Reflections on the “Charlie Hebdo Controversy” at the 2015 PEN Literary Festival

The Fight against Imperialism, the Criticism of Religion, and the Emancipation of Humanity

by Raymond Lotta | June 1, 2015 | Revolution Newspaper |


The 2015 World Voices Festival sponsored by PEN, the international organization of writers, was the occasion of a sharp and high-profile intellectual controversy this May. The debate was triggered by the PEN American Center’s decision to bestow its annual Freedom of Expression Courage Award on Charlie Hebdo. This is the Paris-based journal that lampoons politicians and religious authority and beliefs. In early January, Charlie Hebdo’s editorial director and 11 staff members were murdered by two Islamic fundamentalist gunmen. This was in apparent retaliation for cartoons poking fun at the prophet Muhammad.

The decision to honor Charlie Hebdo prompted more than 200 prominent writers, including Junot Diaz, Wallace Shawn, Francine Prose, Deborah Eisenberg, Eve Ensler, and Peter Carey, to issue a letter of protest and to boycott the award dinner. They argued that cartoons and satire directed at Islamic religious belief reinforce the subordination of the Muslim minority in France:

It is clear and inarguable that the murder of a dozen people in the Charlie Hebdo offices is sickening and tragic. What is neither clear nor inarguable is the decision to confer an award for courageous freedom of expression [on Charlie Hebdo].... To the section of the French population that is already marginalized, embattled, and victimized, a population that is shaped by the legacy of France’s various colonial enterprises, and that contains a large percentage of devout Muslims, Charlie Hebdo’s cartoons of the Prophet must be seen as being intended to cause further humiliation and suffering.1

I. Problematic Terms of Debate... A Basic Stand

I attended the conference. I spoke and argued both with supporters and with opponents of the award for Charlie Hebdo. Big questions about the state of the world and the responsibility of engaged artists and intellectuals were getting focused up. But I must also say that the terms of debate were highly problematic. What was so acutely missing was the truly liberatory alternative to this world of misery. Consequently, people, despite the better intentions of many, become locked into different sides of an intolerable status quo.

One side—the perspective of the protest statement—expressed righteous concern for those subjugated and humiliated by colonialism and subjected to imperialist repression, vilification, and reactionary attack. But the statement, specifically the passage that I have excerpted above, winds up conciliating religion and retrograde values by implying that there is a necessary equivalence between critiquing religious beliefs and humiliating the oppressed who hold those beliefs.

The other side to the debate wanted to celebrate and defend the iconoclastic thinking of journalists and artists like Charlie Hebdo. But there is an underlying reality to be confronted and reckoned with. It is precisely imperial global domination and a monstrous, integrated global system of exploitation that makes it possible for the West to have some (highly circumscribed) zones of critical and unconventional thinking for the few... at the cost of grinding up the lives of the vast majority on this planet. And some of the supporters of the award for Charlie Hebdo sidestep the fact that the rulers of the West are carrying out war crimes and tightening the chains of oppression and repression in the name of protecting “expressive terrain.”

In this regard, I must single out Suzanne Nossel, the executive director of the PEN American Center. Nossel was the public face, if you will, of the award going to Charlie Hebdo. Nossel had been a deputy Assistant Secretary of State under Hillary Clinton. A staunch advocate of the U.S. war on Afghanistan, she has been a leading proponent of so-called “smart power” (the idea that the U.S. empire should make use of cultural-intellectual and diplomatic resources as well as the military and brutal client regimes). It is a sorry commentary—it is inexcusable—that an organization opposing persecution of writers and standing for international cooperation would have this imperialist ideologue and operative as its executive director.

Now I am not in a position to make an all-sided evaluation of the content and role of Charlie Hebdo. But two principles are quite important in sorting through the issues of the PEN debate:

First: Intellectuals and artists, including comic artists, should have a basic orientation of standing with the people, not the powers-that-be—whether it be the Black youths rising up in Baltimore, women (and men) in India taking to the streets against a culture of rape, or migrants demanding that they be treated as human beings. Yes, there is certainly a place for irreverence and sharp humor, but no quarter can be given to racist, chauvinist, and sexist jokes that in fact reflect and reinforce structures of exploitation and oppression—and artists and comics should not engage in such humor but rather oppose it.

