Zineb El Rhazoui, a journalist at the French satirical newspaper Charlie Hebdo, discussed free speech in an event Thursday at the Law School. The event, titled Who Is Charlie?, referenced the hashtag #JeSuisCharlie that trended worldwide following the assassination of 12 people at the Charlie Hebdo office in Paris last month, and was organized by the University of Chicago French Club and moderated by Robert Morrissey, a French literature professor at the University.
On January 7 two gunmen stormed the offices of the newspaper and opened fire, killing 12. The gunman claimed to be acting in revenge for satirical cartoons about Islam, including some depicting the image of the Prophet Muhammad, that the newspaper had published.
Before the attack, Charlie Hebdo had 10,000 subscribers; after, it had more than 200,000. “All of us, we would have preferred to stay poor...instead of paying the very expensive price that we paid to have 200,000 subscribers,” El Rhazoui said. She said that this has made them more committed than ever to following a code of ethics, keeping with the limits of free speech according to French law.
El Rhazoui mourned her coworkers’ deaths at the event. “My colleagues have been killed because of something superfluous. My colleagues were simple people, intelligent people, nice people, humans, and they had lives,” she said. “They have been killed by stupid men…. Incredible stupidity has killed brilliant intelligence.”
Despite the attack, and the subsequent public uproar over the newspaper’s cartoons, El Rhazoui defended Charlie Hebdo’s right to publish what it did and what it continues to publish. She stated that just because it is a satirical newspaper doesn’t mean that it does or publishes whatever it likes; it remains within the bounds of French law. “The limits of freedom of expression in France are clear,” she said.
In response to anger over the publishing of the Prophet Muhammad’s image, she said that in her studies she has found that there is not even one line in the Koran that states that one should not publish his image. She also pointed out that in Shiite Islam, it has become more acceptable to publish the Prophet’s image. But most importantly, she said that the law banning his depiction belongs to Islam, not to France.
“Keep in mind, we work under the French law. Not under the Shariah law,” El Rhazoui said. “We mustn’t accept the rules of a game that are imposed to us by guns, and by crime.”
She said that if people are offended by the paper, and do not support its ideas, they are “not obliged to buy it.”
El Rhazoui also addressed the tension surrounding the “survivors' issue” of Charlie Hebdo, which depicts the Prophet Muhammad holding a sign that says “Je suis Charlie,” or “I am Charlie,” a phrase that people picked up in solidarity with the newspaper after the tragedy. Above the cartoon is the title “all is forgiven” in French. “I see, first of all, a message of forgiveness,” said El Rhazoui. “Why do they feel offended? ... We are not insulting the Prophet.”
During the question-and-answer session, Aseal Tineh, a fourth-year in the College and a first-year at Harris, heavily involved in Student Government and Students for Justice in Palestine, criticized Charlie Hebdo’s form of satire for making fun of an already marginalized population in its depictions of Islam rather than attacking the powerful. Overall, she said she wanted to know how she could condemn the actions of the attackers but still say, “No, [I am not] Charlie.”
“Today, being Charlie Hebdo means to die because of a drawing, because of its own ideas, and not everyone, excuse me, has the balls to die for his ideas. And no, not everyone can be Charlie Hebdo,” El Rhazoui said in response.
Additionally, El Rhazoui found that the “ugliest caricature” of Muslim people is not found in the pages of Charlie Hebdo, but in people like those who killed in their religion’s name. “I think the problem is that this religion must today ask itself why it produces criminals, why it produces terrorists. And not only in France, also in Morocco, Algeria, Tunisia, in Iran, in Syria,” she said. “I think in your religion you have other priorities than Charlie Hebdo, you have problems that are much more urgent than Charlie Hebdo.”
El Rhazoui continued to defend Charlie Hebdo’s free speech and satire, including its treatment of religion: “If we forbid blasphemy, we have to forbid religions, because each religion is blasphemy to the other religion.”