Free Speech Cannot Serve Against Freedom: An Interview with Zineb el Rhazoui

by    /  July 9, 2018  / No comments

Image via BBC.

Zineb el Rhazoui is a Moroccan-born French human rights activist and a former columnist for the satirical weekly magazine Charlie Hebdo. She published several articles on religious minorities in the journal Le Journal Hebdomadaire, an independent publication banned by the Moroccan government in 2010. After being arrested three times by the Moroccan government, El Rhazoui was eventually forced into exile in Slovenia. She co-founded the pro-democracy, pro-secularism movement MALI before joining Charlie Hebdo in 2011. In 2013, she co-authored the comic book “The Life of Mohamed” with then Charlie Hebdo editor Stéphane Charbonnier. El Rhazoui was on holiday on January 7, 2015, when two gunmen opened fire in the Charlie Habdo offices in Paris, killing twelve people, including Charbonnier. She and other surviving members of the staff returned immediately to work, publishing an issue of the magazine just days later which featured a global cry of solidarity: Je Suis Charlie.

El Rhazoui visited City of Asylum Pittsburgh in September 2017 as an honored guest to give the annual Freedom to Write Lecture. She spoke with Sampsonia Way about her experience growing up as a woman in an Islamic theocracy, her life of resistance and advocacy, and the hope that she sees for the future, in the Arab world and beyond.

One of the most striking things for me in reading your work is that your ideas are so strongly rooted in your experience growing up in Morocco. Can you start there and talk about growing up, and being young under Hassan II? How that was for you as a young woman?

I was born a young woman in a dictatorship where the others used to say when I was a child, Shh the walls have ears, they can hear you so never talk about the king, it can be very dangerous for all of us. So a dictatorship and an Islamic theocracy at the same time. You are ruled by very strong religious and political rules. There is no freedom of speech. No freedom of criticizing the regime. I grew up with terrible stories of people who disappeared, who have been tortured, entire families who have been arrested, etcetera. At the same time, there was the fear of god, you know? Don’t do that, you will go to hell. Don’t do that, you are a woman, you are a girl. You are not allowed to talk like that. You are not allowed to think like that. You are not allowed to ask questions.

At the same time, I was seeing around me that women were just serving men. They were not deciding anything. They were not even free to go out whenever they wanted to go out. If they did, they could have been harassed in the street. It was very bad if a woman wore red lipstick like I do, or wore short skirts, or smoked. Even driving. I have to contest these laws, otherwise I will become just like all these women. I will lose my dreams. I will not be the person I want to become. I will just disappear as an individual, to please the group.

That’s why I, very early in my life, started to think about these laws. I thought that if that God– who is supposed to have created us all, and who is supposed to be someone nice– if he was a woman, he would never allow women to live in such an injustice, to live without dignity. And, I never felt that men were superior to me. I just felt I was just considering myself equal to anyone. And, once I became a teenager, the behavior of society changed. The way men looked at me in the streets changed. And at that age, I understood that I had to be very strong. I had to be very courageous and never care about what people were going to say. That’s I think how I started to contest things. I think if I was born a man, maybe things would have been different.

I thought that if that God was a woman, he would never allow women to live in such an injustice, to live without dignity.

I think that period of time, under Hassan II and into the transition of Mohammed VI ‘s rule is something that not a lot of people outside of Morocco know about. People were disappearing, and academics were jailed, and it was illegal to say anything that might be pro-democracy or anti-Islam. Can you talk a bit about that history for people who may not know? How do you see that legacy continuing into the present in Morocco?

The King Hassan II died in July 1999. At that time I was a young adult, and I was a student in France, but I always kept very interested in what was happening in Morocco. When he died, my generation had a lot of hope. We really believed at the time that things would change. That his son, who was still a king, he was still a dictator on paper, but that maybe he would do better things, maybe he would decide to free society. In the first years of the reign of Mohammed VI, newspapers were created, associations became more active, we felt a kind of “movement.”

