Under the blue whale: at the PEN gala in New York. Photo: Jemal Countess/Getty Images
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Being shocked is part of living in a democracy, said the Charlie Hebdo editor. Being shot is not

NS guest editor Neil Gaiman writes the diary.

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Six writers had pulled out of hosting ­tables at the PEN literary gala in New York. To host a table, you sit with eight people who have bought expensive tickets to the shindig in the vague hope of mingling with real writers. Your task is to make pleasant writerly conversation and not to spill your wine. Also, not to show disappointment when you realise that the whole table has been block-booked by, say, Google, and the people next to you don’t know who you are.

The six writer hosts who pulled out from the gala did so because among the awards that would be given that night was one for courage, going to the surviving staff of Charlie Hebdo. It was for having the courage to put out the magazine after the 2011 firebombing and after the 2015 murders – and the six writers did not want to be there when Charlie Hebdo got that award.

I was asked if I would host a table. I said of course. So did Art Spiegelman; so did the cartoonist Alison Bechdel.

I tell my wife. “You are doing the right thing,” she says. Then, “Will you wear a bulletproof vest?”

“No. I think the security in the natural history museum will be pretty tight.”

“Yes. But you should wear a bulletproof vest, anyway. Remember, I’m pregnant,” she points out, in case I have forgotten. “And our child will need a father more than a martyr.”

My assistant calls me regretfully on the afternoon of the gala. “With a little more time,” she says, “I could have got you a made-to-measure bulletproof vest, the kind the president wears under his shirt. But all I can find at this short notice is an oversized police flak jacket. You would have to wear it over your tuxedo . . .”

I weigh my options. On the one hand, possible death by gunfire. On the other, definite embarrassment. “That’s OK,” I tell her. “I’ll be fine.”

I wear a bow tie. Art Spiegelman wears his Nancy comic tie, to show that he is a cartoonist, and we travel uptown by subway. We reach the museum. There are police in the streets and on the steps and TV crews – mostly French TV crews. Nobody else is wearing a bulletproof vest. There is a metal detector, though, and we walk through it one by one, authors and officials and guests.

Hanging above us as we eat is a life-size fibreglass blue whale. If terrorist cells behaved like the ones in the movies, I think, they would already have packed the hollow inside of the blue whale with explosives, leading to an exciting third-act battle sequence on top of the blue whale between our hero and the people trying to set off the bomb. And if that whale explodes, I realise, even an oversized flak jacket worn over a dinner jacket could not protect me. I find this vaguely reassuring.

Tom Stoppard is given an award first. Then Charlie Hebdo’s award is given. Finally, they give an award to the arrested Azerbaijani journalist Khadija Ismayilova. I wonder why the idea of being in the room while Charlie Hebdo is honoured upset the six former table hosts enough that they had to not be there and they couldn’t have turned up for the bits they liked and supported and just sloped off to the toilets for the bit they felt uncomfortable with. But then, I don’t get only supporting the freedom of the kind of speech you like. If speech needs defending, it’s probably because it’s upsetting someone.

I suspect that the reason why it seems so simple to me and to those of us from the world of comics is that we are used to having to defend our work against people who want it – and us – off the shelves.

The first comics work I was ever paid for was in the 1987 Knockabout Comics book Outrageous Tales from the Old Testament. I was one of a few writers and I retold several stories, mostly from the Book of Judges. One story immediately got us into trouble: an account of the attempted rape of a male traveller to a town, thwarted by a host who offers the rapists his virgin daughter and the traveller’s concubine. A gang rape follows and the traveller takes his concubine’s corpse home, cuts it up and sends a segment of it to each of the tribes of Israel. (It’s Judges 19 and it’s pretty noxious.)

I was 26 and soon after publication I found myself on the radio defending the book, as a Tory MP complained about the lack of prosecutions for criminal blasphemy and how both the book and those who made it should be locked up; I watched the Sun attempt to stir up popular anger against it; and then, a few years later, I watched the Swedish publisher of the book fight to stay out of prison for publishing it over there.

Outrageous Tales was, let us make no bones of it, an offensive comic (we weren’t using the phrase “graphic novel” much in 1987). Its purpose, at least as far as I was concerned, was to shock, to point out that the Bible contained material that was outrageously unpleasant and to bring that out into the open, to let it be talked about, seen, discussed. The book existed, in part, to shock and to offend, because it was a reaction to material in the Bible that we found shocking and offensive.

In retrospect, I am glad I was not sentenced to prison for blasphemous libel, like Denis Lemon a decade earlier; glad that Knockabout’s Swedish publisher got off; and doubly glad that the fundamentalist Christian extremists back then mostly reserved their murders for doctors who performed abortions and did not, to the best of my knowledge, kill people who wrote or drew comics.

Comics and cartoons can viscerally upset and offend people. Cartoons and comics get banned and cartoonists get imprisoned and killed. Some comics are hard to defend, especially if you prefer prettier drawing styles, lack cultural context, or were ­hoping for subtlety. But that does not mean that they should not be defended.