Intellectuals and artists should mercilessly condemn everything that is backward and oppressive. They should foster critical thinking about society and the world. And they should uphold, even with criticism, everything that is liberatory—that contributes to getting to a world without oppression and in which humanity could truly flourish.

There is an important priority in calling out the powers-that-be, the powers “on high,” and the crimes of the imperialist system. But artists and intellectuals also have an important responsibility of criticizing and challenging thinking and values that chain people, even those on the “bottom,” to the status quo.

Second: Attempts by the state or by organized movements backed by states or non-state power structures, or even by movements not connected with the state, to suppress artists—whether through forbidding them outlets and through blacklisting, imprisonment, physical attack, or even murder—must be opposed. And where artists, thinkers, and writers come under attack for challenging oppressive social structures and ideas—they must be vigorously defended.

II. The Criticism of Religion and Other Enslaving Ideas Held by the Masses

Let me home in on a particularly contentious question at the PEN conference: the fact that Charlie Hebdo was not just lambasting religion but a religion, Islam, embraced by large sections of an oppressed and beleaguered immigrant population (though I must inject here that there is no population in which everyone hews to a particular religious belief).

It is certainly true that many of the oppressed gravitate to religion to give meaning and hope to their lives. But it is very wrong and harmful to posit as a principle that one must therefore desist from or temper criticism of religion and of backward ideas, like male chauvinism and anti-gay attitudes, among the masses in order to stand with and not belittle the oppressed.

To begin with, religion is an ideological chain. It is untrue: god does not exist. Religion arose in a specific historical context, and its creation myths and morality are bound up with the history and survival needs of particular peoples at a particular stage of societal development. Religion is based on an unscientific world outlook, on superstition and faith. Religion is a fetter on the ability of the masses of people to understand the world as it really is, and to act in their highest interests and the interests of world humanity to radically transform the world and put an end to all exploitation and oppression.

But there is something else. To attack religious beliefs or religious icons is NOT the same as attacking those who hold those beliefs. Indeed, there is a role—including for artists and writers in particular—in both standing with oppressed people in a fundamental sense AND leading them to see how such beliefs buttress oppressive orders and relations of various kinds... and to break with them.

III. Caught Between Two Unacceptable Alternatives...

The debate at PEN between those supporting the award for Charlie Hebdo and those opposing it has a broader historical and global context. In today’s world, the clash between Western imperialism and its bourgeois democracy, on the one hand, and Islamic fundamentalism and its appeal to tradition, on the other—this is profoundly shaping world events, as well as people’s sense of what is possible and desirable.

Bringing Forward Another Way

Bringing Foward Another Way is an edited version of a talk by Bob Avakian, Chairman of the Revolutionary Communist Party, USA, to a group of Party supporters, in 2006. It is must reading for a serious understanding of what the U.S. "war on terror" is really about and how to bring forward a positive force in the world in opposition to both Western imperialism and Islamic Jihad.

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Many progressive people, including at the PEN conference, are caught on the horns of these two oppressive ways of thinking and of organizing society—even though most do not see things in those terms. But think about it...

Imperialism spreads its exploiting tentacles, uproots people from the land, and destroys long-standing ways of life. We are talking about literally billions of people whose lives are dominated, ground up, and often outright destroyed by the economic and social relations of this system and its machinery of drones, soldiers, and cops who enforce these relations.

Islam and traditional values seem to offer an antidote to the incredible churning of lives. But there is nothing progressive in the fundamentalist vision—not least in relation to the emancipation of women and critical thinking. For all its claims to being an alternative to Western imperialism, Islamic fundamentalism is deeply rooted in the same horizons of exploitation and domination. Yet and still, a significant section of intellectuals and artists is loath to criticize Islamic fundamentalism—some because they think it is not “their place” to challenge anything that great numbers of the oppressed believe, others because they mistakenly see in fundamentalist Islam something in positive opposition to Western domination.

