“The narrative of white Europeans being killed by Muslim extremists”

The CBC talked to Francine Prose about her hostility to Charlie Hebdo today.

Prose tells As It Happens host Carol Off that despite her objections, she supports the magazine’s right to free speech.

“Free speech is indivisible. If you believe in free speech you believe in any sort of free speech — that you can say anything you want. And that’s absolutely what I believe in and I would include in that everything Charlie Hebdo has done.”

But she says that doesn’t mean Charlie Hebdo deserves the award.

No, it doesn’t; she’s right about that much. They are two separate things.

“We defend the right of neo-nazis to march through Skokie, Illinois but that doesn’t mean we give them an award.”

I’m not even sure I do defend the right of neo-Nazis to march through Skokie, because that’s direct intimidation. I’ve always had reservations about that.

Prose says that there are other journalists who are more deserving of the award.

“This is an award that should be given to equally brave journalists…There are journalists being killed in the Middle East. There are journalists being killed every day in Mexico, who are doing work that needs to be done because people need to hear about the truth they are reporting and what’s happening in other parts of the world.  I don’t quite understand the absolute necessity of the work that Charlie Hebdo did.”

Nobody said it was an absolute necessity. That’s not the issue.

Then they get to Salman Rushdie’s tweet, which I saw this morning and wish he hadn’t worded the way he did.

Salman Rushdie ‏@SalmanRushdie
.@JohnTheLeftist @NickCohen4 The award will be given. PEN is holding firm. Just 6 pussies. Six Authors in Search of a bit of Character.

Sigh. Please don’t do that. Please don’t use epithets for women to signify cowardice. Please don’t.

I didn’t say anything about it this morning because it was a distraction. But Prose did, and on this I agree with her.

Rushdie  tweeted: “The award will be given. PEN is holding firm. Just 6 pussies. Six Authors in Search of a bit of Character.”

In response, Prose, tells Off that the writers are standing up for what they believe in — and says Rushdie’s tweet is sexist.

“I  think it’s a sexual insult…And think it was careless and I think Salman regrets it. It was in a tweet. But nonetheless I think it’s an unfair word to use…Why  is our behaviour a sign of weakness? We’ve all caught a great deal of flack for this. If we wanted to be weak we could have just said, you know what I have another engagement I forgot about that night.”

Fair point. I think it’s cluelessness rather than cowardice.

Rushie, who spent years in hiding after a fatwa was issued against him, had a message for the authors speaking out against the award.

“What I would say to both Peter (Carey) and Michael (Ondaatje) and the others is, I hope nobody ever comes after them.”

But Prose tells Off her message is that a central question needs to be asked about why the award is being given to Charlie Hebdo now.

“I think it very conveniently feeds into the larger political narrative which is the narrative of white Europeans being killed by Muslim extremists…”

Oh, please. What’s convenient about it? What’s “white” got to do with it? Avijit Roy and Washiqur Rahman and Sabeen Mahmud weren’t white or European. The larger political narrative is that authoritarian Islamist fascists want to silence secular voices, so they’re murdering journalists and cartoonists and bloggers and activists, and not just white ones. By turning their backs on Charlie, the six writers are turning their backs on Avijit and Washiqur and Sabeen too.

I’m not coming out in favour of terrorism obviously. (But this idea) is such a popular one in the media and politically. That fear has been used so well to justify various political policies of our government and other governments. The popularity of that narrative, and the easiness of that narrative, and also the emotionality that surrounds it means it’s a very different story than other stories that could have been honoured and awarded.

Bullshit. Callous, stupid bullshit. Tell that to Raif Badawi and to Ensaf Haidar.


  1. PatrickG says

    “We defend the right of neo-nazis to march through Skokie, Illinois but that doesn’t mean we give them an award.”

    I know you’ve already raised this, but seriously, what is this constant conflation of Charlie Hebdo with Nazis and neo-Nazis? Even if you grant that the publication is racist and punching down (I don’t), that harm is not remotely comparable with the stated goals and rhetoric of neo-Nazi groups. It’s just baffling. And a wee bit infuriating.

  2. says

    Well, pathetically, I think Prose really does think they really are that bad.

    I sort of get it, because their drawing style does look racist to American eyes. But I would expect her to be able to learn better.

  3. P. Jordan Howell says

    I think the idea that the drawing style may look racist to “American eyes” is a little condescending and doesn’t really push the argument forward that much. Speaking as an ex-Muslim of Nigerian/Jamaican/Guianese (French Guiana) extraction (with a toops of British thrown in), much of the style of Hebdo seemed fairly racist to me. I wouldn’t call my eyes “American eyes” but alas…

  4. says

    From a British perspective I did wince when I saw the depictions of muslims in CH, but no more than I do when I hear self described progressive Americans talk about “the blacks” or “retarded people”.

    Its not up to me to tell Americans how they can use their language when they talk to each other, and French cartoonists shouldn’t take into account my sensibilities when they draw for their audience.

  5. says

    “Just 6 pussies”
    I may be wrong, or just old, but I suspect that Rushdie (co-incdentally of an age with me*) was thinking of pussies as ‘cowardy/cowardly cats’ rather than Mrs Slocombe’s double entendre.
    There were several similar British schoolyard expressions like that, ‘cowardy, cowardy custard’ being another.