But actually, a few years later, when the king had gained his popularity, when he became more powerful, he just stopped all those freedoms. He started, of course, with the freedom of the media and the press. The television has never been free in Morocco, the radios are not free. But you had, in that period of the beginning of the reign of Mohammed VI, some magazines and some newspapers that were created by independent journalists, who kind of built a new way of doing journalism in Morocco. That’s how I started my career. I started in a weekly magazine called The Original Hebdo in French.That magazine was shut off by the regime in January 2010, but before that, a lot of other newspapers were shut off. A lot of journalists were arrested and sentenced to jail, sometimes tortured, sometimes even their children were arrested. So, we were working in a very insecure atmosphere.

When my magazine was shut off, I just found myself unemployed like many journalists. Unemployed, blacklisted, and without any possibility to find another job. That was right before the Arab spring. So one of the mistakes of the regime was, without any doubt, to fire all those journalists before the Arab spring, because we found ourselves unemployed so we had nothing to do but the revolution. And, our revolution failed because we were not fighting a dictator who had been there for a quarter of a century, but a monarchy that had been there for more than four centuries. And, definitely one of the richest men in the world, and someone who rules the country with an exclusive power. He has economic power, judicial power, he is the master of the banks, of sports, agriculture, and he is the chief of the religious structure; he reigns in the name of God.

But we as Moroccan people, most of us were educated abroad– We were reading books, listening to music from everywhere, watching movies from everywhere, so we really dreamed of something new in the country. And the thing is that the Moroccan regime, even now, is very supported by certain European countries and mainly by France. And whenever we speak of Morocco everyone tells us, Oh, you are not Syria. You are not Libya. Of course, we are not Syria or Libya but we can at least compare ourselves to Southern European countries such as Portugal and Spain, who have done some of the most beautiful economic and democratic transitions in the 20th century, Greece or even Turkey before AKP. But I consider that even though the Arab spring failed in Morocco, the regime is still there, but it has given the country a generation of young people who are aware of what is happening, who have a political experience and who are the treasure, the political treasure for the future of the country.

…we had nothing to do but the revolution.

In the beginning of your career, much of your activism was with the Movement for Individual Liberties (MALI)– I’m curious about that term– “individual liberty.” What led you to center that in the movement?

We created the MALI two years before the Arab spring. And actually it was the first movement in Morocco that started on social media and became true in real life. It was in Ramadan in September of 2009, and we decided to organize a public picnic just to tell the public that there are people who don’t fast. Fasting is not a choice in Morocco, it is a legal obligation. If you eat or drink water or juice publicly, you can be jailed up to two years. For such a stupid reason. For such a natural thing like eating.

So we said, the only way to contest such a law in a dictatorship, where there is no way of contestation, is with humor and provocation, and specific provocation. So we decided to organize that picnic. Of course, we were arrested before the picnic. When we arrived to the city where we decided to gather, we were arrested. We were insulted in the media, and I was identified by the State as the head of that movement, so there was a fatwa issued by the official religious establishment saying that our action was obviously defying God and the prophet, and that we deserved and exemplary punishment.

For us, that struggle for individual liberties in a country such as Morocco is not a secondary struggle. When you are Moroccan, you are considered by the state a Muslim. Whether you believe in it or not, whether you want it or not. You inherit as a Muslim, you are buried as a Muslim, you marry as a Muslim. For instance, a Moroccan woman doesn’t have the right to marry a man who is not Muslim. She inherits half of what her brother inherits. You can not just choose which religion you will practice. If, for instance, you decide to believe in Jesus or in anything else, you are violating the law. And, you can’t have sex if you are not married. It is considered prostitution. If you walk in the streets with your boyfriend, holding his hand, you can be arrested by the police and taken to the police office. You can not rent a room in a hotel with your boyfriend. There are a lot of very simple things, which are very natural everywhere else in the world, that are illegal in Morocco. That’s why that struggle was very important for us. We also, in MALI, considered that equality between men and women was the basis of justice in any country. We were also for freedom of sexual orientation because homosexuals are really oppressed in Morocco, and we were against the death penalty.

Zineb el Rhazoui speaks at City of Asylum in fall of 2017.

