If the PEN American Center’s mission is to promote free expression and lively discourse, the literary group accomplished that with its decision to honor the French magazine Charlie Hebdo at its annual Literary Gala on Tuesday night.
Even before the attack on a Texas event lampooning the prophet Muhammad, PEN's decision to award Charlie Hebdo a freedom of expression citation had stirred controversy.
As the publication’s editor, Gerard Biard, and its film critic, Jean-Baptiste Thoret, went to the stage to accept their award, though, there was no sign of the tensions preceding the event, which included a boycott by some PEN members. Biard and Thoret received a standing ovation, and Biard urged writers to work together to “disarm” enemies of free speech.
“They don't want us to debate. We must debate,” said Biard, who lost eight staff members in a January terrorist attack sparked by Charlie Hebdo's mockery of Muhammad. “We must disarm them.”
Days before the ceremony got underway, under tighter-than-usual security because of Sunday’s Texas attack, more than 200 PEN members had signed a letter disassociating themselves from the decision to give the PEN/Toni and James C. Goodale Freedom of Expression Courage Award to Charlie Hebdo.
Several authors who were to be table hosts at the $1,250-a-head, black-tie event pulled out in protest, forcing PEN to find fill-ins and sparking heated debate on the difference between intelligent satire and disdain aimed at humiliating marginalized sectors of society.
“Charlie Hebdo’s cartoons were characterized as satire and ‘equal opportunity offense,’ and the magazine seems to be entirely sincere in its anarchic expressions of principled disdain toward organized religion,” the letter signed by the dissenters said in part. “But in an unequal society, equal opportunity offense does not have an equal effect.”
It said the award was “valorizing selectively offensive material” published by Charlie Hebdo that had intensified anti-Islamic sentiments.
Biard thanked those who supported the award and offered a spirited defense of Charlie Hebdo, which he noted was “a little satirical newspaper” unknown to most of the world before the attack.
“It's the function of satire, being provocative and offensive, is it not?” Biard said.
“Being shocked is part of a democratic debate,” he said. “Being shot is not.”
The magazine regularly publishes cartoons satirizing religion and politics and has depicted Muhammad in its illustrations, which many Muslims believe to be sacrilegious.
Dozens of police stood guard around the American Museum of Natural History, where the event was held, and arrivals passed through metal detectors as they entered the main hall. PEN spokeswoman Sarah Edkins said extra security was planned weeks ago but was stepped up after the Texas incident, which left the two gunmen dead and a security guard wounded.
PEN President Andrew Solomon devoted his opening remarks to the dispute, giving an impassioned defense of Charlie Hebdo and the organization's decision to honor it. Solomon said that despite violent attacks directed at the magazine for poking fun at Islam, “Charlie Hebdo's mission of satirizing sacred targets endured.”
“Few people are willing to put themselves in peril to ensure we are free to say what we believe,” said Solomon, adding that PEN exists to defend free speech.
“Silence equals death,” he said.
Masha Gessen, a Russian and American writer and journalist and one of the table hosts, said she welcomed the debate sparked by the award for Charlie Hebdo. “It adds to the meaning of this award and to the reason for PEN's existence” said Gessen, adding that writers rarely have been confronted with the questions facing them in the wake of the Paris and Texas assaults.
Those questions include what, if any, limits writers should put on themselves to avoid offending their audience, and where satire ends and incitement begins.
“They're important questions and there's rarely an occasion to have them hashed out in the way we've been able to recently,” she said. “What is a writer's responsibility, especially in a situation where you cannot handpick your audience?”
PEN announced in March that it would award the freedom of expression prize to Charlie Hebdo, whose Paris offices were attacked on Jan. 7 by militants angry over the cartoons. Eight Charlie Hebdo staff members were among a dozen people killed in the assault by two brothers claiming to be “avenging the prophet.”
A week later, Charlie Hebdo put out an issue again featuring the prophet on the cover, with a caption declaring, “All is forgiven.”
The Texas event that came under attack was a contest for cartoonists to depict Muhammad. It was sponsored by the American Freedom Defense Initiative, which calls itself a defender of free speech. Critics say the group promotes Islamophobia and hate speech.
In announcing its decision to honor Charlie Hebdo, PEN said: “It is the role of the satirists in any free society to challenge the powerful and the sacred, pushing boundaries in ways that make expression freer and more robust for us all. In paying the ultimate price for the exercise of their freedom, and then soldiering on amid devastating loss, Charlie Hebdo deserves to be recognized for its dauntlessness in the face of one of the most noxious assaults on expression in recent memory.”
Biard says there is no comparison between what the magazine publishes and what the Texas event promoted. One had cartoonists competing to draw insulting images of Muhammad, and the other — Charlie Hebdo — offered a critique of organized religion, he told Charlie Rose on PBS in an interview that aired Monday night.
“We don't organize contests. We just do our work,” Biard said. “We comment on the news. When Muhammad jumped out in the news, we drew him out.”
The PEN American Center says it has a membership of 4,000 U.S. writers, and its Literary Gala hands out $150,000 in awards to writers in the fields of fiction, biography, children's literature, essays and other areas.