Meanwhile, the imperialists parade as champions of free expression, tolerance, dissent. But where is the “freedom of expression” for the child picking his way through a garbage dump in a Third World mega-city? Where is the right to dissent for the young women slaving away in the prison-like factory compounds of export-processing zones?

And within the imperialist heartlands, the fist of bourgeois dictatorship is used against dissent: ubiquitous spying by government agencies and police forces on basic dissent (like antiwar activity); the unforgiving onslaught of the late 1960s and early 1970s against the Black Panther Party and other Black revolutionaries (some of whom are still in prison 40 years later); the unrelenting persecution of whistle-blowers; or the jail sentences meted out to students in California for peacefully blocking traffic to protest police murder (while police who carry out murder go free).

Two "historically outmodeds"

At the core of Western society, with its carapace of bourgeois democracy, is capitalist-imperialist exploitation, savage inequalities, and worldwide plunder. Yet, some progressive artists and intellectuals see in Western institutions (and military interventions) a last line of defense of enlightened values.

So here you have imperialism and fundamentalism setting certain ideological and political terms in the world today. And people get caught in a deadly dynamic.

Again, think about how things have played out over the last 15 years. Following 9/11, the U.S. launches mass-murderous wars of empire against the people of Afghanistan and Iraq—propelling more into the clutches of Islamic fundamentalism. Then the assaults by fundamentalists on unconventional journalists like Charlie Hebdo, or the beheadings carried out by ISIS, provide fuel and cover for the rulers of the West to carry out more drone wars abroad, more repression against immigrants and those who oppose the rulers’ program, and more spying and surveillance at home under the rubric of combating Islamic fanaticism.2

Look at the awful turn of events in Egypt. Many of the young people who had so heroically taken to the streets to face down and oust the U.S.-backed Mubarak regime were, just some 18 months later, supporting a U.S.-backed coup against the oppressive government of the Muslim Brotherhood. Or consider the ideological manacles that lead some to merge bourgeois democracy with Islamic fundamentalism: extolling the “choice” of some women to cover their faces, to enshroud their humanity, in the name of the assertion of “identity.” This is madness.

Bob Avakian has analyzed the global dynamic at work:

What we see in contention here with Jihad on the one hand and McWorld/McCrusade on the other hand, are historically outmoded strata among colonized and oppressed humanity up against historically outmoded ruling strata of the imperialist system. These two reactionary poles reinforce each other, even while opposing each other. If you side with either of these “outmodeds,” you end up strengthening both....

[A]t the same time we do have to be clear about which of these “historically outmodeds” has done the greater damage and poses the greater threat to humanity: It is the historically outmoded strata of the imperialist system, and in particular the U.S. imperialists.3

IV. There Is a Liberatory Alternative... And the Responsibility to Engage It

BUT the choice does not in fact come down to either a world dominated by imperialism, with its profit-above-all economics based on exploitation, and its mechanisms of bourgeois democracy that work quite well in exacting control and subordination—or to a world in which Islamic fundamentalism is institutionalized as the governing ideology and way of life on large swaths of the planet.

Let me pose it this way: Why are these two outmoded ways of organizing society and thinking just that... “outmoded”? Because a more advanced mode of social organization—without scarcity, without exploitation and oppression, and without social antagonism—is possible.

A global community of humanity, of diverse and unique individuals cooperating and doing their best to contribute their ideas and actions to a better world and protecting the planet, is achievable. This is the worldwide communist revolution to rupture with all traditional property relations and with all traditional ideas, and to emancipate all of humanity.

Rather obviously, this is not what most people think (or think “they know”). But it is no wonder why. There is, in contemporary society, a pervasive ruling narrative about communism: that communism is “an impossible utopia that can only turn into ‘totalitarian’ nightmare,” that any attempt to go beyond capitalism is a crime “against human nature.” And people are bombarded ceaselessly with lies and distortions about the communist project and its history.

