What exactly is it is about the controversy surrounding the PEN American Center’s decision to give Charlie Hebdo its annual Freedom of Expression Courage Award that fascinates me?
Then again, what is there not to be fascinated by? The whole Charlie Hebdo saga is a combustible mixture of some of the most pressing contemporary issues, including:
freedom of expression (including its limits, as well as the relation and distinctions between satire and hate speech)
religion, freedom of religion and “respect” for religion
international relations between different cultures and religions
relations within a country between a dominant majority (in this case, white French) and a marginalized minority (French Muslims with backgrounds in North and Sub-Saharan Africa)
colonial histories of power imbalance and exploitation
For those who have not followed the controversy as obsessively as I, PEN American Center, which is in the forefront of the defense of the freedom of expression and supports persecuted writers around the world, awarded its 2015 Freedom of Expression Courage Award to the French satirical magazine Charlie Hebdo, eight of whose staff were killed in an attack on its offices on January 7. In protest at PEN’s award, six writers who had previously agreed to be “table guests” at the PEN gala where the award would be given withdrew, and 242 writers signed a letter of opposition. While the dissenting writers condemned the horrific, despicable attack on Charlie Hebdo, they took issue with PEN’s characterization of Charlie Hebdo as courageous journalism and its cartoonists as heroes. They said that Charlie Hebdo’s depictions of Mohammed were denigrating, showed an inability or unwillingness to understand Muslim sensitivities to depictions of the Prophet of any kind, let alone satirical ones, and could easily dovetail with anti-immigrant, anti-minority and anti-Islam sentiments expressed by more pernicious and racist groups and play into a Western discourse already full of prejudices against Muslims and Arabs. In effect, they were saying that rather than standing up for the weak against the strong, Charlie Hebdo took the side of the strong against the weak, and that is anything but courageous. (Here are more letters from writers critical of the award.)
Critics of the dissenting writers responded that Charlie Hebdo has a distinguished record of lampooning especially political but also religious hypocrisy, pomposity, grandiosity and corruption as well as of being staunchly anti-racist, secularist and pluralistic, and while it appears to have been attacked because of its cartoons related to Islam, those in fact are a very small proportion of its material. In terms of Charlie Hebdo cover pages, Christianity was “mocked” nearly thrice as much as Islam. In ten years, there were seven covers that focused on Islam out of a total of 523 covers.
The ones “mocking” Islam (I won’t reproduce them here, but you can find them with contextual explanation at understandingcharliehebdo.com) do not appear nearly as “offensive” or “provocative” as some of those targeting Christianity. (See below for a couple of examples of the latter.)
Salman Rushdie, one of the most prominent defenders of the award and himself a victim of a fatwa that forced him into hiding for years, had this to say: “If PEN as a free-speech organisation can’t defend and celebrate people who have been murdered for drawing pictures, then frankly the organisation is not worth the name… What I would say to both Peter and Michael and the others [who withdrew from the gala] is, I hope nobody ever comes after them.”
I found myself firmly taking the side of Charlie Hebdo and PEN in this affair. It seemed to me that the mostly American writers who protested were seeing the issue primarily through the lens of US race relations. Living in a society in which writers generally are at little risk, they appeared to have little idea of the stark reality of persecution or worse. As I tweeted, from the perspective of China, where writers are at risk every day, American writers protesting the PEN award to Charlie Hebdo seem out of touch.
It seemed obvious to me that when writers and artists are attacked, of course you have to stand up for them, no matter who they are or what they say (unless they are inciting violence against others or engaging in hate speech, and perhaps that is the issue for the dissenting writers). Of all the positions the dissenting writers could be taking, I thought, of all the issues they could be making a stand on, why this one? It’s not as if Charlie Hebdo is in the forefront of a crusade against Islam, whereas others in the West definitely are. The self-styled “journal irresponsable” had aggressively taken on the powers that be in France overmany years. It won a court case brought against it by the Grand Mosque of Paris under France’s hate speech laws (the judge found that rather than ridiculing Islam, the magazine was satirizing fundamentalists).
