Being Hypersensitive About Charlie Hebdo Is Offensive Too

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A policeman stands guard outside the office of French weekly Charlie Hebdo in Paris on February 9, 2006, after the publication reprinted cartoons depicting the Prophet Muhammad. Regis Duvignau/Reuters

The PEN American Foundation will hold its annual awards dinner Tuesday night at Manhattan’s American Museum of Natural History, but with six last-minute cancellations. Novelists Peter Carey, Michael Ondaatje, Francine Prose, Teju Cole, Rachel Kushner and Taiye Selasi withdrew from the event in protest because the centerpiece of the evening—besides the main sporting event of big-time Manhattan literary schmoozing—will be the granting of an award to what’s left of French satirical newspaper Charlie Hebdo, where two Islamists massacred 12 people earlier this year for the offense of blasphemy.

That literary snub comes two nights after a shootout in Texas, in which two self-professed Islamist mujahideen were killed after they shot a security guard outside a Prophet Muhammad-cartooning event organized by a New York-based anti-Muslim organization that civil rights analysts have labeled a hate group. Both attackers, armed with assault-style rifles, were killed.  

The American Freedom Defense Initiative was co-founded by Pam Geller, who has styled herself the Ann Coulter of Islamophobia. Her other organization, Stop Islamization of America, has also been labeled a hate group. Besides crowing on Fox News, she likes to do things like buy ad space on New York City buses and subways for warnings about Islamic terror.

Geller immediately stated that the attack proved “this is a war.” Her shriek reached a cave in Syria, or London, and ISIS took the bait, taking credit and calling the dead men Al Khilafa—its name for soldiers. There is no indication that the two men, Phoenix roommates, had any ISIS connections.

 The two events—the PEN boycott and the Texas shootout—are obviously linked by their connection to Islamists and terror. But they are also linked in that the literati behind the PEN boycott and Geller occupy opposite ends of the same spectrum, which we can call American Islamo-hysteria.

Islamo-hysteria on the right is very familiar. Geller, who has made a cottage industry out of shrieking about how Sharia, or Islamist law, is coming, soon, to a mall near you, is only the loudest and most female of the bunch.

On the left, Islamo-hysteria manifests in extreme political correctness, and a patronizing attitude toward Islamic extremism. Lefty Islam-hystericals are men and women who have never spent a minute living under the repressive societies that Islamists have foisted on human beings in Afghanistan, ISIS-held territories, and, before that, in many parts of the Middle East, to lesser degrees (including our allies in the Gulf).

The progressive Islamo-hysterics like to say that since most of the world’s Muslims are poor and dark-skinned—and far too often are victims of American collateral drone and bomb damage—to criticize that religion’s violent, misogynistic creed is to side with the drones.

Progressive Islamo-hystericals practice extreme contortions of tolerance, from Harvard to the halls of America’s progressive foundations. In Murder in Amsterdam, Ian Buruma’s book about the 2004 murder of Dutch filmmaker Theo van Gogh, they are exemplified by hypertolerant Dutch housing authorities, who helpfully, and at state cost, built walls in subsidized apartments inhabited by hyperconservative Muslim immigrants who wanted to keep their women out of sight.

Novelist Francine Prose explained her boycott position in The Guardian: “The narrative of the Charlie Hebdo murders—white Europeans killed in their offices by Muslim extremists—is one that feeds neatly into the cultural prejudices that have allowed our government to make so many disastrous mistakes in the Middle East.”

Note the use of the word narrative to describe the actual event: 12 people with their brains splattered, bleeding to death—not fictionally but murdered in the middle of a morning at the office. Also note the racial characterization of the victims as “white Europeans.”

Prose and the other literary boycotters, 145 at last count, have decided to sit out an evening in which two members of the decimated Charlie Hebdo staff—Editor-in-Chief Gerard Biard and Jean-Baptiste Thoret, an essayist who arrived late for work on the day of the murders—are scheduled to accept the award.

Fortunately, PEN found six other, and more willing, author-hosts to replace the luminaries who decided to abandon their tables for Tuesday night’s event. The Charlie Hebdo survivors will still carry home to Paris an award from the Americans.

“The ‘assassin’s veto’ over speech has become a global phenomenon in recent years and, even more vividly, in recent months, when we’ve seen killings not just in Paris but also in Copenhagen and Bangladesh,” PEN wrote on its website in response to the boycott.

“The rising prevalence of various efforts to delimit speech and narrow the bounds of any permitted speech concern us; we defend free speech above its contents,” PEN continued. “We do not believe that any of us must endorse the content of Charlie Hebdo’s cartoons in order to affirm the importance of the medium of satire, or to applaud the staff’s bravery in holding fast to those values in the face of life and death threats.”

Bravo.

In their misguided assumptions about the billions of people around the globe who call themselves Muslim, Geller and the PEN boycotters belong to the same club. No, Pam, they aren’t bloodthirsty monsters coming to get you and your civilization. And no, Francine et al., most Muslims will probably not be any more offended if you draw the Prophet—at least not any more than most Christian evangelicals in America are when you support gay marriage.

I’d even be willing to wager that if you polled every last Muslim in the world, not the ones you meet at literary conferences or watch on TV waving placards and burning flags, the majority would probably agree that the survivors of the very real—not “narrative”—Charlie Hebdo massacre deserve an award.