlie Hebdo’s politics (though the claim that it is racist or bigoted is false and based on failure to understand the context of the cartoons). We can debate whether it merits its award (as people do with respect to most such awards). But boycotting the award ceremony is different from criticizing either the magazine or the award. It is claiming that to give the award is so morally offensive that one cannot in any sense be associated with it or be in the same room as the cartoonists receiving the award. That view is, in my mind, absurd.

      As for the criteria for giving the award, this is what Andrew Solomon and Suzanne Nossel of PEN American Centre wrote in the New York Times:

      Charlie Hebdo’s staff members knew that producing satire aimed at venerated targets was dangerous. Their valor lies in their dauntless fortitude patrolling the outer precincts of free speech. While many question the defense of that far-flung territory because of the bigotry that can lurk there, Charlie Hebdo has guarded it vigilantly, keeping it open for all should a time come when we, too, may need to challenge taboos and risk sacrilege. Without those who stake out the border provinces, we would all be forced to dwell in an ever-shrinking expressive terrain…


      Charlie Hebdo’s cartoons resist religious extremists’ attempts to redraw the boundaries of free speech by using violence. They do so in defense of norms to which free societies subscribe. Anti-Muslim prejudice in the West is a serious matter. So is fundamentalism, Islamist or otherwise. Feeding off one another, both ills threaten civil liberties and tear at social fabrics. But a statement or an award that addresses one problem does not thereby deny or acquiesce to the other. The distressing absence of broad respect toward Muslims in France does not undercut Charlie Hebdo’s bravery in defending the right to be disrespectful.

      • Fayyaz

        Thanks for comments. If one take into account of Sine incidence, this elaborate expatiation does not hold. If one’s work is anti-Islam, it automatically gets bonus points. After Khomeni issued a Fatwa against Rushedi, the Satanic Verses started receiving all the awards and rewards. The awards should be based on the merits of actual work, not other unfortunate incidents.
        Recently in France. a young Muslim girl was repeatedly sent home from school for wearing a long skirt and violating “Laicite”.
        The courage is to defend the rights of persecuted and stand up to the Authority against racism. Charlie Hebdo was kicking down on the already trodden down, which it has the right, but it is not the courage. If some offended thugs resorted to violence, it should not automatically move the odds of winning at the top of the list.

        You do not has to be saint, but you should at least win the award on its own merits and not on the basis of unfortunate incident.
        If something is so outrageous, boycotting it may be a better expression than just opposing it in writing-it is a matter of personal judgement.

        • It is absurd to suggest that Charlie Hebdo is ‘kicking down on the already trodden down’ – unless you think that ridiculing Islam is the same as attacking ‘the already downtrodden’. As I pointed out in my original post on Charlie Hebdo:

          To ridicule religion and to defend free expression is not to attack minority communities. On the contrary: without doing both it is impossible to defend the freedoms of Muslims or of anyone else.

          I pointed out, too, that:

          What is really racist is the idea that only nice white liberals want to challenge religion or demolish its pretensions or can handle satire and ridicule… There are hundreds of thousands, within Muslim communities in the West, and within Muslim-majority countries across the world, challenging religious-based reactionary ideas and policies and institutions; writers, cartoonists, political activists, daily putting their lives on the line in facing down blasphemy laws, standing up for equal rights and fighting for democratic freedoms.

          Far from ‘kicking down on the already trodden down’, Charlie Hebdo’s whole raison d’etre is to challenge those with power, as anti-racists in France, if not critics in the Anglophone world with little understanding of French politics, readily acknowledge.

          What you call an ‘unfortunate incident’ was the murder of 12 people (including, as it happens, two of Muslim or North African background). It is telling that you cannot call a mass killing by its name but have to resort to a disingenuous euphemism. Ridiculing Islam is more likely to get you bullets than ‘bonus points’. (The Satanic Verses, incidentally, won the Whitbread Book prize in 1988, before the fatwa, but, as far as I know, has not won an award since. Allegations without facts seem to be the norm when it comes to this issue.) This was not the first time the Charlie Hebdo offices had been attacked, including at least one previous firebombing. Nor is Charlie Hebdo alone in facing such threats. From the murder of translators of The Satanic Verses to the firebombing of the offices of the London publishers Gibson House for daring to publish a novel about Muhammad’s wife Ayesha to gunmen opening fire just yesterday on a ‘Muhammad Art Exhibit and Cartoon Contest’ in Texas, these attacks are all too common. Against this background, Charlie Hebdo‘s willingness to stand up for free expression requires great courage, and should draw admiration, not your snidiness.