But then I wondered if I was being fair. To test whether or not I was, a thought experiment came to mind: transpose the Charlie Hebdo affair to Tibet, a place close to my heart. Substitute the Dalai Lama for the Prophet Mohammed. Substitute the Chinese Partystate media for Charlie Hebdo. Substitute the Han majority for the French majority or white Westerners and Tibetans for Muslims. What do things look like then?
The analogy might seem far-fetched, but teasing it out may help to orient myself to the most salient elements of the issue at hand. Am I not guilty of a logical contradiction? To put it simply, while I find myself supporting Charlie Hebdo’s right to freedom of expression and to satirize, I find myself strongly objecting to the Partystate media’s vilification campaign against the Dalai Lama.
First of all, the differences:
While Charlie Hebdo is an independent publication with a relatively small circulation of tens of thousands copies per issue, the Chinese Partystate media is a propaganda organ that pervades Chinese society, to the exclusion of almost all else, considering that media in China exist under strict censorship. Especially on “sensitive” issues like the Dalai Lama and Tibet, the only thing people see is what the Partystate wants to appear, and there is zero Partystate tolerance for dissent.
The Partystate media has consistently vilified the Dalai Lama for decades while the study by Le Monde mentioned above found that between 2005 and 2015, only 2% of Charlie Hebdo’s covers satirized Islam. Of course, the Partystate mostly demonizes the Dalai Lama with words, not images, like those used by Charlie Hebdo, and many agree that images can often be more shocking, especially in the context of a religion which largely proscribes any images at all of the Prophet, let alone “insulting” ones. Startling about the Partystate media’s attacks on the Dalai Lama are not only the over-the-top colorful language (“a wolf in monk’s robes”) and undignified slurs but also their sheer (and presumably intentional) inaccuracy, for example saying that the Dalai Lama is “separatist” and wants independence (he isn’t, though I wish he was) and saying that he’s behind the many recent self-immolations (in fact, he’s asked people not to self-immolate) and almost every other action taken by Tibetans which is not to the Partystate’s liking. He’s like a bogeyman lurking everywhere. The latest broadside against the Dalai Lama was the White Paper released in mid-April.
Because of the size and consistency of the Partystate’s vilification campaign against the Dalai Lama as well as the fact that the Partystate media is the direct propaganda mouthpiece of a dictatorial regime with a generally poor human rights record, its effect is much more “bullying” and intimidating than Charlie Hebdo’s lampooning of aspects of Islam in a few images.
And, of course, the Dalai Lama is not the Prophet Mohammed. The Dalai Lama is alive; the Prophet Mohammed lived centuries ago. In that sense, perhaps the Dalai Lama is more like the Pope. But the Dalai Lama is even more important to Tibetan Buddhism than the Pope is to Catholicism. While Tibetan Buddhism is not monotheistic and arguably has no gods per se, the Dalai Lama is the living emanation of Chenrezig, the bodhisattva of compassion. On top of that, the Dalai Lama is the foremost leader and symbol of a people and culture at risk.
There is no proscription against images of the Dalai Lama; indeed, such images are venerated. I used to teach in Dharamsala, home of the Dalai Lama in exile. Once, a fellow non-Tibetan teacher and I invited some students to our dormitory. In order to make room for the students, the other teacher, with no intention to do anything culturally insensitive, took a book with a photo of the Dalai Lama on the cover from a bed and set it on the floor, the image of the Dalai Lama face down. The reaction of the students, who were trying their best to be polite, was palpable, a visceral shudder and gasp. In this sense, it could be said that the deep emotional attachment to the Dalai Lama that the vast majority of Tibetans feel is similar to that of Muslims to the Prophet Mohammed.
Perhaps it’s here that I should best be able to understand Muslim sensitivities to the depiction of the Prophet Mohammed. And indeed, while I can find many aspects of the practice of Islam to criticize, I find it hard to understand the need to resort to transgressing a proscription such as depiction of the Prophet in order to make a point.
