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PEN's award for Charlie Hebdo is a guise of benevolent humanitarianism — Rafia Zakaria on Christine Delphy's Separate and Dominate

Sophia Hussain12 May 2015

Image for blog post entitled PEN's award for <em>Charlie Hebdo</em> is a guise of benevolent humanitarianism — Rafia Zakaria on Christine Delphy's <em>Separate and Dominate</em>

Rafia Zakaria recently wrote on her opposition to the PEN American Center’s decision to honor the French Magazine Charlie Hebdo with the 2015 Freedom of Expression Courage Award in an essay for the LA Review of Books.

Zakaria defends her both reasoned and moralizing position pointing to the hypocrisy latent in Western liberals who “often turn to moral revulsion prior to providing arguments based on procedural reason.” Yet, these liberals are also quick to dismiss or, worse, condemn Muslims that refuse to be entertained by Hebdo cartoonists and to entertain the longstanding assumption that freedom of expression and reason are rooted in and unique to the Western world:

“The condescension stung, not just because it assumes that I don’t abhor murder (I do!), but also because it imagines murdered Pakistani journalists awaiting commemoration by PEN in their early graves — it is a dismissive mischaracterization of my argument about the valuation of tragedy and the depiction of freedom of expression as a Western value. It completely ignores my point that Westerners, by and large, do not consider themselves complicit in the perpetuation of the wars that have led to the deaths of the very journalists that are buried without awards and without recognition of their courageous exercise of free speech pinned to their names.”

Zakaria calls attention to Christine Delphy’s Separate and Dominate: Feminism and Racism after the War on Terror to illustrate the double standard inherent in the French practice of political secularism, läcité—which has the ability to denigrate all speech not deemed sufficiently secular in the eyes of the Republic.

"As French theorist Christine Delphy writes in Separate and Dominate: Feminism and Racism after the War on Terror, freedom of speech does not enjoy ‘iconic, self-defining status’ in France. ‘The Gayssot law makes it a crime to raise questions about the Holocaust,’ she writes, so much so that ‘even research into the Holocaust has become next to impossible.’ The fact that French Muslims are the disenfranchised 'others' of that society is eradicated from public conversations and conclusions. Only secular considerations are allowed free speech: Islam, no; anti-Islam, yes."

Zakaria also points out the utility of handing out an award to Charlie Hebdo at the same time that American and French seek guises of “benevolent humanitarianism” for their excursions abroad. Zakaria’s claim that far from an ethos of freedom of speech and debate, valorization of Hebdo is required in France, is supported by Delphy’s account of the way the attack was addressed French schools.

"In her book, Delphy recounts the immediate aftermath of the Charlie Hebdo attack in France. The French Minister for Education had asked teachers to organize debates about the killings in French schools. A few days later, she reported being shocked because 'there was too much questioning from students.' Such challenges were deemed forbidden: children as young as eight years old were carried off to the police station for failing to repeat 'Je suis Charlie' in schools or being inadequately respectful of the prescribed moment of silence; all imagined possible terrorist sympathizers by the teachers who reported them."

Read Rafia Zakaria’s essay, “Writing While Muslim,” in full at the LA Review of Books.

Christine Delphy’s Separate and Dominate: Feminism, Racism, and the War on Terror comes out in in the US on June 2.