National Security & Defense

A Brave Letter from a French-Moroccan Charlie Hebdo Journalist

Mosque in Marseille, France (Reuters photo: Jean-Paul Pelissier)
‘You always obtained your rights in French, and yet you hate this country.’

‘Your supposed identity, which you think you have lost and which has made you undertake this quest, is also mine.” So states Zineb El Rhazoui, a French-Moroccan journalist in an open letter to potential French jihadists published in Le Figaro in late July. The letter, addressed to a fictional “candidate for jihad” chastises the growing population of radicalized, French-born Muslims who, she asserts, are misguided in their sense of exclusion. “You have made your battle against racism not into a fight for universal human rights, to erase the differences between citizens of the same country, but into a petty struggle,” she writes.

Her letter is raw and visceral and understandably so — El Rhazoui worked for Charlie Hebdo and lost several of her colleagues in the attack on their offices last year (she was in Morocco at the time), and she has been routinely threatened for her outspoken views about religious fundamentalism, in particular about radical Islam. Indeed, El Rhazoui and several other moderate or secular French Muslim writers were profiled in Le Figaro in April (“The Intellectuals and Islam — a High-Risk Engagement”), because all are under threat for their views and must live in hiding, under armed guard.

El Rhazoui is neither intimidated nor silenced. In the letter, she takes to task French-born Muslims who are seduced by jihadism. Their claims of exclusion from French society are baseless, she says. Indeed, they have wasted the opportunities that French citizenship has offered them and have instead chosen the path of “petty criminality.” She addresses the reader as a fellow Muslim with North African roots, albeit one who did not have the privileges of growing up in France. To underscore what she perceives as the incongruity between French-born Muslims’ claims of exclusion and their actual opportunities as French citizens, she cites her own experiences growing up poor in Morocco:

You had rights I never had. You went to a French public school while I had to regurgitate required religion courses. You played sports while the handball playground at my school was a vast field of mud. . . . You never had to defend your rights in Arabic. . . . You always obtained your rights in French, and yet you hate this country.

El Rhazouis’s letter is deeply personal; it is the voice of a woman who has thrived away from her oppressive homeland and whose expressed opinions have had consequences. She throws into relief several of the major legal and cultural dilemmas that Islamic terrorism has created, specifically: 1) how to address the violence of an indigenous population that has the rights and protections of citizenship, but which has redefined its cultural identity and national allegiance; and 2) how to define citizenship itself. The response to such issues will become a fault line in the upcoming French presidential elections in spring, 2017. Indeed, right-wing candidates, including former president Sarkozy, are already offering a range of proposals, some more extreme than others. They include outlawing Salafism and closing radical mosques; deporting radical imams; requiring administrative detention for French citizens returning from Syria and home confinement with electronic bracelets for those suspected of being national-security risks; and changing the criteria for citizenship from one based on birthplace (“droit de sol”) to one requiring European ancestry (“droit du sang”).

Contrast El Rhazoui’s letter with that of another open letter recently published in the socialist newspaper Libération. On August 3, writer Edouard Louis and philosopher Geoffroy de Lagasnerie wrote a public letter to Manuel Valls, France’s Socialist prime minister. The authors accuse Valls of having “done nothing against terrorism.” In the wake of the attack on Father Jacques Hamel at St. Etienne de Rouvray, President François Holland asserted that the government would combat terrorism “by all means.” Louis and Lagasnerie claim that such “means” have been only increased government “surveillance” and “repression.” The government, they write, has not addressed the underlying social causes of terrorism:

When you and François Holland promise to combat terrorism, you never speak of combatting inferior schools, social violence, prison conditions, Islamophobia, racism, urban segregation, instability, or police violence. . . . You and Francois Holland have done nothing against terrorism because at no time have you thought in terms of combatting the structures of inequality that make life unlivable.

Such are the lines of demarcation that have developed among the French intellectual class regarding home-grown terrorists. Intense ideological and philosophical divisions among intellectuals in France are not new. One recalls the similar divisions over Communism. Such divisions, however, were largely abstract and often without immediate consequence — a luxury the inheritors of that tradition, tragically, no longer have.

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