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PEN America should not honor Charlie Hebdo

There’s no reason to reward Islamophobic and racist content

May 2, 2015 2:00AM ET

On April 26, six prominent writers withdrew from an annual gala hosted by the PEN America Center, a New York–based literary and human rights organization, protesting its decision to honor the French satirical magazine Charlie Hebdo with its Freedom of Expression Courage Award. At least 29 more writers — including Junot Díaz, Eve Ensler and Rebecca Solnit — have since joined the boycott. The event, slated for May 5, is part of PEN America’s weeklong celebration of authors from around the world.

I couldn’t imagine being in the room when they have a standing ovation for Charlie Hebdo,” Francine Prose, one of the initial six authors to withdraw, told The Associated Press in an interview last week. “A horrendous crime was committed, but was it a free speech issue to be self-righteous about?” The other five writers — Teju Cole, Peter Carey, Rachel Kushner, Taiye Selasi and Michael Ondaatje — have issued similar statements.

The response to the boycott has been swift. “The award will be given,” author Salman Rushdie wrote on Twitter. “PEN is holding firm. Just 6 pussies. Six authors in Search of a bit of Character.”

The question whether Charlie Hebdo needs to be valorized is contentious. It tragically lost eight staff members when gunmen affiliated with Al-Qaeda in Yemen stormed the magazine’s offices on Jan. 7. (Two police officers and two others in the offices were also killed.) At issue is whether a group or an individual who suffers such a vicious attack deserves canonization on that basis. Those who are withdrawing from PEN’s gala support Charlie Hebdo’s right to publish the material, but they argue that its racist and Islamophobic content should not be endorsed with an award. The magazine has a history of singling out Muslims for jabs and ridicule. Its editorial staff occupies a privileged position compared with that of European Muslims or Muslims in general, whom they have long targeted with irreverent satire.

As a Muslim and PEN member, I agree with the boycott. A writer’s existence is not predicated on freedom alone. It also rests on a commitment to content, to speaking truths worth speaking, most crucially the unheard and uncomfortable kind. Over the years, PEN has done exemplary work in supporting and speaking out for persecuted writers. However, its award to Charlie Hebdo appears counterproductive to the ideal of literary truth by elevating Islamophobic and racist content that instead deserves condemnation. Although the magazine’s editors and cartoonists were victims of terrorism, their work reflected and fed into the collective sensibility that led to the mass slaughter of Muslims as a way to fight terrorism. I support freedom of speech, and I deplore the tragedy, but their work does not deserve honors.

Questions about privilege and Islamophobia have been difficult to discuss in the U.S. literary sphere, not least because of the lack of diversity in this realm and the politics of the 'war on terrorism.'

Literary organizations such as PEN have often been too silent about Western interventions in the Muslim world and the mayhem they have caused. For example, while PEN regularly champions Muslim writers persecuted by foreign governments, it has rarely done this when Muslim writers are persecuted by the U.S government or its allies under its “war on terrorism.” Such silence or tacit support of U.S. foreign policy has led to the elevation of Islamophobia as an acceptable prejudice in the West. The decision to give an award to Charlie Hebdo illustrates this. Fortunately, the ensuing debate shows that some writers in this polarized post-9/11 milieu are finally beginning to question the premise that opposition to terrorism requires an endorsement of racist provocations like Charlie Hebdo’s cartoons.

Leading the countercharge in PEN’s defense is Rushdie. In 1988, when he published his fictional account of the life of the Prophet Muhammad, “The Satanic Verses,” the Muslim world was enraged. Iran’s Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini accused him of blasphemy and issued a fatwa with death threats. More than 20 years later, Rushdie still enjoys worldwide acclaim. He has championed Charlie Hebdo. In addition to his comments on the authors behind the PEN boycott, he continues to castigate the writers who have raised objections about the award as “being in the enemy camp” and “fellow travelers” in the cause of Islamic jihad.

Rushdie’s accusations sound eerily similar to George W. Bush’s now famous mantra “You’re either with us or against us,” which has been a huge part of the U.S wars abroad. In March, on the 12th anniversary of the start of the Iraq War, a report revealed that the conservatively estimated human cost of Washington’s military campaigns in Iraq, Afghanistan and Pakistan to stand at 1.3 million people. A million of these hapless souls were Iraqis, representing 5 percent of the population of the country. The estimate did not include the thousands killed by U.S. drone strikers in Yemen, Somalia and other Muslim countries.

Questions about privilege and Islamophobia have been difficult to discuss in the U.S. literary sphere, not least because of the lack of diversity in this realm and the politics of the “war on terrorism.” While U.S. military interventions have altered the global view of Muslims for the worse, organizations such as PEN have remained silent. In this context, valorizing Charlie Hebdo’s pillorying of Muslims ignores the 1.3 million mostly Muslim casualties of U.S. operations in Iraq, Afghanistan and Pakistan. Making jokes about Muslims and their identity in the aftermath of Washington’s wars serves only to reinforce the war’s propaganda.

In response to critics of the award, PEN’s Executive Director Suzanne Nossel pointed to her work with the U.S. State Department as a time when she gained crucial insights on never allowing countries such as Pakistan and Afghanistan to curb freedom of speech. But she failed to grasp that celebrating Charlie Hebdo’s racist and Islamophobic content does not further that goal.

I stand with the 35 authors who opted out of the PEN gala, choosing a literary heroism that emphasizes creating what is good rather than focusing only on the misfortune of being victimized by evil. PEN should instead fight for writers who have been unduly harassed and subjected to scrutiny and surveillance for differing with popular sentiments.

Rafia Zakaria is an attorney, a political philosopher and the author of “The Upstairs Wife: An Intimate History of Pakistan.”

The views expressed in this article are the author's own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera America's editorial policy.

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