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Mihir S Sharma: The vanity of good souls

Mihir S Sharma 

Mihir S Sharma

"Across New York," Hari Kunzru wrote on Twitter last week, "drunken writers shout at each other about Charlie Hebdo then lapse into desultory discussion of Game of Thrones." This is, sadly, true. Just when you thought we had put the whole thing behind us, here comes the PEN controversy, and the "free speech"-versus-"racism" thing flares up again.

Briefly, the issue. The American chapter of the authors' organisation, PEN, decided to hand out this years' free-speech award to the French magazine that lost so many of its editors and contributors earlier this year. Six of the authors who were supposed to act as hosts at the PEN gala decided instead to boycott it, because they did not think the award should have gone to a magazine they considered to intentionally cause "further humiliation and suffering" to a section of the French population "that is already marginalised, embattled and victimised".

There is a reason why we keep coming back to this fight. It runs deeper than this instance; deeper than even the free speech-vs-respect conflict. It is, essentially, a question: do you treat entire marginalised communities as victimised en bloc? Or are you, as an outsider, entitled to suppose that some among them oppress the others? Charlie Hebdo's answer was the latter. The "six authors in search of character" - to use Salman Rushdie's growly phrase describing the boycotters - believe the former.

I have already stated, in this column, my reasons for thinking that the highest duty of any writer - or indeed human being - is to refuse to ignore oppression and silencing, even if that silencing is ostensibly on behalf of a marginalised community. Without allies from outside, it is difficult for any stomped-on member of a community to escape. And the focus on that individual, instead of the community to which they are forced to belong by birth, is central to every progressive and humane development in the centuries since writers in France and Scotland created the Enlightenment out of little more than hope and anger. Everywhere the values of the Enlightenment are threatened, mocked and diluted - in our country not least. If you believe the values of the Enlightenment, which stress our common humanity and shared - but not communal - rights, are necessarily racist, European, or discriminatory, then naturally you will disagree with me. You are grievously and tragically wrong, but I cannot set you right in the 500 words remaining in this column.

But what I can do is point out how, when it comes to honouring writers, the principle matters - but so does the text. I agree with the New York Six that even if you stand for free speech, you could still say that awarding racists is not necessary. You can defend them, protect them, march in their support. But you need not honour them. In matters of honour, the principle does not trump the example.

But the New York Six violate this, too. For they have indeed put a principle above the instance. The principle is anti-colonialism; and the instance is Charlie Hebdo, the anti-authoritarians. The Six have chosen to ignore a long history of provocation in order to focus on what they see as "selectively offensive material".

Put aside the myths. Here are, instead, the facts.

First, Charlie Hebdo was not a magazine of old white men. Its Morocco-born columnist Zineb el-Rhazoui, who wrote part of the post-massacre issue and is now specifically under threat from the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria, would roll her eyes at that idea. The murdered Moustapha Ourrad would have laughed at it, even as the New York Six try to write him out of history.

Second, as a Le Monde investigation pointed out, in the past decade, just seven of the magazine's 523 issues had Islam as a subject. Thirty-one of the 38 issues on religion. (The magazine's biggest target: France's uber-racist National Front.) In other words, Islam was discussed a fraction of a fraction of times - 1.3 per cent. I am forced to conclude the writers using the phrase "selectively offensive" either do not understand mathematics or, more probably, do not understand simple English.

Third, French Muslims are not clinging to religion in the face of an oppressive state. Whatever their economic marginalisation, they are, in fact, the most rapidly secularising Muslim community in the world. According to one estimate, quoted by a Pew Survey, "the fraction of Muslims actively practicing their religion in France is only 10 per cent, which is very similar to that of practicing Catholics". Eight of 10 French Muslims say they "want to adopt French customs". Only as many French Muslims say they are French before being Muslim as American Christians say they are Christian before American. In other words, the New York Six have caricatured and patronised French Muslims, in a way Charlie Hebdo never did.

Fourth, it would be wise to listen to the voices of France itself. Just because it is a Western country does not mean that the smug Anglo-American pretend-liberal can immediately understand it. Instead of listening to the minimally informed voice in your head, look instead to the anti-racism movement in France - and to men such as Dominique Sopo, the young president of the organisation SOS Racisme, who turned up to defend Charlie Hebdo at the PEN gala earlier this week. It was, he said, "the most anti-racist newspaper" in France ... Every week in Charlie Hebdo - every week - half of it was against racism, against anti-Semitism, against anti-Muslim hatred." The magazine's murdered editor, Charb, was about to publish a book attacking Muslim-hatred. (Read it, it's awesome.) In fact, as Michael Moynihan pointed out on The Daily Beast, "when the shooting began, the Charlie Hebdo staff members were discussing their participation in an upcoming anti-racism conference".

To choose to call these people racist, in the service of a half-formed anti-imperialist principle, shows the worst kind of Anglo-American arrogance.

Political differences aside, this is what I say to the Six Authors in Search of Character: If you wish to slander the dead, it is your right. But you are a fool to do so. And far worse, you are unkind.

Let the final word go to Charlie Hebdo itself. On its latest cover, it gleefully makes the obvious pun - linking PEN, the organisation, to Le Pen, the racist family that runs the magazine's favourite target, the National Front. Inside, Pierre Lancon - shot in the face in January - writes sadly of the New York Six: "It's not their abstention that shocks me. It's the nature of their arguments. That novelists of such quality ... come to say so many misinformed stupidities in so few words, with all the vanity of good souls, is what saddens the reader in me."
Twitter: @mihirssharma

First Published: Thu, May 07 2015. 21:42 IST