But the truth is that the first socialist revolutions—the Soviet Union 1917-1956 and China 1949-1976—led by genuine revolutionary communists, were breakthroughs towards emancipation. These were the first and inspiring attempts to build societies free from exploitation and oppression. And they accomplished amazing things against incredible odds.4

Bob Avakian has deeply examined this momentous experience and taken communism to a higher, more emancipatory level. He has brought forward the understanding and framework for a society and world in which the basic needs of humanity can be met and in which the great social divides can be overcome. A society where there is a far greater role than was the case in the previous socialist experience for intellectual ferment, dissent, and all kinds of experimentation, cultural and otherwise. Where there is debate, including the role for debates like this one, involving all of society—for the purpose of enabling people to more deeply understand the world and transform it in a positive direction.

There IS another way. It is the new synthesis of communism developed by Bob Avakian. It is viable... it is visionary... it is more needed than ever. A radically different and better world is possible: free of all relations of exploitation and domination; without the ignorance, values, and suppression that reinforce and go along with those relations; and without the destructive, killing antagonisms that mark our world today.

Ardea Skybreak has put it this way:

Bob Avakian makes very deep and insightful analyses of all of that: why you need a revolution; what is the possibility for a revolution; what is the basis—on what basis, even in a powerful imperialist country like the United States, with all its military and stuff, is it actually possible; and, if you succeed in seizing power, then how do you build a society that was worth fighting for, that you’d want to live in, as opposed to yet another bad system. All of that is in BA’s work.5

To those in PEN, and to artists and intellectuals more widely, who agonize about the massive suffering in the world and the future of humanity: Why not examine your assumptions about where all the misery on this planet comes from, how it can be changed, and what is and is not desirable in achieving that? And as a first and crucial step: Why not explore and dig into the work that Bob Avakian has actually been doing on these problems for 40 years?

Truly, the people and the planet need another way. This is no abstraction. Each and every day, 17,000 children die of preventable disease and malnutrition. The Mediterranean is littered with the corpses of immigrants fleeing lands impoverished and turned into killing grounds by imperialism. Here in the “belly of the beast,” a whole generation of Black and Latino youth is deemed disposable: locked out of work, warehoused into prison, brutalized and murdered by the police in the streets. Across the planet lives and spirits are crushed, the creative potential of humanity shackled. While the machinery of imperialism hums in the background... while the planet itself is being destroyed.

Anyone unreconciled to this world of misery should want to engage with the new synthesis of communism. To know about it but refuse to engage with it is unconscionable.

The stakes could not be higher: the world as it is, or the way out and the way forward.

1. The statement by the protesting writers can be read at The Intercept website: “204 Pen Writers (Thus Far) Have Objected to the Charlie Hebdo Award—Not Just 6” [back]

2. In early May, a right-wing, anti-Muslim group held a “cartoon contest” in Garland, Texas. The idea was to whip up anti-Muslim sentiment through racist depictions of the prophet Muhammad. As this Garland, Texas, gathering opened, two gunmen showed up but were intercepted and killed. If press reports are to be believed, the would-be assailants had connections to jihadist movements, although this has not been fully established.
      The Garland cartoon festival was the handiwork of a racist, pro-imperialist, anti-immigrant group operating from a perspective that the “civilized” West, and America in particular, is under siege from Islamic fanatics and that America must do any and all things to stop this. This and other such gatherings fit squarely with the agenda of the U.S.’s war on the world. Further, this train of events—the reactionary “cartoon contest” and the apparent plans by the two gunmen, possibly jihadi-influenced, to stop it through murder—is very much bound up with the dynamic of the contention between the “two outmodeds.”
      Any attempts by the U.S. imperialists to use such incidents as rationales to carry out further repression in the U.S. and retaliation abroad must be opposed. And whatever the background and motivations of the gunmen, the resort to coercion, violence, and murder to oppose ideas is completely unacceptable. [back]

3. See Bob Avakian, Bringing Forward Another Way. [back]

4. To learn about the historical experience of the Russian and Chinese revolutions, their overwhelmingly positive achievements and also their secondary problems and shortcomings, see You Don’t Know What You Think You “Know” About the Communist Revolution and The REAL Path To Emancipation: It’s History and Our Future. Interview with Raymond Lotta. [back]

5. Science and Revolution: On the Importance of Science, The Application of Science to Society, The New Synthesis of Communism and the Leadership of Bob Avakian: An Interview With Ardea Skybreak [back]



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