Her colleagues were brutally murdered by Islamic terrorists in January last year. She escaped because she just happened to be outside the office of Charlie Hebdo on that day. She is under very specific death threat now. But that is not stopping her from speaking out. Meet Zineb El Rhazoui, the most protected French woman.
Shaken but undeterred by the fatwas and relentless, precise death threats issued via social media to “kill the bitch” since she helped produce the publication’s first survivors’ issue following the attack — and spoke about it in Arabic for the Arab press — the Moroccan-French writer refuses to assume an anonymous identity. Fleeing Paris or abandoning her human rights activism, and her unforgiving critiques of the religion she grew up with, are also out of the question.
“I don’t have the right to renounce my struggle, or to give up my freedom,” says the reporter and sociologist of religion in an interview with Women in the World, during a recent trip to New York, as part of French president Francois Hollande’s delegation when he received the Appeal of Conscience Foundation’s World Statesman Award for 2016. “If the French state protects me it is not little individual me: What is being protected is my freedom to be irreverent, and freedom of expression, so I should exercise this even more because I enjoy this protection.”
“It’s totally crazy. I have done nothing against the law and have nothing to hide, yet I live with security while those who threaten us are free,” El Rhazoui declares with an air of shock and anger that underscores the arbitrariness and brutality visited on a 34-year-old woman condemned to living on the run and mostly in the shadows. “And if you call them by their names you are Islamophobic and racist. I am racist? I can teach them a few things about Arab culture. I can show them how to discover its richness and the diversity of their culture. I believe this culture deserves universality because you can be Arab, Muslim and a free thinker.
She is coming out with a new book titled Detruire Le Fascisme Islamique (Destroy Islamic Fascism), an unapologetic attack on the fascist nature of religious fundamentalism.
The Prophet Mohammed and his companions, whose violent exploits are contained in “bellicose texts from a barbaric 7th-century Bedouin tribal context,” exhibited codes of behavior El Rhazoui insists have no place in the modern world and can be directly connected to terrorism. “The most abject crimes of Islamic State are but a 21st-century remake of what the first Muslims accomplished under the guidance of the Prophet,” she writes, noting that sexual and domestic slavery, the massacre of non-Muslims (notably Jews), pedophilia, pillage, polygamy and summary executions were all adopted from pre-Islamic societies. The book is also the journalist’s way of carrying on the legacy of her dead comrades, who reveled in their right to mock established religion and fanatics everywhere — with Islam no exception to their traditional French anti-clerical ridicule — through satire and caricature.
“We need to admit that Islamism today is applied Islam,” El Rhazoui — who describes herself as an “atheist of Muslim culture” –writes, responding to politicians, religious figures, Islamophobia opponents and media commentators who claim after every jihadist attack that “real Islam” has nothing to do with such terror.
“When we apply Islam to the letter it gives Islamism, and when we apply Islamism to the letter it gives terrorism. So we need to stop saying Islam is a religion of peace and love. What is a moderate Islamist? An Islamist who doesn’t kill?”
She is harsh on those who claim criticising Islam is racism.
El Rhazoui, who holds Moroccan and French citizenship, takes aim at a very 21st-century phenomenon: what she abhors as the “intellectual fraud” of Islamophobia, which pretends to be about anti-racism but in her reckoning is used as a weapon to silence all critics of Islam and the ideas behind it as automatically hostile towards all Muslims. Epitomized by the French Collective Against Islamophobia (CCIF), this deliberate strategy vilifies as Islamophobic voices such as El Rhazoui’s who dare question the religion the CCIF and fellow travelers define only through the prism of their own fundamentalism.
The notion of Islamophobia doesn’t even exist in Muslim countries, the author points out, because outside the West, criticism of the religion or Mohammed is officially “categorized as blasphemy.”
“This is very dangerous because it has even entered the dictionary as hostility towards Islam and Muslims. Yet criticism of an idea, of Islam or of a religion cannot be characterized as an offense or a crime. I was born and lived under the Islam of Morocco and live in France and I have the right criticize religion and this dictatorship of Islamophobia that says I have no right to criticize! If we criticize Christianity it doesn’t mean we are Christianophobes or racist towards the ‘Christian race.’”
The widespread pressure to self-censor is severe, El Rhazoui says.
Her freedom to move around is severely curtailed now but she is not worried about it.
“Today I wander around in a moving jail — it’s a moving cage — but in reality I am more free in my head than those who threaten me. Because their cage is inside their head. They have this cage in their brain and even if they have freedom of movement it is their spirit and their reason and intelligence that is imprisoned. I am much freer than them.”
Only such bravery, like that of El Rhazoui, can defeat religious fascism.