Last week, I attended the Who is Charlie? event hosted by the University’s French Club, and found Zineb El Rhazoui’s “defense of satire and free speech” problematic on two fronts. Firstly, El Rhazoui seems committed to a narrow vision of “free speech,” one that suppresses rather than supports alternative opinions. Secondly, this narrow vision is based on flawed assumptions about what constitutes a valid opinion.
Contrary to the expected conception of free speech, in which all people have the right to express their own opinions, El Rhazoui seemed dismissive of any opinion other than her own. During the Q&A session on Thursday, a Muslim student Aseal Tineh claimed to feel threatened and asked whether she could condemn the Charlie Hebdo killings without saying “I am Charlie.” El Rhazoui dismissed the question entirely, instead insinuating that Tineh did not have “the balls to die for [her] ideas.” Not only was this response irrelevant to Tineh’s question, it was also an unnecessary personal attack on Tineh’s bravery. El Rhazoui did not appear concerned about ensuring that others felt safe enough to express dissenting opinions, and the organizers and moderators gave someone in a relative position of power—El Rhazoui—free pass to make condescending attacks on a member of the University, making it more difficult for other members who felt marginalized to freely voice their opinion without fear of dismissal. The fact that so many people in the audience applauded such offensive vitriol only aggravates this problem: It hints at the unwillingness of a majority in the University community to provide marginalized voices the safe space they desire to speak up, something that works against the freedom of expression El Rhazoui claims to strive for.
Further, El Rhazoui’s view appears to be founded on a number of flawed assumptions about what constitutes a valid opinion. In particular, El Rhazoui seems to think that any type of free speech, no matter how immoral or hateful, should be allowed, as long as it is under “French law.”
By implying that the law should be the sole determining factor for what is acceptable free expression, El Rhazoui conflates the law with what is in society’s interest. In reality, the law is not always able to represent the interests of everyone in society. Recall that just last year, the grand juries in Ferguson and New York failed to indict two white police officers for the murders of two black men, allowing the suspects to escape standing trial despite evidence of wrongdoing. In this case, the U.S. judicial system failed to represent the interest of a particular minority in American society.
Furthermore, El Rhazoui privileges her own views over what she considers to be Muslim worldviews. Consider, for instance, the fact that El Rhazoui thinks that the veil is a symbol of subjugation and should be banned for government employees. Yet such a measure prevents both Muslim and non-Muslim women from exercising the right to wear what they want. El Rhazoui’s point of view excludes the possibility that some Muslim women choose to wear the veil because they find it a symbol of empowerment. In Iran, for example, many conservative women have taken advantage of enforced veiling and gender segregation in public spaces to travel independently and gain access to education and employment.
Muslims are not a homogenous social unit with a singular worldview, as El Rhazoui seems to suggest. She makes the unsubstantiated accusation that Islam “produces criminals [and] terrorists.” Having met Muslims from Morocco to France to Egypt, El Rhazoui surely knows that not all Muslims practice Islam in the same way. Islam does not “produce” criminals or terrorists, no more than Christianity “produces” gun-toting white supremacists or Buddhism “produces” self-immolating monks. Indeed, no Muslim should have to apologize for another Muslim’s action on the sole basis that they belong to the same religion.
It thus came as a shock to me that despite these problems, most of the audience appeared to endorse El Rhazoui’s conception of free speech by giving her a standing ovation when the event ended. Ultimately, El Rhazoui has the prerogative to say what she wants, and she did. Eve Zuckerman, president of the French Club, stated in her introductory remarks that she had never been prouder to be a student at the University of Chicago because it allowed El Rhazoui the safety to exercise her right to free speech. I, on the other hand, after seeing some University members’ approval of such narrowly defined and narrow-minded “free speech,” have never felt more ashamed.
Xin Tian Yong is a second-year master’s student in the Division of Social Sciences.