Moving into your current work– in the United States, and in France as well– many of these same ideas about individual liberties have been taken up by far-right conservatives. As I was doing research into where some of your arguments are posted online, I found that they are often posted on websites which are also posting very racist or sexist content– it is all mixed in to this same belief system. I was really interested in this trend and curious about how you feel about that. How do you respond to that– when people take some of your ideas and twist them to fit their own agenda?

Let me give you an example: One day in Morocco we had a pedophilia case. It was a social scandal so the Islamic militants decided to protest against that case. We knew that some Islamists were also coming to protest, so we asked ourselves– Should we protest with them? If the Islamists are against pedophilia, it doesn’t mean that we can’t show up to the protest. We have to go, but we have to send the message that we are against pedophilia, but not for the same reasons as they are. Islamists are against pedophilia because it is forbidden by God, but we are against it because it is a violation of children’s rights, it is sexual violence and it is a crime. I gave you that example just to explain that sometimes, people you don’t agree with may struggle with the same things but not for the same reasons.

Another example: the far right wing in France, now, uses the word, laïcité. They want to show that they are the people who fight the most for laïcité but when you study their laïcité, you find that it is mainly against Islam. When it comes to Catholicism, they are traditional Catholics and they dream of a France where everyone goes to the Church. Actually laïcité is a legal system in which all of the religions are equal and separate from the state. The same far-right wing in France speaks in a very feminist way when it comes to the nikkab, the hijab, and the burkka, but, at the same time, they are against the right to have an abortion in France because they have a religious Catholic background. They don’t struggle for a real equality between men and women because they have a very traditionalist view of society. So we have to be aware of who they are, and remind them always that they can not instrumentalize our struggles for their own political agenda. For me, there is no difference between any the far-right wings– the Islamist one, or the traditional European one.

They don’t consider society as a universal field where different people share the same rights and duties. No, they think society is made of different communities and that those communities don’t have the same rights. The Islamists think that they deserve more rights by the will of Allah, and the far-right European French wing think that they deserve more rights because they are the oldest community in the country, and both of those views are the same actually.

We mustn’t let extremists draw the lines of the society we want to live in. I think that moderate people don’t have to be afraid to go to the fields left for the extremists; we have to talk about them, we have to talk about religions, we have to talk about immigration, we have to talk about racism, we have to talk about the society we want to live in. There is no subject that should be left exclusively to the extremists.

Here in the United States there is this movement for freedom of speech, which seems to be a good thing, but the people who are calling for free speech are asking for the freedom and the right to wave a Nazi flag or the freedom to say really hateful things. They advocate for the freedom to express ideas, but the ideas they want to express are very violent. What are your thoughts on how to combat this kind of fascism that we see rising in the States in Europe?

All those who think that freedom of speech comes without rules– they are mistaken. We should remind them that in some cases, journalists were tried in the international penal court. The case in Rwanda for instance, where some journalists were sentenced to life in prison because of their very bad role in a genocide. They were calling for killings on the radio, they were broadcasting to the killers where the Tutsis were hiding, etcetera. So can we really talk about freedom of speech in that case? I don’t think so.

Let me tell you how we consider freedom of speech in France: Of course freedom of speech is a right– it is a right that we don’t negotiate– but there are certain things that we as French journalists cannot do with our speech. We can’t, for instance, do defamation. Defamation is not freedom of speech. We cannot insult. Insulting someone is not free speech. We can’t call for hatred against a person or a group. We can’t talk with racial hatred. This is not considered freedom of speech. These are rules we have to respect. And discussing ideas is one thing, but attacking individuals? No, this is not the kind of freedom of speech that I speak about. We have to learn from the past.

Those who think that freedom of speech can be, for instance, hatred speech, must be reminded that sometimes people also talk about democracy, but not real democracy. Democracy is not just technical, or mechanical. It is not just about the numbers. We should remember that technically, Hitler was democratically elected. But true democracy is not only about what the majority wants. It is not the oppression of the minorities by the majority. Democracy is first and foremost about defending the minorities, defending human rights, defending individual liberties, defending freedom of faith, freedom of speech. The right freedom of speech. It is not only about what the majority wants.

