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Critics of PEN free-speech award for Charlie Hebdo are 'grievously mistaken'

To the editor: Last week, I was asked to sign a protest letter to PEN American Center concerning its Freedom of Expression Courage Award to Charlie Hebdo, which was given Tuesday in New York. One argument made in the letter was that the killers were Muslim and therefore of "a population that is already marginalized, embattled and victimized, a population that is shaped by the legacy of France's various colonial enterprises." ("At PEN gala, Charlie Hebdo editor calls for free expression and debate," May 5)

Among the signers (200 among a membership of 4,000) are some writers I admire and some whom I know personally. So I don't question their intentions, but I was immediately reminded about how grievously mistaken another group of well-meaning, liberal thinkers were in the late 1930s and again in the 1980s.

As Hitler seized pieces of Europe, Christopher Isherwood and Aldous Huxley, among others, argued that pacifism was the correct response to the looming threat of fascism. In 1989, when Salman Rushdie was slammed with a fatwa, a small cadre of intellectuals suggested that Rushdie, born and raised a Muslim, invited his death sentence by insensitivity to his brethren.

Of course, Charlie Hebdo satirized — with equal acuity — the pope, priests, Jews, ministers and Holocaust victims. Yet none of these frequent targets arranged to have the staff of the French journal murdered. The executions, we're told, were ordered by Al Qaeda, hardly "a powerless, disenfranchised minority," to quote Garry Trudeau.

Sadly, the takeaway for most folks will be that a bunch of well-heeled elites have condoned the massacre of writers and Jews in Paris. In fact, they are not saying that. But having sought a boycott of PEN's gala and this well-merited award, they too are grievously mistaken.

Ann Louise Bardach, Carpinteria, Calif.

The writer, an author and journalist, is a member of PEN Center USA and PEN American Center.


To the editor: Should PEN have honored Charlie Hebdo? Of course.

Yes, the French publication's cartoons are puerile, silly and unsophisticated. But are they racist? They satirize Muslims and Arabs using crude tools such as big noses, camels, tents and more. But they also satirize Christians and others using equally crude symbols and stereotypes.

This is not racism but shotgun satire that leaves no one untouched.

Should this sophomoric stuff be honored? Under normal circumstances, no. But in an era when Western culture is under attack by Islamic fanatics, as evidenced by the killing of the cartoonists and others, the award makes a very loud statement.

By honoring Charlie Hebdo, PEN made a statement that needs to be amplified over and over: We will not self-censor and give in to the tyranny of religious fanaticism.

Carl Moore, Lomita

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