Wednesday, May 6, 2015

PEN Charlie Hebdo

I've not read Charlie Hebdo. My French is inadequate for satire. I've not seen their cartoons either. Last week in Paris, I asked my French publisher, Marie-Pierre, for her opinion. She was fiercely dismissive, calling the magazine crude. She was angry too. Twelve people were killed in January. One, a friend, was visiting the magazine that fatal day. He died too. For what? She asked. A cartoon of Mohammed. The magazine was irresponsible in taunting Muslims.

            Last month, American PEN, awarded Charlie Hebdo its “freedom of expression courage award”. It split writers. Rushdie and others supported PEN's choice. Rushdie wrote: "It is quite right that PEN should honour [Charlie Hebdo’s] sacrifice and condemn their murder without these disgusting ‘buts." Peter Carey, Teju Cole, and others, condemned it for 'cultural intolerance and Islamophobia.'  PEN responded, praising “their (Charlie Hebdo) dauntless fortitude patrolling the outer precincts of free speech.”

            I agree with PEN. What distinguishes a democracy from a totalitarian state is the freedom of speech.  The freedom to think imaginatively and to give expression to these thoughts. Freedom of speech cannot be neatly hedged by 'ifs' or 'buts'. It either exists or it does not.  Unfortunately, irresponsibility comes with the package. Charlie Hebdo insulted many aspects of French life, including attacking the extreme right wing Le Pen political party. The party did not respond with machine guns. Islamist extremists did.

            People can be as insulted by mocking their political beliefs, sexual preferences, social positions, history, race. Name it, there's an insult to someone out there. As the world opens up, the minds close. People are frightened by the swift changes. And to new thinking.  If we all picked up guns, it would not be a revolution but bloody mayhem. Guns are for those who lack the intelligence to counter the insult or even make a comment with their own words.  A few days ago, ISIL executed 30 Yazidis. I wondered how they had insulted the Prophet.

            Annually, fifty to sixty journalists, writers or artists are killed because of their work.  Many more imprisoned.  I admired their courage to express their thoughts in mostly these despotic nations. They were aware of the dangers. Sometimes, even a Tweet was their death sentence. Words and drawings frighten the State, as they do extremists of any kind.

            India teeters between democracy and despotism. Recently, leaning more to the latter. The State has banned books, the list grows longer daily. Publishers retract; they cannot afford long court cases. The writer abandoned. Two Tamil writers were driven from their homes by extremists. Tragically, one stopped writing. Art is dangerous. Films are tripped up by State appointed censors. If the film passes (with cuts), others lie in wait to attack it.  Or storm the theatres, forcing it off the screen.

            Anyone can rush to court and take out an injunction against a book, a writer, an artist if his or her "feelings are hurt". There are 1.2 billion possible feelings to hurt.  Every writer and artist faces this minefield daily. Some self-censor their thoughts. The State did nothing to defend or protect our most famous artist, M.F. Hussein. He died in exile. The writer, Shobha Dey, mocked the Maharastrha government's edict on Marathi Films. She was summoned to the legislature.

            At times, India is beyond satire. Charlie Hebdo would have a field day here. For a day or two at least, before our home bred extremists burned it down.