te last week, a letter circulated to members of PEN American Center protesting the organization’s decision to award the PEN/Toni and James C. Goodale Freedom of Expression Courage Award to the French satirical newspaper Charlie Hebdo at its annual awards dinner in New York on Tuesday night.
Charlie Hebdo, you will remember, was the target of a terrorist attack in early January, when two gunmen killed 12 people at the paper’s offices in retaliation for publishing satirical images of Muhammad. A week later, Charlie Hebdo put out an issue featuring the prophet on the cover, with a caption declaring, “All is forgiven.”
Say what you want about Charlie Hebdo’s provocations or its politics, but it was undeniably an act of courage for the editors to produce and distribute this so-called “survivors’ issue.”
Russell Blackford examines the controversy generated by PEN America’s decision to give Charlie Hebdo its free expression award.
There has been much public controversy over the decision by PEN America to give its freedom of expression award to Charlie Hebdo. I was scathing about some of the critics of Charlie Hebdo in the immediate wake of the January massacre of its staff (I discussed the responses in an article in Free Inquiry – it’s behind a pay wall for subscribers, however), so you might expect me to be equally scathing of the high-profile authors, such as Peter Carey, who are currently protesting PEN America’s decision.
Actually, no – I have a slightly more nuanced view this time. Part of what I was criticising in the Free Inquiry article was the sanctimonious attacks on Charlie Hebdo when the corpses of its murdered staff were scarcely cooled. Obviously, time has passed… and it is now a more reasonable moment for reflection on the magazine’s content. The grant of an important award to it also makes this a time to reflect on the content of the magazine and for any fair criticisms to be expressed.
As I said in Free Inquiry, if Charlie Hebdo were a clearly racist and vicious publication we would condemn the murders but not stand in solidarity with the magazine, for example by using the hashtag #JeSuiCharlie. Certainly we’d not, after all this time for consideration, support prestigious awards for it. There’s at least a genuine controversy about exactly how supportive we – and organisations such as PEN – ought to be.
There is a pronounced pessimism in our thinking about international politics. We are told the world is getting more dangerous. That the Cold War threat of nuclear annihilation was a pale shadow of the turmoil we see around us from Ukraine to Syria to Pakistan.
at is the Islamic State?
Where did it come from, and what are its intentions? The simplicity of these questions can be deceiving, and few Western leaders seem to know the answers. In December, The New York Times published confidential comments by Major General Michael K. Nagata, the Special Operations commander for the United States in the Middle East, admitting that he had hardly begun figuring out the Islamic State’s appeal. “We have not defeated the idea,” he said. “We do not even understand the idea.” In the past year, President Obama has referred to the Islamic State, variously, as “not Islamic” and as al-Qaeda’s “jayvee team,” statements that reflected confusion about the group, and may have contributed to significant strategic errors.
The group seized Mosul, Iraq, last June, and already rules an area larger than the United Kingdom. Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi has been its leader since May 2010, but until last summer, his most recent known appearance on film was a grainy mug shot from a stay in U.S. captivity at Camp Bucca during the occupation of Iraq. Then, on July 5 of last year, he stepped into the pulpit of the Great Mosque of al-Nuri in Mosul, to deliver a Ramadan sermon as the first caliph in generations—upgrading his resolution from grainy to high-definition, and his position from hunted guerrilla to commander of all Muslims. The inflow of jihadists that followed, from around the world, was unprecedented in its pace and volume, and is continuing……
Jacobin is happy to feature an interview with journalist David Barsamian and Professor Noam Chomsky. In it, Chomsky explains the roots of ISIS and why the United States and its allies are responsible for the group’s emergence. In particular, he argues that the 2003 invasion of Iraq provoked the sectarian divisions that have resulted in the destabilization of Iraqi society. The result was a climate where Saudi-funded radicals could thrive.
The interview also touches on Israel’s most recent massacre in the Gaza Strip, putting it in the context of the vital role Israel has always played for the United States. Chomsky then turns to today’s racist scapegoating of Guatemalan immigrants, tracing the conditions that lead them to leave their homes to the Reagan administration’s brutal destruction of the country.
Finally, Chomsky shares his thoughts on the growing movement for climate justice and why he thinks it is the most urgent of our time. The full exchange will be broadcast by Alternative Radio.
There are few voices more vital to the Left than Professor Chomsky’s. We hope you read and share the interview widely…..
Mahmood Mamdani recently gave a talk at the University of Johannesburg, touching on the topics of free speech and bigotry in our contemporary world. He took the example of Mohammed cartoons to make this point. It is a well argued and seemingly persuasive thesis which you can read here at Kafila.
I found that I had some fundamental differences with it and decided to write them out here. Please do read him before you read my response.
A well argued and persuasively written statement; unfortunately, I find myself un-persuaded.
The first disagreement. The blasphemy/bigotry distinction can be a useful academic device to understand particular situations, but is a dangerous and reactionary position in its political implications, specially when applied on the “world historical stage”. If I am outside a certain religious tradition, am I not allowed to debunk, attack, vilify and lampoon that tradition? I consider the entire human heritage as mine and for me every criticism, and more, on any human tradition is, to use that fashionable term, an “internal” attack. I have as much a right to denigrate Manu’s misogyny as I have the right to lampoon Mohammed.