    * I’m two months older, and bloody hell I look a lot better than he does! Celebrity seems to have it’s price. 🙂

  6. Omar Puhleez says

    I agree. That is the way it came across to me. But that would make Rushdie a lot more quaint and less astute than one would assume him to be…. from his other writings.
    It is possible Rushdie meant it the way Ophelia took it, however.
    In which case… Nasty.

  7. brucegee1962 says

    Easter, 1916

    I have met them at close of day
    Coming with vivid faces
    From counter or desk among grey
    Eighteenth-century houses.
    I have passed with a nod of the head
    Or polite meaningless words,
    Or have lingered awhile and said
    Polite meaningless words,
    And thought before I had done
    Of a mocking tale or a gibe
    To please a companion
    Around the fire at the club,
    Being certain that they and I
    But lived where motley is worn:
    All changed, changed utterly:
    A terrible beauty is born.

    That woman’s days were spent
    In ignorant good-will,
    Her nights in argument
    Until her voice grew shrill.
    What voice more sweet than hers
    When, young and beautiful,
    She rode to harriers?
    This man had kept a school
    And rode our winged horse;
    This other his helper and friend
    Was coming into his force;
    He might have won fame in the end,
    So sensitive his nature seemed,
    So daring and sweet his thought.
    This other man I had dreamed
    A drunken, vainglorious lout.
    He had done most bitter wrong
    To some who are near my heart,
    Yet I number him in the song;
    He, too, has resigned his part
    In the casual comedy;
    He, too, has been changed in his turn,
    Transformed utterly:
    A terrible beauty is born.

    Hearts with one purpose alone
    Through summer and winter seem
    Enchanted to a stone
    To trouble the living stream.
    The horse that comes from the road.
    The rider, the birds that range
    From cloud to tumbling cloud,
    Minute by minute they change;
    A shadow of cloud on the stream
    Changes minute by minute;
    A horse-hoof slides on the brim,
    And a horse plashes within it;
    The long-legged moor-hens dive,
    And hens to moor-cocks call;
    Minute by minute they live:
    The stone’s in the midst of all.

    Too long a sacrifice
    Can make a stone of the heart.
    O when may it suffice?
    That is Heaven’s part, our part
    To murmur name upon name,
    As a mother names her child
    When sleep at last has come
    On limbs that had run wild.
    What is it but nightfall?
    No, no, not night but death;
    Was it needless death after all?
    For England may keep faith
    For all that is done and said.
    We know their dream; enough
    To know they dreamed and are dead;
    And what if excess of love
    Bewildered them till they died?
    I write it out in a verse –
    MacDonagh and MacBride
    And Connolly and Pearse
    Now and in time to be,
    Wherever green is worn,
    Are changed, changed utterly:
    A terrible beauty is born.

    I was teaching this poem by Yeats in my Brit Lit class yesterday, and it suddenly occurred to me that it’s very relevant to the Charlie Hebdo controversy. Here’s my take on what Yeats is saying:

    “These are the people who were executed by the English for the Easter, 1916 uprising in Ireland. I knew most of them personally. I thought a few of them were kind of stupid – in fact, I’d make fun of them in my club with my other friends. One of them tried to write poetry – the best I can say is that he might eventually have gotten better. One of them I actively loathed.

    But you know what? None of those judgments matter anymore. When you become martyred because you’re trying to make life better for your countrymen, nothing else matters. I’m not even sure if the cause they were fighting for was worth a drop of blood – England says they’ll grant us independence when the war is over, and perhaps they’re telling the truth. That doesn’t matter either. What matters is that these were people who died for a higher cause. As a poet, I can – indeed, I must – recognize and honor that fact. Whether what they did turns out to have been worth it or not, we must always remember their names, for their actions have transformed our world.”

  8. Leto says

    This obsession with comparing CH with neo-nazis is all the more mindnumbing considering CH own stance about neo-nazis and the far-right. I mean, if you believe that CH depiction of followers of islam (and christians and jews…) are tasteless, well holy balls, they’ve got nothing on how they depict the far-right.

    A week or so ago, living in Belgium, I got my hands of the newest copy of Charlie Hebdo. Most of it was an all-out destruction of everything the far-right stands for, and believe you me when I say the cartoons were the crudest, unapologetically aggressive i’ve yet to see. The cover depicts a naked Marine Le-Pen (current far-right leader) having eaten her father, literally shitting out his glass eyeball (Jean-Marie Le-Pen, former far-right leader), for goodness’ sake!
    As bad as they depict followers of Islam (and by extension, christians and jews), they look downright sympathetic when compared to CH’s haaaatreeeed of the right.

    Besides, most depictions of muslims are always in the context of Boko Haram, Al qaeda, ISIS, or powerful ”community leaders” that call for violence. Very little, if any, is directed at the larger muslim populace.

    Criticism as to the tastefulness and unfortunate implications some of the cartoons undoubtedly have are fair game, but poster-boys for imperialistic thought CH is not.

  9. says

    richardelguru @ 7 – Possibly, but I doubt it, mostly because he’s lived in New York for many years now. On the other hand I can believe it strikes his ear less sharply than it strikes mine, in that sense – that it sounds partly like pussy-cat as opposed to wholly a sexist pejorative. Plus, as he pointed out, he was replying to someone else who had used the word. As Prose said, it was careless. He withdrew it later.

  10. moleatthecounter says

    I’ve heard him use this phrase before actually. My initial thought was that he meant it in the same way as ‘richardelguru ‘ suggested earlier… But I do not know for sure. And of course, if it’s ambiguous, particularly over large areas of the world – ie. the UK and the USA – then to not use it would be my first rule.

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