2015 PEN Literary Gala: Alain Mabanckou, Dominique Sopo, Gérard Biard, and Jean-Baptiste Thoret
Charlie Hebdo was awarded the 2015 PEN/Toni and James C. Goodale Freedom of Expression Courage Award at the 2015 PEN Literary Gala. Remarks were delivered by writer Alain Mabanckou, President of SOS Racisme Dominique Sopo, Charlie Hebdo Editor Gérard Biard, Charlie Hebdo Film Critic Jean-Baptiste Thoret, and The New Yorker Cartoon Editor Bob Mankoff.
Alain Mabanckou: “I am deeply honored to have been asked to present the PEN/Toni and James C. Goodale Freedom of Expression Courage Award to the French satirical newspaper Charlie Hebdo.
As I stand here tonight, the journalists and caricaturists who lost their lives on the morning of January 7, 2015, because of the work they were doing, are very much in my thoughts. Among those who died was a close friend of mine; his name was Bernard Maris. He had a keen mind, and was an accomplished economist and journalist. I miss him a lot tonight. He worked for Charlie Hebdo because this was an environment in which free speech was respected. He and his colleagues died because they believed there were no taboos when it came to exercising free speech, and that you couldn’t simply choose to ignore certain subjects.
In Africa, folks believe that the dead never really die, that they can be heard in the fire crackling, much like their presence can be felt in this room tonight. I know our colleagues from Charlie Hebdo are here with us, watching us, encouraging us to hold strong in our quest for freedom…
But if I accepted to be here among you tonight, it was also because I wanted to underscore to some of my fellow writers the fact that we all belong to one family, and that we are all committed to freedom of expression. As you can see, I come from a continent on which we still have a long way to go in the face of despotic regimes…
In recent days, writers have disagreed on the subject of Charlie Hebdo. This kind of disagreement is of course to be expected in a family that values contradiction. I have listened to all those voices who have stated their opposition to Charlie Hebdo receiving this award. But I also believe one needs to understand the very specific nature of these types of satirical forms found in France and a number of European countries. This aspect has perhaps not received enough consideration in the cross-cultural exchanges that have taken place, and it is a dimension we will have to revisit in future discussions. Let’s make an effort to get to know each other better, because what brings us together is stronger than that which separates us, and let’s work together to promote freedom of expression. These are the reasons why I am a proud member of PEN America.
I wish Charlie Hebdo a long and successful life and hope you will accept my hearty congratulations for this prestigious award!
Dominique Sopo: “I am very very happy to be here tonight and I am particularly glad to be able to speak here in the presence of my friends from Charlie Hebdo. I was especially honored to have the opportunity to meet with Salman Rushdie before we began this evening. When I was very young, I bought a copy of Satanic Verses and at the time I was only about fourteen; I really didn’t understand it, but I was interested in knowing what was it that these bearded men in Iran had against this man who had written this. I think that I didn’t really understand the words, but I understood the power that was behind them.
I think that for us tonight, in honoring Charlie Hebdo, we honor the magazine, we honor the talent and the courage of the people who work for it, and above all we honor their antiracist commitment which has been consistent throughout their existence. Charlie Hebdo in France is something that has stood for the antiracist voice in many kinds of combat, whether it be combat due to religious dogma, a rising up against anti-Semitism, against violence, against Jews, against the Roma people, against Arabs. Charlie Hebdo is always in the forefront of all of these battles. I speak both on behalf of my own organization, SOS Racisme, but also for all of the other organizations—we know this. We know they are there every week, ready to come to the forum to attack any kind of religious dogma, because you know dogma is the enemy of democracy and, in a democracy, where there is dogma this dogma will attempt to silence voices. Whenever this exists, whenever there is dogma, whenever there is any kind of religious fundamentalism, this has to be countered by freedom of expression. This is what’s important expression—and by freedom of expression, it’s important to know that the expression cannot be limited to words that don’t shock us but has to include those words that are capable of shocking us and that do shock us. What limits freedom of expression is that words are used to put individuals in danger—this is what is at the heart of racism, and so we stand with Charlie Hebdo for raising a polemic like this.”
Gérard Biard: “First of all, I would like to apologize for my very imperfect, even quite poor English, unworthy of this assembly. I first had in mind to do this speech in French, but I thought twice and decided to do it in English, even if it makes me look like an illiterate. It’s my first time in New York. I didn’t want to spoil it with French arrogance. Besides, it gives me an excellent excuse to make it short. One more clarification: I absolutely swear to you, I did not use one of these absurd Internet translators, which make you look like a man from the future, speaking a language not yet invented. All the words you are about to hear, even the inappropriate ones, especially the inappropriate ones, are mine.
Now, it’s time to be a little more serious. Jean-Baptiste and I are very proud to be here and to receive this prestigious award. Thank you so much. I would like to say a few words about us, about Charlie Hebdo. Before the 7th of January, we were a team of journalists, columnists, and cartoonists, producing a little satirical newspaper most parts of the world ignored—except when the prophet Mohammed jumped out of the news—a little newspaper with less than twenty thousand readers and only eight thousand subscribers. Our concern was finding a way to survive and to go on while facing continual accusations of being provocative and offensive—but it’s the function of satire, being provocative and offensive, is it not ? We even were portrayed as racists, although Charlie Hebdo has always fought all forms of racism since the very beginning…
Suddenly, in one half an hour of blood-splattered violence, we became a global symbol, the incarnation of freedom of expression and freedom of conscience. We became acclaimed heroes. I can tell you this: it’s pretty hard to deal with it. Because, before this slaughter, we felt quite alone. And because our job is not to be a symbol, it is to write and draw, to give our readers, each week, a newspaper full of laughter and thought. We can’t be the only ones to symbolize values that belong to everyone. Besides, it’s dangerous. It’s dangerous for us, because we are in the front line, and it’s dangerous for democracy. Each citizen of the world must adopt these values and stand up for them, against political and religious obscurantism. The more we are, the weaker they are. Fear is the most powerful weapon they have. We must disarm them. They don’t want us to write and draw, we must write and draw. They don’t want us to think and laugh, we must think and laugh. They don’t want us to debate, we must debate. Being here today, we contribute to disarming them.
