Charlie Hebdo Editors Receive Standing Ovation at PEN Gala, Amid Award Controversy via AP Images
Gerard Biard and Jean-Baptiste Thoret

At the event, attended by Glenn Close, Stockard Channing and Martha Plimpton, editor-in-chief Gérard Biard said of receiving the protested honor, "Not everyone has to agree with us. ... we are used to this kind of controversies."

When Charlie Hebdo editor-in-chief Gérard Biard and film critic Jean-Baptiste Thoret approached the American Museum of Natural History stage to accept the PEN 2015 Freedom of Expression Courage Award on Tuesday night, they received uproarous applause and a standing ovation.

The satirical newspaper continued to publish controversial cartoons after losing eight staff members in a terrorist attack on Jan. 7. “They don't want us to debate. We must debate,” Biard told the room of guests at the organization’s annual gala in New York. “Being shocked is part of the democratic debate. Being shot is not.”

Debate came to define the lead-up to the event, simmering to the surface last month when six writers (including Peter Carey, Michael Ondaatje and Teju Cole) set to host tables at the ceremony pulled out in protest over PEN’s decision to honor the publication, voicing concerns that the it promoted cultural intolerance and Islamophobia. The controversy intensified when 200 writers and PEN members then signed an open letter that characterized the organization’s decision to honor Charlie Hebdo as “valorizing selectivelyoffensive material: material that intensifies the anti-Islamic, anti-Maghreb, anti-Arab sentiments already prevalent in the Western world.”

Salman Rushdie was emphatic in his derision for his fellow PEN members who signed that letter. “For God’s sake, these people died for their art. And we are an organization that defends the right of people to be artists. The end. No brainer,” Rushdie told The Hollywood Reporter before the event, held under heavy security, just two days after gunmen opened fire on a Texas event where cartoonists competed to depict the Prophet Muhammad.

While much has been made over these 200 dissenting voices, particularly in light of the Texas attack, Rushdie said that the majority of PEN’s more than 4,000 members fully supported the decision to honor Charlie Hebdo. “If you look at the prominent writers on the list, it’s maybe a couple of dozen. I looked at the list of signatories, and I don’t even know who a hundred of them are, … and I know a lot of writers,” he said. “If you look at it as a percentage of the PEN membership, it’s like four percent. Ever since this blew up PEN, and me personally, has been deluged with letters of support and solidarity. The very, very large majority of the PEN membership understands that this is a major free expression issue.”

Novelist and essayist Porochista Khakpour, one of the event’s table hosts, was more conflicted. On one hand, “as a woman from a Middle Eastern culture, I do have some very personal reactions to Charlie Hebdo. While I understand a lot of the complicated rationale about why they do this sort of satire, for me, just viscerally, the drawing were hard to look at,” she told THR. “Now that Islamophobia is so mainstream, it’s very difficult for me to see those images personally.”

And yet, on the other hand, “the truth is, a lot of the divisiveness that you see here has so much to do with literary feuds and authors," she continued. "I don’t think there are that many people who would actually stand up for the rights for Middle Easterners and Muslims.”

Kicking off the event — held in the museum’s Hall of Ocean Life — PEN president Andrew Solomon didn't shy away from the controversy. “One can perhaps be castigated for failing to mention the elephant in the room, or in this case, the whale in the room,” he said in his opening remarks, referring to the large blue whale replica suspended over the evening’s 800 guests.

For Biard, the important distinction is that PEN is not honoring Charlie Hebdo for the newspaper’s content, but rather its right to satirizeall religions and belief systems. “Many people in PEN America don’t agree with the content. It’s normal. Not everyone has to agree with us,” Biard told THR before the ceremony. “[PEN] rewards the principle of freedom of speech, of the right to be outrageous. And the right to blaspheme.”

Despite this, he applauded the authors who had signed the open letter protesting the award. “We can’t stand for freedom of expression and deny them the right to express themselves. Good for them,” he said. Besides, “we are used to this kind of controversies at Charlie Hebdo.”

In addition to Charlie Hebdo, the gala – which drew prominent writers, including Alison Bechdel, Neil Gaiman, Colm Toibin and Meg Wolitzer, along with celebrity guests Glenn Close, Stockard Channing, Billy Crudup and Martha Plimpton — honored jailed Azerbaijan journalist Khadija Ismayilova with the PEN/Barbara Goldsmith Freedom to Write Award and playwright Tom Stoppard with the PEN/Allen Foundation Literacy Service Award.

“Tom Stoppard is a dear friend of mine. I’m here to celebrate him and the extraordinary work that he has done and does. He is, in my view, possibly the greatest living playwright in the English language,” Plimpton told THR before the ceremony. “I’m here to celebrate his life and his work and raise a glass in his honor.”