Still, the comparison cuts the other way too, and serves to sharpen the point. If you keep in mind that the Tibetan Buddhist attachment to the Dalai Lama is similar to the Muslim attachment to the Prophet Mohammad, then you can see that the Partystate media’s attack on the Dalai Lama is an attack on Tibetan Buddhism, on Tibetan culture, and on Tibetans themselves, their identity, their sense of who they are as a people. It is in this context that the Dalai Lama speaks of “cultural genocide” (that and the destruction of thousands of monasteries, the imprisonment and killing of hundreds of thousands over decades, strict Partystate control of existing monasteries, and a de facto ban on independent expression of culture and identity). And the Partystate media’s vilification of the Dalai Lama runs parallel to other Partystate attacks, such as the campaigns to get rid of images of the Dalai Lama, to force monks and nuns to openly denounce the Dalai Lama, and the Partystate claiming for itself the right to recognize the next reincarnation of the Dalai Lama (the Charlie Hebdo cartoon at the start of the article alludes to this).
And here is another difference between the two situations: While a small number (compared to the overall number of Muslims) of people identifying themselves as Muslims have attacked and killed people they regarded as enemies of the religion, essentially directing violence outward, upwards of 140 Tibetans have self-immolated over the last six years, essentially directing violence inward. It is significant that most of the self-immolators invoked the Dalai Lama while they were burning to death: That is how closely they identified with him.
Broadening the context, there is a history of European colonial domination and American imperialism over much of the Arab and Muslim worlds. All too often Western democracies have allied themselves with Arab dictatorships and continue to do so and they have hardly been impartial in the conflict between Israel and Palestine. Over the past half-century, there has been significant immigration from the Middle East to Europe, and European societies have by and large hardly done an impressive job of integrating immigrants, who often are excluded and discriminated against. Recent years have seen the rise of anti-immigrant, often anti-Islam political parties in many northern European countries.
That said, the control exerted by Western states over the lives of Muslims is not nearly as great or all-encompassing as that of China over Tibet. The Partystate’s control over Tibet after it invaded in 1950 was totalitarian. After a period of liberalization in the 1980s, it has been harsh since. Many of the regions in which Tibetans live are run pretty much as police states or military occupations. Gray Tuttle’s recent “China’s Race Problem: How Beijing Oppresses Minorities” provides an excellent synopsis of the current state of affairs.
So what’s the take-away from the comparison? Am I being logically contradictory in siding with Charlie Hebdo and PEN on the one hand and against the Partystate media on the other, being more respectful of Tibetan sensitivities than of Muslim? I don’t think so. The Partystate media is a leviathan; Charlie Hebdo is a small and independent actor. While Charlie Hebdo may share many characteristics with the dominant culture in France (for example, a commitment to secularism that at times can seem exaggerated and abusive of religious freedom, such as the ban on religious symbols in state-run institutions, including girls wearing headscarves to school), Charlie Hebdo is more often critical of the political elites (such as Nicholas Sarkozy and the Front National- see its most recent cover below) of that dominant culture and far more critical of its racism than of Islam. On the other hand, the Partystate media, rather than being critical of anything having to do with the Partystate’s policies on Tibet or anything else for that matter, is the direct mouthpiece of them.
In one sense, the focus by those living in the West on the relationship between the West and Islam and between dominant white culture and often marginalized non-white minorities is understandable, since these issues are much closer to their own societies, and they are indeed major issues that need to be addressed. I am in general sympathy with the concerns expressed by PEN’s dissenting writers, though I find the fact that they expressed them in the context of the Charlie Hebdo affair unfortunate.
In another sense, I sometimes despair at the limits of the Western radius of concern. The conflicts in the world go far beyond the West versus Islam or dominant white majorities versus marginalized non-white minorities. As I’ve argued consistently, a dictatorial China (and dictatorial regimes in general) arguably poses a greater threat in the longer term to democracy, freedom and human rights in the world than violent Islamic fundamentalism.
