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Charlie Hebdo: As ‘PEN Award 6’ withdraw, post-attack legacy is still being drawn

THE LEGACY of the slain Charlie Hebdo cartoonists continues to find form and definition by the day. And it is ever looking as though their pen line will remain a longstanding dividing line:

Should their collective cartoons aimed at Islam — sometimes by depicting the Islamic prophet Muhammad — stand as a symbol of free speech, paid for in the highest price of human lives? Or are they a sign of irresponsibly hateful satire wielded with disproportionate venom, ultimately not in the name of a free press, but rather in the vein of pure and reckless provocation?

This month, in the wake of Garry Trudeau’s George Polk career-award speech critical of Charlie Hebdo, I asked 15 top cartoonists about where their own satirical “red lines” stand since the Hebdo massacre. Now, we see that members of PEN are similarly divided.

On May 5, Charlie Hebdo is due to receive the PEN American Center’s annual Freedom of Expression Courage award, as presented to Hebdo editor-in-chief Gerard Biard and staffer Jean-Baptiste Thoret in a Manhattan ceremony.

But now, the “PEN Award 6,” if you will — novelists Peter Carey, Michael Ondaatje, Francine Prose, Teju Cole, Rachel Kushner and Taiye Selasi — are withdrawing from the event because of the Hebdo award, reports the New York Times.

In withdrawing Friday, Kushner cited the French satirical weekly’s “cultural intolerance” and promotion of “a kind of forced secular view,” the Times reports — sentiments similar to those of the five other authors, who all serve as PEN “table heads.” (Other authors have also expressed to PEN their discomfort with the Hebdo award.)

And again, it bears repeating: Their words are not conflating Hebdo’s satirical practice with the horror and tragedy of January’s massacre at Hebdo’s Paris offices that left 12 dead, including five cartoonists. Judging by statements, this is not some broad-brush, “they had it coming” belief. (As Prose told the Associated Press, she “deplored” the killings, but can’t abide the honor’s implied “admiration and respect” for the Hebdo cartoons.)

At issue, instead, is whether Charlie Hebdo is to be piously honored as a symbol of free speech. Carey is among those who essentially believe that Hebdo was “punching down” in its satire toward Islam. As he noted in a Times interview: “All this is complicated by PEN’s seeming blindness to the cultural arrogance of the French nation, which does not recognize its moral obligation to a large and disempowered segment of their population.”

Vocally standing on the other side of this dividing line, however, is Salman Rushdie, he of the infamous fatwa over “The Satanic Verses.” Rushdie, a former PEN president, said his old friends Ondaatje and Carey are “horribly wrong,” stating: “If PEN as a free-speech organization can’t defend and celebrate people who have been murdered for drawing pictures, then frankly the organization is not worth the name.” (And it’s worth noting: The PEN leadership says membership has surged since the massacre.)

[Would you run Charlie Hebdo’s Muhammad cartoons? Pew poll says: Depends on which of these demographic boxes you check]

So now, amid this divide, we can expect organizations to examine more deeply than they might have what it means, exactly, to hand a plaque to surviving Hebdo staffers. Is an awarding group celebrating the magazine’s satiric philosophy — does a trophy tacitly applaud Hebdo’s content? Or does a statuette purely honor the principle of free speech as an absolute? And does such an award — as it did at January’s Angouleme comic-art festival — function largely as a memorial to lost lives.

Yet again, event after vocal event, where will legacy-shaping influencers draw that demarcation: Will Charlie Hebdo mostly be upheld as a free-speech champion in the line of duty, or did the magazine’s satire toward Islamic targets, especially, cross a moral line?

Or, perhaps, can both ideas, and outcomes, be held in our heads as independently true?

In the heat of so many black-and-white arguments, after all, even some Charlie Hebdo artists paint with areas of gray.

Garry Trudeau’s “Doonesbury” strip in the wake of the Charlie Hebdo attack: