The Charlie Hebdo cartoonist Luz said this week he will stop inking images of the prophet Muhammad, explaining that it no longer interests him: “I got tired of it, just like I got tired of drawing Sarkozy.” His announcement comes as France also follows the case of Sarah K., the fifteen-year-old student sent home for wearing a long skirt her principal deemed an “ostentatious sign” of the girl’s Muslim faith – an action the Collective Against Islamophobia in France called “really an excessive interpretation” of the 2004 law prohibiting students to wear visible signs of their religious affiliation to school.
Meanwhile, the public spat among authors continues ahead of next week’s PEN gala in New York, where Charlie Hebdo will receive the PEN/Toni and James C. Goodale Freedom of Expression Courage Award “for its dauntlessness in the face of one of the most noxious assaults on expression in recent memory.” Six writers scheduled as table hosts announced over the weekend they would not attend the event, including Francine Prose, a former president of PEN American Center. About two dozen more writers (including Joyce Carol Oates and Junot Diaz) have since added their names as signatories to a public letter of protest over the award: “PEN is not simply conveying support for freedom of expression,” reads the letter, “but also valorizing selectively offensive material: material that intensifies the anti-Islamic, anti-Maghreb, anti-Arab sentiments already prevalent in the western world.” Prose and the five others who first withdrew have come under fire from, among others, Salman Rushdie -- who has called them “fellow travelers” of “fanatical Islam, which is highly organized, well funded, and which seeks to terrify us all, Muslims as well as non-Muslims, into a cowed silence.” (He used some other choice words too.) To which Prose has responded:
Why is it so difficult for people to make fine distinctions? … [We] stand fully behind Charlie Hebdo’s right to publish whatever they want without being censored, and of course without the use of violence to enforce their silence. … But the giving of an award suggests that one admires and respects the value of the work being honored, responses quite difficult to summon for the work of Charlie Hebdo. Provocation is simply not the same as heroism.
There’s a more irenic exchange going on at John Carroll University, as can be heard in a segment from today’s NPR Morning Edition on retired archbishop Michael Fitzgerald, an expert on Islam currently teaching a class on the Quran.
Fitzgerald, former papal nuncio to Egypt and once the Vatican’s delegate to the Arab League, has long urged Christians to become familiar with Islam’s holy book: "The more you understand a religion, the better it is, whether it's Christians studying Islam or Christians studying Christianity or Muslims studying Christianity. I think this helps in your relations." Students in the class – Catholic and Muslim – have responded enthusiastically to his approach. You can read and listen to the story here (I recommend listening). A Catholic student comes to see the Quran as sacred to Muslims in the way the Eucharist is to Catholics, while a Muslim student reports being “blown away” by the class and feeling “so much happiness” over the interest and openness of her classmates. The head of John Carroll’s Islamic Studies program had no qualms hiring Fitzgerald as opposed to a Muslim scholar: "A well-informed Christian can teach Islam better than an ill-informed Muslim. I would rather have Muslims learning about Islam from a Christian like Archbishop Fitzgerald than from a propagandist for an organization like ISIS."
Hearing the report this morning I was reminded of another item, this from several months ago, written by Tim Parks shortly after the Charlie Hebdo attack. He told of his own ill-advised idea some years earlier to use images of the saints and Mary in satirizing the Catholic church’s position on abortion and birth control -- a piece his Italian publisher refused to publish. “It was my Protestant background and complete carelessness about images of saints and virgins that made me unaware of the kind of response the piece would have stirred up,” he explained, before posing this question: “Is a culture that takes mortal offense when an image it holds sacred is mocked a second-rate culture that needs to be dragged kicking and screaming into the twenty-first century, my twenty-first-century that is? Do I have the moral authority to decide this?” Another question: Can there ever be enough learning to undo the danger of a little?