        • Fayyaz

          With all due respect, disagreeing with your arguments in support of the award is not snidiness. As of May 1st, 2015 about 145 writes also disagree with you and do not think Cahrlie Hebdo deserves this award. (
          If you have an incidence like firing of Mr. Sine that contradicts and undermines the very basis of an award, dismissing it on the argument of not being saint, is weak, convenient and , with all due respect, intellectually dishonest . Mr. Sine was also pushing the boundaries and his firing undercuts the very basis of this award and free speech.The following paragraph is worth reading again from the Guardian;
          “But for his collaborator and founder of Charlie Hebdo, François Cavanna, they were ‘one of Siné’s more extreme jokes, certainly dangerous but rare’. Other colleagues supported the cartoonist’s ‘right to provoke’. Many have signed the petition of support.”
          Yes, I agree the firing at Charlie Hebdo was not just unfortunate incidence but a massacre-but does it make Charlie Hebdo automatically deserving of the award? I do not think so and many other writers also think the same.

        • It wasn’t your disagreeing with me that I called snide. It was your description of the mass killing merely as an ‘unfortunate incident’. I am glad you have rectified that.

          Charlie Hebdo has not won the award because its cartoonists were massacred. It has won the award because, in the face of such enormous threats, it refused to back down on the issue of free expression. This is how PEN America put it:

          Only a handful of people are willing to put themselves in peril to build a world in which we are all free to say what we believe. In continuing publication after their offices were firebombed in 2011 and again after the massacre in January, Charlie Hebdo’s current staff have taken that exact position.


          The “assassin’s veto” over speech has become a global phenomenon in recent years and, even more vividly, in recent months, when we’ve seen killings not just in Paris but also in Copenhagen and Bangladesh… Charlie Hebdo has positioned itself in the firing line of this battle, refusing to accept the curtailment of lawful speech by those who meet it with violence.

          The firing of Siné, while in my opinion wrong, is irrelevant to this award. What you seem desperate not to acknowledge are the reasons for the award and both the courage of Charlie Hebdo journalists and the necessity for taking the stance that they did. A world in which everyone caved in to such threats would be a world without free speech.

        • Fayyaz

          Thanks for your patience and insightful comments. I may not agree with you on certain points, but I enjoy reading your work. I will close the discussion on my part with the following comments. You must be aware that Mr. Edward Snowden and Glenn Greenwald were the contenders for the award. Following excerpt from the letter sent by the protesting writers alludes to this;

          “PEN is an essential organization in the global battle for freedom of expression. It is therefore disheartening to see that PEN America has chosen to honor the work and mission of Charlie Hebdo above those who not only exemplify the principles of free expression, but whose courage, even when provocative and discomfiting, has also been pointedly exercised for the good of humanity.”

          Comment by Emmanuel Todd in NYT

          In an interview about his new book, “Who Is Charlie?,” to be released in France on Thursday, the center-left historian and demographer Emmanuel Todd described the Jan. 11 demonstrations that brought millions to the streets of Paris and other French cities in support of the magazine as “a sham.” The march, he argued, purported to unite all of France but in fact brought together an urban, historically atheist elite and a rural, Roman Catholic, traditionally anti-republican demographic, but not the Muslim underclass.
          “For the first time in my life, I wasn’t proud to be French,” Mr. Todd said in a cover interview this week with the magazine L’Obs. “When four million people come together to say that caricaturing the religion of others is an absolute right — and even a duty! — and when these others are the weakest members of society, one is perfectly free to say that we’re fine, we’re in the right, that this is a great country. But that is not the case.”
          Thanks again for taking the time from your busy schedule to engage in the discussion.
          Link to letter and inside story.

  3. Lint Gravy

    “Everyone is entitled to their opinion,” goes the cry, “so I can regard CH as racist if I want to; it is not a question of misunderstanding nor of fact but of feeling and interpretation, and reasonable people may differ .”

    Well, no. Not quite. Certainly you’re entitled to find an image offensive, and to (quite rightly) find it disgustingly racist. The Taubira cartoon was indeed repugnant. What matters is that it was deliberately repugnant; and that moreover its self-evident moral repugnance actually was the very substance of the comment it embodied. It said “this is despicable. Stripped of its sniggering cuteness, THIS is what the Front National really did, presented to you in a form that makes its moral repugnance self-evident.”

    You don’t like it? OF COURSE you don’t like it. I don’t think, anyone, anywhere, was meant to like it. That again was the F-ing point. It was loathsome and the force of its symbolism was its loathsomeness.

    If after learning the context of the cartoon, having had the surrounding text and symbolism translated, and learning of Mme. Taubira’s own response to it, a person still proclaims it to be racist in intent and Charlie Hebdo to be racist on the basis of it, then I will pay that person the compliment of believing them disingenuous. The alternative is to believe them an imbecile.

