Magazine | June 22, 2015, Issue

Writing Brave

A conversation with a staffer at Charlie Hebdo magazine

Oslo — Does Zineb El Rhazoui ever think of going off and leading a quiet life, maybe teaching school somewhere? Must she remain in the fray? “It’s too late for me, regardless. There is a Sword of Damocles hanging over my head.” Wherever she went, whatever she did, her opponents would try to hunt her down and kill her.

Besides, “I owe something to my colleagues. I can’t abandon them,” not after so many were killed. “It’s my duty as a survivor, I think.”

Rhazoui is a journalist, a staff member with Charlie Hebdo. This week, she is participating in the Oslo Freedom Forum, the annual human-rights conference here in the Norwegian capital. She is a chic, even a glamorous woman in her early thirties. There is also a sense of purpose about her. She’s an intense communicator.

Charlie Hebdo is the proudly left-wing and atheist satirical magazine in Paris. Among its many targets have been Islam and Islamism. Last January 7, two Islamists, Saïd and Chérif Kouachi, went to the magazine’s offices. The Kouachis were Parisian-born brothers of Algerian parentage. They murdered twelve people, afterward yelling the usual triumphant slogans. Zineb El Rhazoui was not present that day. She was on vacation in Casablanca.

She was born and raised there. Her father was Moroccan, her mother French. Zineb came to her political ideas — secularist, nonconformist, individualist — early on. “In childhood, I started asking myself about my condition as a girl and as a future woman in Morocco, a country where women don’t have the same rights as men, a country where your whole status is ruled by religion, or by laws inspired by religion.” A woman, she says, is “condemned to be a half-citizen.” She formed a desire to “contest” this system.

After high school, she went to Paris, where she studied languages. She eventually earned a master’s degree in the sociology of religion. She wanted to understand the world from which she sprang, the better to contest it.

In 2007, when she was 25, she returned to Morocco, becoming a journalist. She worked for Le Journal Hebdomadaire, an independent magazine. (Hebdomadaire means “weekly,” and hebdo, of course, is its shortened form.) Rhazoui wrote about religion and irreligion, seeking out underground atheists, for example.

She also co-founded an organization — a clandestine organization — called MALI. That is the French acronym for the Alternative Movement for Individual Liberty. Mali, in Moroccan Arabic, also has the sense of “What’s wrong with me?”

In September 2009, the group tried a little civil disobedience. Muslims were observing Ramadan, the month of fasting. In Morocco, it is forbidden to eat publicly during fasting hours. In fact, it’s a jailable offense. So, MALI staged a picnic. Rhazoui explains, “We wanted to say, ‘We are citizens and we don’t fast.’ There were also people with us who do fast but who oppose this unjust law. No one should go to jail because he’s eating a sandwich.”

The picnickers did not get very far before being arrested. And the country’s theological council issued a fatwa against Rhazoui. The council declared her an enemy of Islam. Rhazoui maintains, “The picnic was not an action against Islam but an action for freedom.”

In the months and years to follow, Rhazoui was subjected to near-constant threats and harassment. The newspaper, Le Journal Hebdomadaire, was shut down by the government. It was virtually impossible for Rhazoui to work. She finally left the country, winding up at Charlie Hebdo. It seems to be a spiritual home for her.

On January 7, 2015, however — as I have said — she was back home in Casablanca. She woke up early that morning. She e-mailed her friend and editor, Stéphane Charbonnier, known as “Charb.” She had an idea for her next piece: The Islamic State had just issued regulations for the buying and selling of women. The regulations answered such questions as “Can I buy two sisters? Can I sleep with both of them?”

Rhazoui went back to bed. A few hours later, a friend called, in a panic, saying that there had been reports of a shooting at Charlie Hebdo. Rhazoui figured it was nothing. “I was sure at that moment that the atmosphere at Charlie was funny and jokey. I couldn’t imagine that anything horrible had happened. I thought I would call them and they’d say, ‘Oh, don’t worry about it. There was one guy, and he broke a couple of windows.’”

Throughout the day, Rhazoui learned who had survived and who had been killed. Charb, her close friend, was killed. Another close friend, Simon Fieschi, the webmaster, was very badly wounded. The receptionist, Angélique, had been spared because she had gone out for a smoke.