All those who think that freedom of speech comes without rules– they are mistaken.

I always give this example: In any Islamic theocracy, if you make a referendum about a question such as homosexuality, you can almost be sure that more than 98% of the people will tell you that homosexuals should be jailed or killed. But is it democratic to say so? Even if the majority wants it, it is not democratic. Democracy protects homosexuals, no matter what the majority wants. In the case of freedom of speech, free speech cannot serve something that is against freedom– it is impossible philosophically. It is a paradox, it cannot work.

What do you feel is the role of humor in fighting these powers? How does humor empower people?

I can say that unfortunately, and I felt this when I was living in Morocco, sometimes you arrive at very cruel situations And when you really feel oppressed, you just have some inspiration for humor because the situation is so ridiculous that you only have humor left to talk about it. This was my situation when I was living in Morocco. In France that tradition of humor is actually a very old tradition. It was born under the French revolution, at the time when most of the French people were not educated. They did not know how to read and write. So the newspapers used cartoons to portray what the king and the queen were doing, and that’s how the first satiric newspapers were born in France. And that tradition lasted, and Charlie Hebdo is one of the sons of that tradition. When I joined Charlie Hebdo, after three arrests in Morocco, after some oppression, after having understood that religion is also an oppressor just as the dictators are, after having been in exile in Slovenia which is also a city of asylum just as Pittsburgh, I felt that I had landed in a natural professional family for me. Because there was no limit to the subjects we could talk about. We decided to talk about things in a crazy way, in an intelligent way, and sometimes in a very stupid way, but while respecting ethics and ontology.

Charlie Hebdo– for those who don’t know that newspaper– Charlie Hebdo was a victim of a lot of propaganda. People imagine that Charlie was obsessed with Islam, which is statistically wrong. After the attacks in 2015, the daily newspaper La Mode in France reminded people that in 10 years of Charlie Hebdo, among the 324 covers, only 4 were about Islam, almost 19 were about Christianity, and the rest of the covers were mainly about French politics, or art or sports or whatever. So it was not a newspaper obsessed with Islam, but every time we spoke about Islam, it was catastrophic. Either we were attacked by molotov cocktails or, as you saw, the last crime when my colleagues were killed.

I was not a cartoonist, but I was working with cartoonists, and I know the mentality. When you know that there are people on Earth who will kill for a simple drawing, when there are people who will commit crimes and who will threaten innocents because of a drawing, you consider it your duty to make that drawing. It is our duty as journalists, and as satirical journalists to break taboos. If that is not our work, what are we working for? And even from a literary point of view, it was very interesting as a writing exercise to write with humor about very very sad subjects sometimes.

After many long years of persecution, tragedy, and a lot of work speaking about your experience, what are the things that excite you and give you hope now?

A lot of things still give hope in the world, and I personally feel very, very enthusiastic when I see the young people in Arab countries, and more widely in the Muslim world, who continue to make music, to write, to make movies, to protest, to read. Those people are the future, especially the girls and the women. They are the future. They are the people who one day will say, STOP. We need a women’s revolution. We need to overrule this order that has lasted thousands of years. This is the thing that gives me hope. I know that those dictators will fall one day, and that the dictatorship of God in those countries will also fall, I am sure of that.

When you know that there are people on Earth who will kill for a simple drawing, when there are people who will commit crimes and who will threaten innocents because of a drawing, you consider it your duty to make that drawing.

But at the same time, I have to recognize that I think there is only one, one major problem that all human beings share, and it is the ecological problem. It is not my fight at all, I mean I don’t know how to fight for that. I try to do my best in my daily life to turn out the lights and use less water, etcetera, I don’t know if it is sufficient, but I think that this is the only real and unsolvable problem that humanity is facing. I just hope that one day we will unite to solve the real problems instead of fighting for dialectic things and for wrong and fake ideas such as religion, such as political convictions, or such as boundaries. All of this, in reality, is fake, and it will not save the human race from the real challenges.

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