A few points on the recent controversy around PEN’s award to Charlie Hebdo:
Jeet Heer wants to know how everyone has suddenly become an expert on French visual satire. It’s a peculiar argument, based on the premise that in order to judge Charlie Hebdo cartoons one has to be an expert on a long and rancid tradition of French satire. It has always struck me as odd, as if the only obvious conclusion to be drawn from the argument simply doesn’t occur to those making it. If one has to be an expert on a distinctly French tradition of satire because what others may consider vile and bigoted is common within that tradition and the broader national culture then perhaps it is logical to assume that French society is more racist than others. It’s certainly a more logical conclusion than whinging in perpetuity about how no one understands the French.
Michael Moynihan doesn’t understand the French but at least he knows to point us to one. He cites “Dominique Sopo, the Togolese-French president of SOS-Racisme, France’s most celebrated anti-racism organization, who made the obvious point that Charlie Hebdo was the ‘most anti-racist newspaper’ in the country.” Sopo cannot possibly believe Charlie Hebdo was Islamophobic given that he thinks the very term Islamophobia was coined by Islamists, placing him in the company of anti-racist luminaries like Ayaan Hirsi Ali, Sam Harris, and others. Personally, I try not to rely on the French for much of anything but it’s not as if Moynihan had no choice but to cite Dominique Sopo. He could have cited this letter from former Charlie Hebdo contributor Olivier Cyran who denounced its “growing obsession with Islam” after Philipe Val took over the magazine in 2000. He could have cited Alain Gresh, the deputy director of Le Monde Diplomatique, who also pointed out how Charlie Hebdo “shifted direction” under the leadership of Philipe Val. He could have cited this letter signed by Razmig Keucheyan, Eric Hazan, and others distancing themselves from “the obsessive hostility to Muslims that took root in [Charlie Hebdo] – always characterising them as nothing more than terrorists, benefits scroungers and morons.”
Jeffrey Goldberg does not believe these French critics of Charlie Hebdo. He writes that the publication is not anti-Muslim: “It is critical of Islam, as it is critical of all religions. Islam is a set of ideas, just as Christianity and Judaism are sets of ideas. In the putatively enlightened age in which we live, all ideas should be subject to testing, criticism, even excoriation.” If a cartoon mocking the massacre of over 800 Egyptians or one suggesting Mohammad was a paedophile is indeed criticism of ideas, then perhaps the French have let standards slip (it won’t be the first time).