Haroon Moghul: Is It ‘Helpful At This Time’ to Award Charlie Hebdo?

Haroon Moghul, the Fellow in Muslim Politics and Societies at Fordham Law School’s Center on National Security wondered “is it really helpful at this time?” to give Charlie Hebdo the PEN America James C. Goodale Freedom of Expression Courage Award on Tuesday’s “NOW with Alex Wagner” on MSNBC.

Harper’s Magazine Deputy Editor Christopher Beha said that “Charlie Hebdo is not Pamela Geller…their primary targets for their political satire are actually groups like the National Front, Marine Le Pen’s xenophobic, right-wing group, they are championed within France as an anti-racist magazine. They are not a magazine that expresses a xenophobic view. And so, honoring them is really about honoring a group of journalists who believe strongly in the importance of this kind of satire and testing the limits of what’s offensive, and lost their lives for that.”

Moghul responded, “the first thing that needs to be said is, obviously, we’re against violence and we’re in favor of free speech. my discomfort with what Charlie Hebdo does…is more of a moral argument. That they can do it, but why are they doing it? Is it really helpful at this time? And that’s how I feel about the awards as well. That in this climate, with this kind of distrust, with this kind of suspicion, with this kind of racism and prejudice on both sides, between Muslim communities and Western communities and those of us who in the middle, such as myself, I’m an American Muslim, are we really making things better or are we making things worse? What is the advantage to doing this? What is the goal in doing this?”

He later added, “Muslim Americans are an easy target. Peter Beinart had a great piece in the Atlantic just about a week ago on exactly this topic. There’s a general milieu where you can bash American Muslims, or just Muslims generally, and make assumptions and generalizations about Muslims that you can’t about other communities. And that’s what I’m upset by, I’m not upset by the satire. I’m all for free speech, even offensive speech.”

Host Alex Wagner then asked whether satire against Muslims is due to the violence of radical Islam, Moghul answered, “many folks in the Muslim world believe, and not without reason, that America actively inhibits their freedom of speech. We’ve been on the side of dictatorships for decades. We’ve actively prevented the exercise of freedom of speech for hundreds of millions of people for years and years and years. We’re arming dictators. That’s taking away people’s freedom of speech. That’s killing them in the streets. So, what’s the difference?”

Beha countered that while Charlie Hebdo wasn’t simply trying to defy political correctness, “PEN is an organization that is dedicated to free expression. And it is a fact, even if it’s an uncomfortable fact, that one of the threats in the world today to free expression is a particular strain of extreme radical Islam that wants to prevent expressions that they view as blasphemous. And the people who targeted Charlie Hebdo were not targeting them because they felt that they had offended this impoverished Muslim minority in France. They were targeting them for blasphemy. And I that think it’s within the context of there being a global movement to restrict speech in the name of blasphemy laws that PEN has decided to give an award to victims of violence surrounding this particular issue.”

Moghul stated, “look, many people in the Muslim world believe certain things about Americans or Christians or Jews that are offensive. And in this climate, would we honor people who engage in those stereotypes? Or would we be uncomfortable and think to ourselves, ‘is now the right time?  Is this really the right thing to do? Do we not also have a calling as writers, as thinkers, as artists to call people together, to bring them together in a productive way?’ There’s ways to be critical without being offensive.”

Follow Ian Hanchett on Twitter @IanHanchett