PEN’s rich liberal donors turned out to the gala in greater numbers than ever to show their support for the “embattled” organization. That was all fine and well as far as it goes, but after all the hoopla over Charlie Hebdo, PEN presented another award of the evening, the Freedom to Write Award, to Khadija Ismayilova, an imprisoned Azerbaijani journalist. At this very moment, she sits in prison and is at very real risk of a long jail term or worse. One of her supporters tried to get the gala attendees to chant “Khadija” in order that it might later be broadcast in Azerbaijan to show the world’s support, but the chanting was half-hearted at best. OK, these are tycoons, not activists, but still, they seemed more interested in dessert. Meanwhile, the first-ever European Games are set to be staged in Azerbaijan in June. Atletico Madrid wears the ad “Azerbaijan: Land of Fire” on their jerseys. Some have said, it should read “Azerbaijan: Land of Political Prisoners” or “Azerbaijan: Land of Repression” instead. The deplorable human rights situation in Azerbaijan should be of direct concern to people in the West, but it is hard to get more than an appreciative yawn out of them because it doesn’t fit into one of the fashionable discussions of the day. Run-of-the-mill prisoners of conscience are pretty old hat.
If American writers are really interested in directing their criticism toward the use of words and images to attack and denigrate a minority, a religion, I suggest they do so more consistently and look into the matter of the Partystate media against the Dalai Lama and Tibet. And while they’re at it, globalize what at times can seem rather parochial limits to their radius of concern.
There are Tibetan writers and musicians in prison; there are promoters of Tibetan culture and language in prison. China jails more journalists than any other country in the world. In April, it sent 71-year-old veteran journalist Gao Yu to prison for seven years. Internet censorship is rife. Press freedom in Hong Kong is under threat and deteriorating due to mainland influence (last year, an editor of one of the leading daily newspaper was almost killed in a chopper attack and the home of the owner of the city’s only pro-democracy newspaper in the city was firebombed). Just this week, it was reported that artist Sun Kai has abandoned his project of documenting photographically 100 participants in the 1989 Tiananmen demonstrations in all corners of China due to detention and harassment of his subjects and threats made against himself and his family by Chinese security agents. I can’t remember the last time I heard an American writer speak out on any of these issues.
Keep a sense of proportion about the true enemies of freedom of expression (China; Azerbaijan; violent assailants of journalists, writers, artists; and, unfortunately, many others) and the true bullies and oppressors. And if you want a info on a multitude of state-backed attacks on Islam, look no further than Xinjiang.
There’s a whole world out here, and the need for global solidarity is greater than ever.
If Chinese state security agents come knocking at my door because of this article, I want to know that PEN, and ALL of its writers, whether they agree with me or not, has got my back.
(By the way, just a note: PEN has been exemplary in its support of Ilham Tohti. If only academics had been as active globally as writers, perhaps his case could have turned out differently.)
8 May 2015
So what’s the take-away?
here is a list of articles that will fill you in:
The central place of the Dalai Lama in Tibetan Buddhism is roughly comparable
Then, of course, the officially atheist Communist Party claims the right to recognize the reincarnation of the Dalai Lama based on the reasoning that previous Chinese dynasties had such a right (a belief that is largely historically inaccurate) and it is the sovereign inheritor of such “state” rights. This would be as if some former Western colonial power in the Middle East claimed the right to interpret the Koran to the people living in its colonies.
Dalai Lama is a living person
It’s not considered blasphemous to depict the Dalai Lama either in representational images, though his image is venerated
Tibetan Buddhism is not a monotheistic religion and there are no “prophets” in the Judeo-Christian sense, while Mohammed is the greatest prophet of Islam and, through the Koran, has directly brought the word of God to humanity.
Nevertheless, what the Dalai Lama says on Buddhism and, to a great degree, much else is regarded by a great many Tibetans as entirely authoritative
In this sense, the
Living emanation of the bodhisattva of compassion, Chenrezig