Jean-Baptiste Thoret, left, and Gérard Biard, second from right, at the PEN gala on Tuesday. Credit Christopher Gregory for The New York Times
Two members of Charlie Hebdo, the French satirical magazine, took the stage to a thundering standing ovation at PEN American Center’s literary gala on Tuesday night, capping a 10-day debate over free speech, blasphemy and Islamophobia that started in the cozy heart of the New York literary world and spread to social media and op-ed pages worldwide.
Accepting PEN’s award for “freedom of expression courage,” the magazine’s top editor, Gérard Biard, summed up the publication’s belief in the unfettered right to mock all religions, ideas and belief systems, and leveled a riposte at the Muslim extremists whose attack on Charlie Hebdo in January left 12 people dead.
“Being shocked is part of democratic debate,” said Mr. Biard, who accepted the award with the magazine’s film critic, Jean-Baptiste Thoret. “Being shot is not.”
The $1,250-a-plate gala, at the American Museum of Natural History in Manhattan, is the major annual fund-raiser for PEN, a 4,000-member literary group dedicated to defending freedom of expression. But the dinner took an unexpected dramatic cast after news that six prominent writers, including Peter Carey, Michael Ondaatje and Francine Prose, had pulled out to protest what they saw as Charlie Hebdo’s racist and Islamophobic content.
The writers’ decision sent arguments and insults flying. Some 200 PEN members signed a letter of protest saying that the award crossed a line between “staunchly supporting expression that violates the acceptable, and enthusiastically rewarding such expression.” Others vigorously defended Charlie Hebdo and the prize. PEN quickly found new table hosts, including the cartoonist Art Spiegelman, and the writers Azar Nafisi and Neil Gaiman.
Andrew Solomon, the president of PEN, opened his remarks with a nod to the “whale in the room,” a reference to the debate, and the blue whale hovering over the 800 guests in the museum’s Hall of Ocean Life.
“The defense of people murdered for their exercise of free speech is at the heart of what PEN stands for,” he said. “So is the unfettered expression of opposing viewpoints.”
Outside the museum, about two dozen police officers, some heavily armed, stood on the sidewalks as guests filed in — a reminder not only of the attacks on Charlie Hebdo, but also the assault on Sunday against a Prophet Muhammad cartoon contest in Texas. A lone protester held a handwritten sign: “Free speech does not deserve death/Abusive speech does not deserve an award.”
Opposing viewpoints were harder to find inside the gala, where some 800 guests mingled with celebrities like Glenn Close, who presented a lifetime achievement prize to the playwright Tom Stoppard.
Salman Rushdie, who had slung some unpublishable insults at the protesters on Twitter, said the affair had been “damaging and divisive” but instructive.
“In the last 10 days, the Anglophone world has been given enough information to understand that Charlie Hebdo is the exact opposite of the racist publication it has been said to be,” he said.
The cartoonist Alison Bechdel, one of the replacement hosts, said the debate had shades of gray, but that the Texas attack on Sunday at an event organized by the American Freedom Defense Initiative, an anti-Islam group, had been clarifying.
“That group attacks Muslims in a way that Charlie Hebdo really doesn’t,” she said.
In a meeting with The New York Times’s editorial board on Thursday, Mr. Biard said that Charlie Hebdo attacked belief systems, including all religions, not groups. He cited the results of a study in the newspaper Le Monde indicating that only seven of roughly 500 Charlie Hebdo covers published from 2005 to 2015 primarily mocked Islam. “We’re not obsessed with Islam,” he said. “We’re dealing with politics, with other religions.”
The gala highlighted the magazine’s anti-racist history. The French-Congolese novelist Alain Mabanckou paid tribute to the magazine’s belief that “there were no taboos when it came to exercising free speech.” Dominique Sopo, the president of the French anti-bias group SOS Racisme, flew in from Paris for an unannounced visit.
“It is very important we do not kill those who died a second time by raising a polemic like this,” he said, referring to charges that the magazine was racist. “Remember that Charlie Hebdo stands for anti-hatred.”
The evening concluded with PEN’s Freedom to Write Award, given to the Azerbaijani journalist Khadija Ismayilova, who has been imprisoned since early December after writing about corruption allegations against the family of Azerbaijan’s president, Ilham Aliyev. (Of the 38 honorees who were in jail at the time they received the award, 34 were later freed, according to PEN.)
But before announcing that award, the group’s executive director, Suzanne Nossel, addressed the writers who had withdrawn from the gala, and took a page from Charlie Hebdo. “Tout est pardonné,” she said, referring to the sign held by the Prophet Muhammad on the magazine’s first cover after the attacks. “Let’s move on together in defense of freedom of expression.”