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Canadian author Michael Ondaatje is among a group of at least six writers who have withdrawn from next month's PEN American Center gala, citing objections to the literary and human rights organization's honouring the French satirical magazine Charlie Hebdo.Chris Young/The Canadian Press

If satire is meant to make people question their deepest assumptions and closest allegiances, then Charlie Hebdo is doing its job.

A number of prominent writers, including Canadian author Michael Ondaatje, are skipping the annual gala dinner held by PEN America after the group decided to honour the French cartoon magazine with its award for courageous freedom of expression.

PEN has a distinguished record as a public advocate for writers who are persecuted by governments. But the targeted killings of the Charlie Hebdo staff members by French Muslims angry at the magazine's mocking portrayals of Mohammed and Islam have proved much more divisive among PEN's thoughtful membership.

To offer a prize to Charlie Hebdo requires too high a level of approval for the magazine's work, the writers believe. "I couldn't imagine being in the audience when they have a standing ovation for Charlie Hebdo," said former PEN America president Francine Prose.

For writers who deal in human complexity like Mr. Ondaatje, context matters. If an awards night is to be more than a self-congratulatory fundraiser, abstract notions like freedom of expression and courage must defer to a harder literary question: Should the boundaries of both free speech and courage necessarily adapt to local realities?

Charlie Hebdo's cartoonists, working in the persistent French spirit of secularism and anticlericalism, saw themselves as caricaturing a monolithic sect that consistently behaves with barbaric cruelty and unreason. Islam, for Charlie Hebdo, became an updated version of the Catholic Church, and so a deserving target of ferocious satire.

But for the dissenting authors at PEN, these broad-brushed satirical attacks necessarily had damaging consequences at the human level. France's colonial past has produced a modern culture of inequality, they say. In Paris, where encouraging anti-Islamic sentiments shades too easily into racism, Muslims are much more likely to be the oppressed than the oppressors PEN normally rails against.

For other prominent PEN members, all this literary ambivalence is a weak-kneed diversion from the no-compromise ideals of free speech. Salman Rushdie, who knows a thing or two about attempts to limit free expression, said his old friend Mr. Ondaatje was "horribly wrong." But he's not wrong, just different – and right to avoid the gala's awkward culture of unanimity.