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Business News/ Opinion / A salute to freedom
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A salute to freedom

PEN did right in saluting Charlie Hebdo. One day, I hope, the naysayers will realise that they were on the wrong side of history

A protester holds a placard outside the PEN Literary Awards at the American Museum of Natural History in New York on Monday. Photo: Carlo Allegri/Reuters Premium
A protester holds a placard outside the PEN Literary Awards at the American Museum of Natural History in New York on Monday. Photo: Carlo Allegri/Reuters

It would be a very boring world if writers agreed with each other all the time. But it is a tragic world when writers disagree with each other on a fundamental principle. And that principle is the freedom to speak, even in the face of threat or violence. Earlier this week at a gala in New York, PEN, the international organization that advocates freedom to read and freedom to write, honoured the French magazine Charlie Hebdo, for its outstanding courage.

In January this year, two terrorists murdered 12 members of the magazine’s staff because, over the years, the magazine’s cartoonists have drawn and published cartoons that are considered offensive to Muslims. Initially six prominent writers, including Michael Ondaatje, Peter Carey, Francine Prose, and Teju Cole, refused to associate themselves with the award, saying they wouldn’t be table hosts at the gala, which is their right and prerogative. Then 35 more writers, including a dear friend, and many more later, signed a letter criticizing the award.

Charlie Hebdo provokes strong reactions because outwardly it appears to be outrageous, as if, like the classroom prankster, it is being controversial for its sake. It is a culture-specific product, and its satire obviously does not translate well across cultures. There is a collective view among the writers critical of honouring the magazine, that it is racist or Islamophobic. Some Muslims have criticized the magazine, but many have expressed no opinion, unless they are incited by the religion’s gatekeepers—the clerics, imams, or mullahs, who are incidentally the real targets of Charlie Hebdo. Muslims aren’t monolithic, and to believe that their sensitivities should be treated as distinct, unlike the sensitivities of other religions or ideologies, is deeply patronizing and paternalistic towards Muslims.

Many liberals have joined the misinformed chorus that claims that the magazine singles out Muslims (it doesn’t; only seven of its more than 500 covers have been about Islam or Muslims), or that the cartoons lack artistic merit (the award was not given for aesthetics but for its courage—it’s next issue appeared as scheduled, a week later), or that the French commitment to free speech is not total, since France outlaws anti-Semitic or pro-Nazi propaganda (but nobody was honouring France; only a magazine that appeared in France in French).

Then there is whataboutism. In explaining her decision, former PEN president Prose said she would have preferred the award to go to Edward Snowden or Lydia Cacho. Snowden is the defence contractor who leaked information that revealed how western intelligence agencies were conducting mass surveillance without people’s consent. Snowden’s was a brave action. But unlike Daniel Ellsberg, (the whistleblower who leaked the Pentagon Papers during the Vietnam War) who has praised Snowden and with whom he is often compared, Snowden chose to avoid the legal consequences of his actions in the US; he fled to Vladimir Putin’s Russia. And Cacho, who I know and who has exposed violence against women in Mexico and has written an exceptional book about sex trafficking, has been honoured twice by PEN, and by others in the past.

There are other worthy potential recipients, including Raif Badawi, the Saudi blogger who has been flogged and awaits further brutalities, and Hamid Mir and Raza Rumi from Pakistan. Avijit Roy and Washiqur Rahman, both slain in Bangladesh on orders from fundamentalists. But this is not about who is braver—the Bangladeshis and Pakistanis or the Hebdo cartoonists. They all are. It is worth noting that the stubborn defiance of the Hebdo cartoonists inspired writers such as Roy. Far from ridiculing or stamping on Muslims or the religious, the cartoonists were ridiculing those who stamp on the disempowered, and in so doing, they made others living in societies oppressed by religion feel emboldened and empowered.

If freedom of expression is about speaking truth to power, then the murdered Hebdo cartoonists were doing just that—they were attacking religious orthodoxies. They may have lived in France, once a colonial power. Their targets may have appeared to be France’s religious minority or migrants. But that showed superficial reading; their real targets were the gatekeepers—of faith, money or power. They had paintbrushes and pixels. The power lay with the men with guns.

The prevailing Western liberal orthodoxy mistakenly assumes that the men—and they are usually men—who speak on behalf of religion represent the oppressed, and they are therefore on the morally just side of any debate because they challenge “American/western hegemony". To be sure, the US and the West are hardly perfect democracies and challenging them is often worthy and noble. But what has that to do with killing cartoonists, whose colleagues, within a week, published their next issue?

PEN did right in saluting Charlie Hebdo. One day, I hope, the naysayers will realize that they were, this once, on the wrong side of history.

Disclosure: I was on the board of English PEN for five years and co-chaired its Writers-at-Risk Committee, which, among other things, fought for and honoured Lydia Cacho. I have also assisted in setting up a PEN Centre in Yangon, Myanmar, after many political prisoners, including writers, were released.

Salil Tripathi is a writer based in London.

Your comments are welcome at salil@livemint.com. To read Salil Tripathi’s previous columns, go to www.livemint.com/saliltripathi

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Published: 06 May 2015, 05:51 PM IST
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