    To ascribe a fixed meaning to a symbol is one thing, but to suppose that even in comment a use of that symbol can have only one purpose, and only one kind of user, is to suppose that every cartoonist who ever used a swastika satirically was in fact a Nazi.

    • Madge Hirsch

      Well said. Those who constantly use this cartoon to insist that Charle Hebdo was racist should listen to the eloquent and moving eulogy Mme Taubira gave at the funeral of Tignous. But of course most of them could not because they don’t speak French fluently. As a naturalised French citizen who has lived in France for nearly fourteen years and a subscriber to Charlie Hebdo I am sick to death of reading all this “Charlie was a racist publication” rubbish. It shows deep ignorance of the weekly from people who have obviously never read it on a regular basis. Apart from the fact that Charlie were at the forefront of campaigns to legalise illegal immigrants their main target is the Front National because they are a racist party! As for the sacking of Maurice Sinet this too is more complicated than is often made out. There are many who believe that Val was just looking for an opportunity to get rid of Siné for personal reasons.

  4. damon

    I don’t think that Kenan’s article acknowledged how much the world has changed.
    And that Islam and Islamism is now very much a part of all our societies, and that really, you can talk all you like, but fundamentalists are not going to be placated when they take issue with something.
    You can make a better argument, but it will fall on deaf ears within a large percentage of people who take their religion seriously. Try going to Tower Hamlets and talk to people on the streets there about why their Mayor wasn’t good for politics. You won’t get very far with most of the people who supported him. They will be convinced of the arguments the likes of the Socialist Worker and George Galloway have made about the situation. Ditto with Charlie Hebdo. Its no use explaining that it was actually anti racist etc. If enough people say it insulted Muslims, then it just does.
    We may have gone backwards in the last couple of decades not forwards.
    It was presumed that we would be going to an ever more enlightened and liberal future, but with modern multiculturalism, that isn’t necessarily so.

    • Fiona

      Your comment has really haunted me. The idea that we can just go back to ‘it is this way because it is’.

      What depresses me most though, is not the ordinary people of Tower Hamlets who maybe don’t have the time or inclincation to think too much about some issues, or even the stance of islamists themselves. What really gets to me are the people in PEN, like these ones here in Scotland

      who consider thinking to be their job and that they are rather good at it.

  5. Fiona

    Fayyaz, I wish I was more eloquent and that people were transparent, so that you could see with complete clarity that when people like me not only defend Charlie Hebdo’s rights but admire them, it is without malice to you or any muslims, and that it is in fact out of respect and fear of the loss of our shared humanity that I do this.

    Emmanual Todd is one person, with a book, and he is wrong. He is type of wrongness is affecting us all and facilitating and enabling the right wing bigots in our midst who seek to dehumanise the ‘other’ and roll back the progress the human race has made with declarations of universal human rights. We may ignore these rights, as the hypocritical Charlie mourners often do, but at least we force them to hypocrisy. The far right of either side does not agree with these fundemental rights, and for different reasons, neither do some of the left now.

    As we, quite rightly say when discussing religion (I am not anti-religious), deep context and understanding is everything. If we do not get that right we often do not understand at all. Satire of the kind perpetuated by Charlie Hebdo was part of an existing tradition in France when the fatwas against writers and artists started. Islamic fundamentalists gave notice, globally, not just in islamic societies, that Sharia retributions were to be enacted where and how they saw fit, for any offences against islam. For those artsts living in a secular society like France, with a history of such bloodshed over religion, this kind of threat could not be tolerated. Those in Europe with a history of this bloodshed could not accept a return to death warrants from clerics. The gist of advice Charlie took from friend who had lived through the Algerian terror of the ’90’s was this – ‘if you stop doing what you do and try to submit, they will often still kill you, you may as well just keep doing what you do’. Charlie took this advice and lampooned Islam alongside all of the other religions and ideologies. With this, they held firm against clerical bullies. What is less talked about is how, with this stance they also safeguarded muslims more, not less, against the white right blowback that is growing exponentially in the west against what they see as the ‘exceptionalisms’ indulged in by the left. The white right now has a narrative of ‘it is prohibited to criticise anyone but us now – we are the ultimate victims of racism’. You will notice that they were not marching on the street for Charlie either.

    All of us who do not want to be marched along to a ‘clash of civilizations’ by the white far right and the muslim right walk a tightrope now. We have to come down hard equally on both sides equally because both are equally wrong and when we are soft on one, we perpetuate the other. Charlie knew this. They, as secular artitsts, were offered a punch from the islamists. They managed, before they went down, to throw a counterpunch in both directions. Whether you realize it or not, they did it for you as well as me. I hope that someday this will become clear to you.

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