Back beneath the fibreglass blue whale, Gérard Biard, the editor-in-chief of Charlie Hebdo, concludes his speech. “Growing up to be a citizen,” he reminds us, “is to learn that some ideas, some words, some images can be shocking. Being shocked is part of democratic debate. Being shot is not.”

***

Now listen to Neil Gaiman and Amanda Palmer discuss censorship and creativity on the NS podcast:

 

This article first appeared in the 27 May 2015 issue of the New Statesman, Saying the Unsayable

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France’s burkini ban could not come at a worse time

Yet more legislation against veiled women can only further divide an already divided nation.

Since mayor of Cannes David Lisnard banned the full-body burkini from his town’s beaches, as many as 15 French resorts have followed suit. Arguments defending the bans fall into three main categories. First, it is about defending the French state’s secularism (laïcité). Second, that the costume represents a misogynistic doctrine that sees female bodies as shameful. And finally, that the burkini is cited as a threat to public order.

None of these arguments satisfactorily refute the claims of civil rights activists that the bans are fundamentally Islamophobic.

The niceties of laïcité

The Cannes decree explicitly invokes secular values. It prohibits anyone “not dressed in a fashion respectful of laïcité” from accessing public beaches. However, the French state has only banned “ostentatious” religious symbols in schools and for government employees as part of laïcité (the strict separation between the state and religious society). And in public spaces, laïcité claims to respect religious plurality. Indeed, the Laïcité Commission has tweeted that the ban, therefore, “cannot be based upon the principle of laïcité”.

While veils covering the entire face such as the burqa or niqab are illegal, this is not to protect laïcité; it is a security matter. The legal justification is that these clothes make it impossible to identify the person underneath – which is not the case for the burkini.

 

By falling back on laïcité to police Muslim women in this way, the Cannes authorities are fuelling the argument that “fundamentalist secularism” has become a means of excluding Muslims from French society.

Colonial attitudes

Others, such as Laurence Rossignol, the minister for women’s rights, hold that the burkini represents a “profoundly archaic view of a woman’s place in society”, disregarding Muslim women who claim to wear their burkini voluntarily.

This typifies an enduring colonial attitude among many non-Muslim French politicians, who feel entitled to dictate to Muslim women what is in their best interests. Rossignol has in the past compared women who wear headscarves through choice to American “negroes” who supported slavery.

Far from supporting women’s rights, banning the burkini will only leave the women who wear it feeling persecuted. Even those with no choice in the matter are not helped by the ban. This legal measure does nothing to challenge patriarchal authority over female bodies in the home. Instead, it further restricts the lives of veiled women by replacing it with state authority in public.

Open Islamophobia

Supporters of the ban have also claimed that, with racial tensions high after recent terrorist attacks, it is provocative to wear this form of Muslim clothing. Such an argument was made by Pierre-Ange Vivoni, mayor of Sisco in Corsica, when he banned the burkini in his commune. Early reports suggested a violent clash between local residents and non-locals of Moroccan origin was triggered when strangers photographed a burkini-wearing woman in the latter group, which angered her male companions. Vivoni claimed that banning the costume protected the security of local people, including those of North African descent.

Those reports have transpired to be false: none of the women in question were even wearing a burkini at the time of the incident. Nonetheless, the ban has stood in Sisco and elsewhere.

To be “provoked” by the burkini is to be provoked by the visibility of Muslims. Banning it on this basis punishes Muslim women for other people’s prejudice. It also disregards the burkini’s potential to promote social cohesion by giving veiled women access to the same spaces as their non-Muslim compatriots.

Appeals to public order have, occasionally, been openly Islamophobic. Thierry Migoule, head of municipal services in Cannes, claimed that the burkini “refers to an allegiance to terrorist movements”, conveniently ignoring the Muslim victims of recent attacks. Barely a month after Muslims paying their respects to friends and family killed in Nice were racially abused, such comments are both distasteful and irresponsible.

Increased divisions

Feiza Ben Mohammed, spokesperson for the Federation of Southern Muslims, fears that stigmatising Muslims in this way will play into the hands of IS recruiters. That fear seems well-founded: researchers cite a sense of exclusion as a factor behind the radicalisation of a minority of French Muslims. Measures like this can only exacerbate that problem. Indeed, provoking repressive measures against European Muslims to cultivate such a sentiment is part of the IS strategy.

Meanwhile, the day after the incident in Sisco, riot police were needed in nearby Bastia to prevent a 200-strong crowd chanting “this is our home” from entering a neighbourhood with many residents of North African descent. Given the recent warning from France’s head of internal security of the risk of a confrontation between “the extreme right and the Muslim world”, such scenes are equally concerning.

Now more than ever, France needs unity. Yet more legislation against veiled women can only further divide an already divided nation.

The Conversation

Fraser McQueen, PhD Candidate, University of Stirling

This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article.