PEN's Free Speech Award to charlie hebdo Is ill-conceived

| 04 May 2015 | 11:19

I experienced deja vu this week when I learned that prominent writers — among them Peter Carey, Teju Cole, Rachel Kushner, Michael Ondaatje and Francine Prose — had withdrawn from the PEN American Center gala in Manhattan May 5 because the organization is giving a free speech award to the French satirical magazine Charlie Hebdo.

Three months ago I felt like the only liberal Manhattan high schooler who would not rally for the Paris paper's freedom of speech. As a student at the Lycée Francais de New York, I grew up in a half-French world on the Upper East Side most of my life — with a French Jewish grandmother and lots of French-speaking Muslim friends — so I've thought a lot about how minority issues play out in France. I've also studied that country's traditions regarding speech and religion.

I opposed supporting Charlie Hebdo's advocacy of free speech from the start because the issue, for me, was never really about that. The publication regularly made my Muslim friends uncomfortable with its conflation of terror and Islam. I didn't understand that as a furthering of free speech but rather as a curtailing of free discussion about minority issues in France.

Yet it was difficult to convey the distinction to my progressive New York high school friends, whether French or American. Despite everyone's attempts to be tolerant and unbiased, I often notice a different standard being applied to Islam and Muslims than to other religions and their practitioners.

Islamic terrorists use religion in a way that reminds me of a homegrown, American terrorist group: the Ku Klux Klan. Yet I never heard a word in my school history class or on the news about the KKK as a Christian organization, though its ideology and symbolism is engrained in Christianity — the burning crosses are only the most obvious symbol. At my school and on CNN or Fox, by contrast, Islam and terrorism seem closely aligned.

Like my friends, I spend a lot of time on social media, especially Tumblr, so I see that Muslims my age feel completely vilified by this debate. How can they go “blaming a whole group for something a few people who claim 'being Muslim' did,” writes a Tumblr poster from France, responding to an attack by skinheads on a girl wearing a hijab. “They are not Muslims, they are terrorists. Do not associate Islam to these people. I'm scared to go to school, I'm scared to walk down the street, I'm scared just to throw out the garbage. When is this going to stop?”

Aside from Islam, I wonder what exactly free speech is. It's essentially what our country has come to define itself by — it is, of course, the cornerstone of the First Amendment. This right has come to exclude certain kinds of expression, but not hate speech.

By contrast, France itself saw the need for limits on free speech. Article 11 of France's 1789 Declaration of the Rights of Man and of the Citizen (which we had to study at the Lycée) guaranteed “the free communication of ideas and opinions” as one of the most “precious rights” of man, but added that every citizen would be responsible “for such abuses of this freedom as shall be defined by law.”

When we glorify Charlie Hebdo, are we supporting one of the most “precious rights” of man or, rather, “abuses of this freedom”? That question is now steamrolling through the ranks of PEN and dividing an organization that is usually unified on issues of free speech.

Charlie Hebdo supports a simplistic confusion of Islam and terrorism. The magazine divides Muslims from the rest of society, and it distorts the values of openness it claims to support. I do not think it should be held up as an exemplar of free speech, but as an example of abuse of free speech. I am glad to see prominent PEN voices in New York rejecting that assumption.

Lucy Reiss is a junior at Avenues: The World School who would like to study at a liberal arts college on the West Coast.