On a chill late-February afternoon, Charlie Hebdo journalist Zineb El Rhazoui smoked a cigarette outside an auditorium at the Law School of the Universit of Chicago. Flanked by three security guards, it was obvious she had braved a lot more than the cold to come speak at the famous American institution.
El Rhazoui’s visit marked the first public appearance in the US by a Charlie Hebdo journalist since the attack on the newspaper in January. There had been death threats made against the Franco-Moroccan journalist as recently as a few days prior to her lecture; as a member of the Charlie Hebdo team, defiance had become part of her job description.
In the wake of the attacks, a spotlight was thrown on Charlie Hebdo that left many outside of France wondering simply what the role of the magazine is. While many media outlets around the world chose to feature Charlie Hebdo’s post-attack cover with an illustration of the prophet Muhammad, many prominent US publications refrained from doing so.
The University of Chicago’s French club brought El Rhazoui to the US to help answer the question: who is Charlie? The lecture drew nearly 300 professors, students and other members of the Chicago francophone community to discuss issues like secularism, satire, and the French approach to freedom of the press.
The question that arose almost immediately from the audience was whether there is a way to draw a caricature of someone without offending a group of people. El Rhazoui responded, “It should offend. You cannot create chapels within freedom. If you outlaw blasphemy, you also have to outlaw religion. Each religion is a blasphemy against every other religion.”
How can caricatures avoid being racist? For El Rhazoui, the answer to that question comes down to a fundamental difference between criticizing an ideology and humiliating a person or a group of people. That’s why, she explained, the French law allows blasphemy but not racist speech. “Criticizing a religion is not the same thing as humiliating each follower individually. As a feminist who grew up in a country where I didn’t have the same rights as men, I am fundamentally against wearing a veil. For me, it’s a humiliation to women. But that doesn’t mean I don’t respect every woman who chooses to wear a veil.”
One such student, in a flowery hijab, then took the floor saying she wished to reassure the journalist. “You seem to be very disturbed by Islam and the question of women’s rights. You should know that as a Muslim woman who has chosen to wear the veil, nothing makes me stronger than my faith.”
As for Charlie Hebdo, the student continued, she said she felt “threatened” by the covers featuring Muhammad “that insult, hurt, and deliberately humiliate the identity of an already marginalized and oppressed society.” The student concluded saying, “I condemn the terrorist acts but I am not Charlie Hebdo.”
The clearly frustrated journalist responded strongly. “That’s right, today to be Charlie Hebdo means to be willing to die for your ideas and — pardon the expression — not everyone has the balls to do that. To be Charlie means to condemn the crime unconditionally even if you don’t agree with the content of the magazine,” she said before finishing with “The religion of Islam should ask itself why it produces so many criminals today.”
As applause broke out in support of the journalist, the student who had posed the question left the room in tears. She says at El Rhazoui didn’t hear her concern, “Zineb El Rhazoui has a hatred for religion. She simply lumped me in with the terrorists.”
It was clear that the exchange had hit upon something : a few days later the student paper on campus The Chicago Maroon ran an article that stated “Zineb El Rhazoui is defending her own freedom of expression while rejecting that of others.” The piece also took issue with how the incident was handled saying that the University failed in its obligation “to offer marginalized voices a safe space to express their views.”
“If you attack my religion, how can I not feel personally offended?” That is the question that came up over and over again in the discussion between the students and the journalist, explained Eve Zuckerman, president of the University of Chicago French Club and organizer of the event. To adapt your discourse to other peoples’ sensibilities, responds Zineb El Rhazoui, is nothing more than censorship: a writer cannot allow herself to be muzzled by the internal rules of the belief system she is critiquing.
At the heart of this seemingly endless back-and-forth are cultural differences that Geoffrey Stone, University of Chicao Professor and author of a book on the US approach to freedom of expression, explains this way, “The big difference between the US and France is tolerance. We are more tolerant of speech we don’t like and religions we don’t like.”
“That’s the paradox that Zineb brought to light,” says Eve Zuckerman. “It’s the paradox of an America that has no lawful restriction on freedom of expression but where restrictions come from the limits we place on our own speech.”
On college campuses, though, the idea of a “safe space” appears to want to enforce those limits that ought to be self-imposed. “I don’t like the idea of ‘safe space,'” says Geoffrey Stone, “It suggests that each person should be protected from any speech that bothers him. It’s close to the French laws against hate speech. We think, on the contrary, that we need to learn to respond to offensive speech without censuring it.”