I don't expect to change the minds of any of the 35 writers who have now joined the protest against PEN America giving an award to Charlie Hebdo magazine. Some of the signatories I respect hugely, one or two sycophantic wind-vane weasels on the list I would normally ignore, and at least one of the signatories is a close friend, someone who I'm sure has given this whole business much thought. How this motley bunch ends up signing one ill-judged letter I don't know, but they're wrong. Here's why.
The main argument being squeezed to pulp is that CH was, and is, an inherently racist magazine. That it is staffed by "privileged white men", who either deliberately or like "wanton boys", continuously defecate on a beleaguered minority (French Muslims, whether from the Maghreb or other parts of Africa) while making their jejune barbs. That they've been doing this while ignoring France's history of colonial oppression, and while trying to impose a shallow Enlightenment universalism that blindly feeds into the West's project of re-colonizing Muslim countries.
This is untrue on almost every count. CH has always been run by a kind of fringe leftist-anarchist bunch who are anything but privileged; over the years the team has been a mix of men and women, white and not, straight and gay. And as to constantly attacking an already oppressed minority, Le Monde recently did an infographic of the 523 Charlie Hebdo covers between 2005 and 2015, and the subject breakdown is this: politics - 336 covers, economic and social - 85, sport and others - 42, other subjects - 22, and, finally, religion - 38. Of the 38 covers lampooning religion, Christianity catches it in the neck 21 times, other religions 10 times and Islam a total of 7 times. Leaving that aside for a moment, CH's main targets by far have been the racist, white supremacist Front National led by Jean-Marie Le Pen and his daughter, and after them a certain Nicolas Sarkozy (remember those 336 political covers). Besides this, CH has made it a point to lampoon the military, oligarchs of every nationality, and capitalism in general. Here's a link that explains in some detail what some of the more startling covers and cartoons mean: http://www.understandingcharliehebdo.com/#theorie-du-genre
All the critics of CH I know, Facebook contacts claiming to be anarchist, artist friends taking on big business, academic friends who so love to drop names of hefty lefty intellectuals, journalists who are assiduous in defending minorities, none of them addresses the major part of CH's output. None of them, not once. Instead, they prefer to put a magnifying glass on about 1.5 per cent of what the magazine has produced in the last decade. They then take this and claim they have a fair fix on CH and its staff. Ten years, 523 issues, but, like some pungent spicing, those 7 covers obviously go a long way.
The second argument, piggybacking on the first, claims that CH is not an "equal opportunity" offender between Islam and Zionism, that it is very soft on Israel and Zionists. This is claimed despite CH's searing cartoons on what Israel is doing in Gaza, and regardless of its lampooning, from time to time, of evil-looking rabbis. The point CH's staff keep trying to make is that there is a difference between actual racism and using racist or homophobic tropes and archetypes to make vicious fun of the people who subscribe to these reactionary ideas. No critic seems to take on the point that Charb (Stéphane Charbonnier, the murdered editor) makes in a book that was published posthumously: "Really, the word 'Islamophobia' is badly chosen if it's supposed to describe the hatred which some lame-brains have for Muslims... it is dangerous... isn't it odd that 'Muslimophobia', or just 'racism', isn't used instead of 'Islamophobia'? ...because those who campaign against Islamophobia don't do so to defend Muslims as individuals. They do so to defend the religion of the prophet Mohamed."
