Six members of PEN have declined to appear at this year’s annual banquet because the organization will give its Freedom Of Expression Award to the French magazine Charlie Hebdo. The writers have declined, apparently, because they believe the cartoons to which the gunmen objected unfairly exploited a downtrodden people.
The objection ignores the point of the award, which is to praise freedom of expression, one of the hallmarks of Western culture. We can–and should–debate all day long whether the ideas the Charlie Hebdo cartoonists were expressing were worthy of our consideration. What should be beyond debate is Charlie Hebdo‘s right to express those ideas.
The attack of the gunmen upon the magazine’s headquarters in Paris was an attack upon the very ideas of rationality and discourse. It was an attempt to cut down a line of thinking at its source. As Western men and women, this we cannot permit. If we judge the Charlie Hebdo cartoons to be “hate speech,” that’s fine; we can diminish the harmful effects of such speech through the unfettered exchange of ideas and argument. What we cannot allow is someone with a gun or a bomb to attempt to wipe out such speech altogether.
If you read my original post on the Charlie Hebdo affair, “What We See Is What We Are,” you know that I was not entirely happy with the aim of the magazine in those cartoons. But I was far less happy with the actions of the gunmen, who are diametrically opposed to the ways of Western thought and life. The Charlie Hebdo cartoons, crude as they were, exposed the intellectually-bankrupt, militarist culture of radical Islam for what it is, and gave that culture the ridicule it deserves.
Words and images are not bombs and bullets, although those who see “hate speech” everywhere like to think they are. Words and images are the means by which we correct our behavior; they are the means we use to express ideas and hopes. Harsh though our words may be toward ourselves and others at times, they remain the very basis of “humanity” itself the world over, and they are our best long-term defense against those bombs and those bullets. I can understand why the writers have opted out of the PEN award dinner, but the oppressed people of whom they speak are not being oppressed by the West. Their poverty and misery have been sustained for years by an Islamic culture deeply divided against itself, a culture that has yet to renounce fully a militaristic ethos that sees a bullet as the proper response to everyone who opposes what they do.
Radical Islam is likely to die a very slow death, and it will inflict more pain upon the West before it does. It will not die because somebody sends an army after the Militant Group of the Month. It will die because those who believe in the freedom of expression will persist in their efforts to engage Islam in debate, to criticize it and, yes, to satirize and ridicule it, until Islam itself decides that the only chance it has to defend itself is to engage the West on rational terms, within the arena of ideas rather than in a theater of war.