One more word about one of the values we stand for and we particularly cherish at Charlie Hebdo: secularism. It’s not an F word. Nor is it a French cultural exception, like smelly cheese or flabby presidents. It’s one of the many conditions for democracy. Secularism protects our freedom of conscience, which is both the right to believe and the right not to believe. Secularism is not the enemy of religion, it simply says that the State has no religion, that the State is atheist. The beliefs of citizens are not its concern, as long as they’re not against the law and respect human physical and psychological integrity.
More important, secularism keeps religion away from political power. Because the law of God, claiming itself as unquestionable and unchanging, cannot be part of political debate. In a democracy, all laws are discussed and may be changed. We must remember one thing: countries where religious minorities are discriminated against and persecuted are often religious states. Each day, the news shows us what religion can do when it deals in politics.
I will conclude with a few precisions about the prophet Mohammed and blasphemy. In France, as well as in many other democratic countries, blasphemy is not a crime or an offense. Religious ideas, symbols, practices, and leaders, are no more than ideas, symbols, practices, and leaders. Just like other ideas, symbols, practices, and leaders, they can be mocked and challenged. Mocking the prophet or an imam is not insulting all Muslims. What about atheist Muslims? What about Muslims who blaspheme ? All believers blaspheme. What about Muslims who prefer to live in a democratic and secular state rather than in a religious dictatorship ? I think they are many. I perfectly understand that a believer can be shocked by a satirical cartoon about Mohammed, Jesus, Moses, or even the Pope. But growing up to be a citizen, is to learn that some ideas, some words, some images, can be shocking.
Being shocked is a part of democratic debate. Being shot is not.”
Jean-Baptiste Thoret: “Thank you for that, Gerard; he’s very active with that. I’m gonna make it very short—I have a request in fact. Since we arrived in New York, maybe 10 or 12 days ago, we met a lot of people, a lot of magazines, a lot of publications, a lot of media, maybe we did them all—except Fox News. But it’s interesting because there were recurring questions during all these interviews, which were very interesting. And the recurring question was: What for you, for Charlie Hebdo, for you the survivors (because that’s what we call us, survivors), what is the main change in your life, in the life of your magazine, since this terrible January 7 and the killing of that day? And it is quite difficult to answer that question as you can imagine. There are so many answers possible. But this morning I had a sort of revelation—I understood that I’ve just found the reason. And the reason is very simple. On January 8th, Arnold Schwarzenegger did subscribe to Charlie Hebdo. It was huge for us—I mean, can you imagine, for example, Woody Allen buying some fitness store, or Sarah Palin starting to read a new book after the Bible? You think it’s something very strange, maybe you call that utopia. So the request in Charlie Hebdo is: Since Arnold Schwarzenegger did subscribe to Charlie Hebdo, we haven’t heard from him, we don’t know what happened to him. Maybe when he received the first copy, the first issue of the magazine, we don’t know how it was for him to open it and see the drawing or the cartoon. So this is my request, and I think Gerard would be okay with me: if you have any clue of what happened to Arnold Schwarzenegger after Charlie Hebdo, please tell us. Thank you very much.”
Bob Mankoff: “Hi, I’m Bob Mankoff, the cartoon editor of The New Yorker. What am I doing here? It’s gotta be the cartoons. I’ve gotten to know Jean-Baptiste over the last few days; we exchanged very deep views about shampoos, hair conditioners, and hair mousses. I really did get to know him! I’m so honored to be here to honor Charlie Hebdo, what’s left of Charlie Hebdo so sadly because, of course, we are honoring their slain colleagues.
One thing I do want to point out is that the attack was targeted on cartoonists, and that wasn’t an accident. I do feel that cartoonists, humorists, satirists, jokers are the marginalized group in the defense of the freedom of expression. I do feel that often humor, drawn humor, is a second-class citizen in the defense, and I want to say that it’s nice that Charlie Hebdo is up here in the first-class cabin. The cartoons of The New Yorker and the cartoons of Charlie Hebdo could not be more different. But there is something they both really have in common—not everybody always gets the joke. Charlie Hebdo has gleefully ridiculed high-placed ministers, captains of industry, anti-immigration xenophobes of the National Front; aiming higher, it’s gone after the leaders of the world’s great religions; aiming still higher, it goes after the divinities that they worship. So it’s no surprise that Charlie Hebdo is not a big fan of religion, but let me tell you, if people were being persecuted and murdered for not believing in not believing, then they’d be going after atheists as well.
So really, I’m happy to be here—there was no way I was gonna back out, because, well frankly, I rented this tux. Cost a lot of money, worth every penny—it’s bullet-proof. Now, is that joke out of bounds? Maybe. Out of place? No. We’re honoring jokers here, fierce jokers, courageous jokers, and that’s why I’m so proud to be here as part of this award. Thank you.”
Read the rest of the remarks made at the 2015 PEN Literary Gala here.
2015 PEN Gala
• The Ceremony
• Khadija Ismayilova, 2015 PEN/Barbara Goldsmith Freedom to Write Award
• Tom Stoppard, 2015 PEN/Allen Foundation Literary Service Award
• Charlie Hebdo, 2015 PEN/Toni and James C. Goodale Freedom of Expression Courage Award
• Markus Dohle, 2015 PEN Publisher Honoree