You don't need to be an atheist to say. "Let divine beings and revelations defend themselves, it's the rights of individuals that centrally concern us." There are many in India - people who've become so desperate to "protect" the "feelings" of every little sub-group even as they dismantle the deep structures of our secularism - who may find this hard to digest, but Charlie Hebdo was and is a magazine that was proudly religiophobic - that is, it held all religions in equal contempt as demonstrated by its covers that simultaneously lampoon the three major religions of France, showing a triumvirate of fanatical, wild-eyed priest-mullah-rabbi, or three rolls of toilet paper, each with the name of one of the three 'qitabiya' holy books. Now, this broad-spectrum anti-religiosity is neither the invention of the Enlightenment nor exclusive to the West. We in the sub-continent have a long tradition of iconoclasticism that stretches from Gautam Buddha through Chaitanya, Kabir and Lalon Fakir, through various tribal and urban subaltern groups. At various points in our history, people have needed to tear down idols or bring down big, organized religions a peg or several in order to privilege the current earthly rights of humans. Each tearing down is usually balanced by the raising up of some other principle or belief. It might be a stretch, but not a big one, to place CH in some lineage of radical heretics, their replacement of older beliefs being a fanatical adherence to the mantras of liberté-fraternité-égalité and ni maître, ni dieu [no master, no god]. A majority of South Asians, Indians dealing currently with ghar wapsi, love jihad and beef bans, Bangladeshis with their bloggers being murdered simply for questioning the existence of god, Pakistan with its attacks on girls trying to go to school, may find this brash celebration of atheism hard to understand, but the sophisticated world citizens, the 35 authors who signed the PEN protest letter should have done a bit better.
The letter signed by the PEN protesters says: "to the section of the French population that is already marginalized, embattled, and victimized, 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".
This argument is appalling. It is specious, patronizing and hypocritical. Defending his stance, Teju Cole has said he would have stood up for Salman Rushdie against the Khomeini fatwa of 1989, but that he can't condone what CH has been doing. Cole has clearly obliterated that fatwa moment when all sorts of literary worthies bandwagoned against Rushdie, accusing him of exactly this: irresponsible boy-prankery and the intention to cause further humiliation and suffering to devout Muslims - in this case, marginalized British Muslims, embattled and victimized under Thatcher; legacy of British colonial enterprise; same suspects, different passports.
There weren't too many working-class Muslims in late 1980s Britain, devout or otherwise, who were readers of Salman Rushdie's novels; the Muslim youths (largely male) who thronged the streets of Bradford and London demanding death for Rushdie had been told by their cynical community leaders that there was such and such a book that contained such and such insults against their prophet. Equally, as Charb argues in his posthumous book, until the media and the Islam-squeezing community leaders took over, no working-class French Maghrebi or African was overly exercised by an obscure satirical magazine read by the Lefty fringe. As he says, "because the Charlie Hebdo drawings do not have the vast majority of Muslims as their target...We believe that Muslims are capable of recognising a tongue-in-cheek. By what twisted argument should Islam be less compatible with humour than other religions?...If you argue that you can laugh at everything, except certain aspects of Islam - because Muslims are much more sensitive than the rest of the population - aren't you practising a kind of discrimination?"
Since it first ran a cartoon of Mohammad in 2006, without any riots, Charlie Hebdo's message to whichever Muslim willing to open its pages was this: hello, fellow French citoyen, let's laugh together at the different forces trying to en-bamboo our happiness; if you happen to be Muslim, please don't allow yourself to be further skewered by these crazy, power-hungry mullahs, you've enough problems as it is; oh, does it actually say in some 7th century text that you can't portray your prophet? Well, get over it, here's a cartoon of your prophet, alongside several cartoons of Jesus, another prophet-type, linked to another fantastical text that others hold sacred, just laugh and move on; don't listen to the mullahs, don't get your knickers in a twist; again, look! we've got those two real, tangible shaitans, Le Pen papa and daughter coming to get us all!
All the 35 signatories agree that the massacre of the CH staff was unconscionable, their objection is to those people being deemed heroes and awarded posthumously by PEN America. I've never seen 35 (mostly) serious writers being more wrong, all together in a sheep-pen of delusion. Charb and the CH team were and are heroes. They carried on, sticking to their principles, under covert and overt attack from several different sides, the Right, the mainstream Left, the Mullahs, the media. They did this without resorting to any physical violence, and without profit, pomposity or bombast. They may have been guilty of 'bad taste', despite having been attacked earlier they were guilty of undercalculating the extent of the danger they faced, but they were heroes. In a time when the word, shaheed, is so evilly misused, they are true shaheeds to the cause of humanity, free speech and irreverent laughter.