Charlie Hebdo journalist Zineb El Rhazoui was in Casablanca two years ago when Islamists yelling “Allahu Akbar”—“God is great”— burst into an editorial meeting and murdered eight of her colleagues and friends as punishment for publishing “blasphemous” drawings of the Prophet Muhammad. She now lives with her family in hiding, surrounded by security guards 24 hours a day and unable to go out, even to a supermarket.
Joining Samia Hathroubi, European director of the Foundation for Ethnic Understanding, for an intense debate at the Women in the World Summit in New York on Thursday, El Rhazoui, the author of “Destroy Islamic Fascism,” declared to loud applause that reporters and cartoonists must challenge the notion that a drawing could ever justify murder.
“When you understand that a cartoon can lead to all this violence, it means that there is a problem,” El Rhazoui said. “There is a fascism at that specific point and it is our duty as journalists, as cartoonists, to break this taboo.”
Moderator Zainab Salbi, a television host and journalist, countered that most mainstream Muslims are raised to respect the taboo against depicting the prophet. “Where is the line between freedom of expression and respecting certain values—that are benign—of other religions and cultures?” Salbi asked.
“This is a completely fake idea,” said El Rhazoui. Though she was raised with compulsory Islamic education at school in Morocco and studied the sociology of religions at university in Paris, she said she had been unable to discover any edict in the Koran, Hadith or Sira prohibiting the depiction of the Prophet Muhammad. Even if such an edict existed, she continued, Charlie Hebdo, as a secular Parisian newspaper, was “not obliged to respect a religious—Muslim, Christian or Jewish—rule.”
Hathroubi accused El Rhazoui of promoting the caricaturing of Muslims as terrorists and cast her as right-wing for appearing on TV networks that she described as French equivalents of Fox News. “By depicting Muslims as terrorists you are just saying bluntly—and promoting the clash of civilization—that Islam is inherently violent,” said Hathroubi.
Thirty percent of people who get radicalized into Islamic extremism are converts fascinated by nihilistic ideology, Hathroubi argued. They do not take their ideas from the Koran and are raised in “very secular families,” she said, contradicting research showing that most jihadists have religious upbringings and pass through a phase of radical Salafist or hardline Saudi Wahhabi Islam before opting for violence. Hathroubi also pointed to discrimination and exclusion as significant factors in the extreme disaffection experienced by these youth.
When Salbi asked how much jihadist terrorism—which has struck France repeatedly since the Charlie Hebdo massacre—could be attributed to Islam rather than to French social, economic and political issues, El Rhazoui rejected the stark dichotomy.
“I totally disagree with [presidential candidate Marine Le Pen’s] speech giving us the choice between agreeing with what the terrorists do or saying it has nothing to do with Islam, and that Islam is a religion of peace and love—we should all convert, in fact—and that terrorism is the fault of the West, poverty, unemployment mental diseases, and it has nothing to do with Islam,” she said. “I consider that both of them [Le Pen’s National Front and Islamists] are fascists—they are far right wing.’’
The seemingly opposed forces jockeying for attention in the lead-up to the French presidential election—which will be held in two stages, on April 23 and May 7 (with Le Pen leading many first-round polls)—have the same methods, El Rhazoui said. “They are using the same dialectic that says that the Muslim is not an individual—he is a community,” she said to loud applause.
“Both of them—the far right-wing or the Islamists—see the society divided into communities, and those communities don’t have the same rights. The Islamists consider they must have separate or exceptional rights by the will of Allah, and the far right believe the white Catholics must have more rights because they were here before the others.”
El Rhazoui, who left Charlie Hebdo last year after the magazine’s new editors refused to publish cartoons of Muhammad, said religious fascism had forced her to hide from Islamists who want her dead.
“When you are supposed to be Muslim and you are born into this culture, but you are a secular person and you believe in universal values of freedom—if you are a man you are a traitor, and if you are a woman you are a whore. This is why they have all this hatred against me.”
El Rhazoui and Hathroubi also clashed over whether Muslim women can be considered to exercise free choice by covering themselves with garments such as the hijab, niqab and burka. Together with other visible signs of religion such as Jewish or Sikh head coverings, the hijab is not permitted in French schools.
“If you’re feminist you have to fight for the right of every woman—and all French women,” Hathroubi told El Rhazoui to audible cheers.
“I will consider the hijab as normal dress the day that no woman in the world will be jailed for not wearing it,” El Rhazoui responded. “As a feminist I’m not going to fight for the right to wear the burka or the niqab for Muslim French women. In no Muslim country can [women] inherit the same as men. In France the only right they don’t have is to wear the niqab. I feel more concerned with the millions of women forced to wear it in Iran and Saudi Arabia.”
As El Rhazoui sees it, a problem arises when people consider themselves to have only one identity, such as being Muslim. “But actually all of us [have] multiple identities and before being Muslim we are also French—French women, men, children. [We] are artists, [we] work, [we] have other concerns. So stop being obsessed with this identity.”
Hathroubi blamed the media for focusing on public debates in France surrounding the wearing of the hijab.
“You need to look beyond the media to a safe space for people to engage and to get to know the other. We are on the same boat. Either we die together or we are going to live together well.”
Additional reporting by Yasmeen Qureshi.