PEN ("Poets, Essayists and Novelists"), the American branch of a leading international writers' organization, will give its annual Freedom of Expression Courage award to Charlie Hebdo magazine, the French publication whose editorial staff was massacred by Islamist gunmen earlier this year. In a move that has caught some observers by surprise the way Pearl Harbor did, six prominent authors, including two Booker Prize-winning novelists, have withdrawn from the event following the announcement of the Courage award. Acting as spokesman by default, the novelist Peter Carey made sure to deplore the murders but made clear that he felt the magazine undeserving of the honor. To honor Charlie Hebdo, he said, was to turn a blind eye to France's mistreatment of its "large and disempowered" Muslim minority, if not share in France's "cultural arrogance." This boycott has drawn a predictable (if unpredictably vulgar) reaction from Salman Rushdie, who in the heat of his initial anger described the protesting writers as "pussies." More deplorable, perhaps, than the vulgarity for which he later apologized was Rushdie's comment that "I hope nobody ever comes after them," implicitly referring to his own ordeal and implying that the protesting writers had surrendered any claim on sympathy should they ever get targeted by the easily offended or violently intolerant.
You can understand Rushdie's feelings about such things, but what about Carey's? In his view, apparently, Charlie Hebdo was doing nothing brave or honorable by "punching down" at a downtrodden people. One wonders whether the salient feature of the offended people in Carey's eyes is their poverty rather than their religion. A feeling persists that we shouldn't be too hard on Islam because so many of its adherents are poor, not to mention dark. A belief persists that any adverse commentary on the religion of Islam is Islamophobic -- that is, bigoted in the same way anti-semitism or hatred of black people is. The core assumption seems to be that you can't attack Islam without insulting Muslims in a way they either don't deserve or somehow deserve less than Christians, Jews or others.
On this blog I've grappled with the idea of Islamophobia, sometimes thinking it a useless scareword but more often lately using it to describe a perhaps more specific attitude than the word signifies for some. I think the word should mean what it seems to up front; it should describe an irrational fear of Islam. Thus I use "islamophobes" to describe Americans (though they have counterparts elsewhere) who believe the religion of Islam itself to be an inherent and imminent if not existential threat to their security and freedom as American citizens. Those who suspect the local mosque of hosting a terrorist cell or spreading Wahhabi propaganda, on no evidence beyond its mere existence, are Islamophobes. Those who think Islam a stupid religion in its Wahhabi form or any other are not, though those who think Islam uniquely stupid among the Abrahamic religions, if not among all religions, may be borderline cases. Those who denounce Islam while promoting Christianity or Judaism, overstating the differences while ignoring the similarities, are arguably Islamphobic but I'd rather call them religious bigots. Some observers may suspect that any animosity toward or mere mockery of Islam is motivated at base by fear, but I disagree. At the least we would have to distinguish between degrees of fear, particularly between the sort of "fear" that would inspire cartoonists to caricature the Prophet Muhammad and the fear that would keep their pens in their drawers. It might be argued that if you didn't "fear" Muslims on some level you'd simply ignore them, but that leaves no room for the sort of scorn or contempt that Charlie Hebdo reportedly expressed toward every prominent institution of France. These fine distinctions of mine may be wasted on someone who feels that Charlie Hebdo's cartoons were vicious and hateful, no matter what thoughts or feelings motivated them. But they allow me to judge whether such sentimentality is worthy of consideration, as the objections to honoring the magazine are not. My position remains that if Muslims really want to share the world with the rest of us rather than rule us, they must grow thicker skins. Until then, their susceptibility to offense is contemptible in a way that is not mitigated by the social injustices they endure in many places. It may not be possible to make this point more clearly than to keep the memory of the Charlie Hebdo massacre fresh, and its meaning clear. Peter Carey and those who share his views are entirely within their prerogatives to speak out against genuine unfairness toward Muslims in France and elsewhere, and for all I know the PEN event might have been an ideal forum, but to complain that Charlie Hebdo is unfair in any comparable way is idiotic, and that's my freedom of speech for today.