“I didn’t know whether I would have the courage to buy a ticket and fly back to Paris,” says Rhazoui. “I was on my sofa, hiding under a cover, just crying. And then when I heard that Simon was still alive, that gave me the courage to go.” She flew back the next day, January 8. At the airport in Paris, security agents were waiting for her at the door of the plane. They were there to protect her. Such agents have been with her ever since.

The next day, January 9, the surviving members of Charlie Hebdo got together. Rhazoui told them, “I never thought I’d be so happy to see you again.” There was much joking, of the darkest kind. And the team planned the next week’s issue.

Since that time, Zineb El Rhazoui has received countless death threats, from Islamists and jihadists. These men are angry that Rhazoui was not killed in the January 7 attack. Their threats are highly specific, and completely in earnest. The killers, or would-be killers, have vowed that they will not rest until this woman is dead.

She has been living the life of a vagabond, going from friend’s sofa to friend’s sofa, and from hotel to hotel. She has never stayed in a hotel more than a week. Usually she changes every day, or every two days. “I have had to invent a new life and try to find a significance in it.”

As a journalist, and as a sociologist, Rhazoui prides herself on understanding the world, or at least trying to do so. But, like the rest of us, she is perplexed by much. “I grew up inside Islam. I know the Koran and the Arabic language better than the Kouachi brothers, who killed my colleagues, but I don’t understand what’s happening in the world today.”

She can’t understand how the Islamic State has gained so much ground — literal ground, in several countries. “How come all the modern countries, with all their science and all their armies, can’t destroy a bunch of madmen who don’t even have showers and believe you can heal cancer by drinking camel piss? I don’t understand how we cannot win this war.”

I point out to her what she well knows: that many people fault Charlie Hebdo for being “provocative.” What does she have to say to them? Many things, of which I will relate a few.

First, these critics “may have a lack of culture.” The satirical press is an old tradition in France, and “it is not meant to please the one who is cartooned. By definition and necessity, it is provocative. But that does not mean that, if you provoke, you deserve to be killed.”

Second, “we are a French atheist magazine. Why should we accept a rule of their religion?” (By “rule,” she is alluding to the Sunni taboo on depicting Mohammed.) “In France, do we work under sharia law or French law? Just tell me!”

Third, “you don’t have to buy Charlie Hebdo. It’s not a compulsory product.”

Fourth, “the monsters who killed my colleagues in the heart of Paris are the same monsters who kill in Nigeria, Syria, Iraq, Afghanistan, and many other parts of the world. In Paris, they killed because we depicted the prophet, but in other places they kill you because you’re drinking a beer or because you’re not covering your hair or because you don’t go to mosque. They even kill innocent children, for no reason. They will always find a pretext to kill, so I don’t accept this argument from those who say we are provoking.”

Rhazoui further has no patience for those who say that she and her colleagues are “racist” and “Islamophobic.” She points out that Islam controls many countries, politically. If you criticize Islam in one of those countries, you are liable to be imprisoned or worse. “They have legal tools to shut your mouth.” But in a secular country — a liberal democracy — they have no such tools. So, to shut your mouth, they cry “racism” and “Islamophobia.”

In the last ten years, says Rhazoui, Charlie Hebdo has run 523 covers. Seven have dealt with Islam; 19 have been about Christianity; and the rest have been about French politics, the Right, culture, sports, and so on.

The “real racism,” as Rhazoui sees it, comes from those white Westerners who say, for example, that equality between the sexes may be well and good for their own countries, but not for other people’s countries (such as her native Morocco).

Near the end of our discussion, I ask Rhazoui the most clichéd question in the business: “What would you like people to know?”

“I am not merely threatened,” says Rhazoui, “I am condemned to death. I live under protection, and this protection is paid for by the French state. But I don’t think it’s to protect me personally. My life is not worth that much. It’s to protect freedom of speech and to protect a model of society that we want to build and preserve. So people must understand that if people like me are threatened today, tomorrow their own rights and freedoms will be threatened, if they do nothing.”

Zineb El Rhazoui is a brave and admirable lady. I tell her so, of course. I also say, “Atheist though you may be, I’m going to say, ‘God bless you.’” She smiles warmly. I then say that I hope she’ll live to be a very old lady. Still smiling, she says, “For that, I have to stop smoking.”

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