Last week marked the second anniversary of the Charlie Hebdo massacre. Two Islamist terrorists armed with AK-47s attacked the magazine’s offices and slaughtered a dozen people in cold blood. Zineb El Rhazoui, one of the magazine’s more notorious journalists and an outspoken critic of Islamism, used the anniversary of the attack to speak out for the first time about why she decided to leave Charlie Hebdo last fall.
In an interview with AFP, Rhazoui said the French satirical magazine has become soft on Islamic extremism. “Charlie Hebdo died on 7 January,” she said, the day their offices were stormed and their staff gunned down. What she loved about Charlie Hebdo, Rhazoui said, was its belief in “freedom at any cost,” something she says the magazine no longer cares about.
Charlie Hebdo Lays Down Its Flag
Rhazoui’s words are meant to cut. Charlie Hebdo had long prided itself as the bad boy of satirical journalism because of its willingness to write and publish criticism about anyone or anything. Nothing was off-limits, including Islam.
In 2006, the magazine decided to republish cartoons of Mohammed previously printed in a Danish newspaper, Jyllands-Posten. Charlie Hebdo was subsequently sued for inciting hatred, a lawsuit the courts eventually threw out.
In the years since, the magazine continued to feature cartoons of Mohammed, sometimes on the cover. Of course, it also featured irreverent, even offensive, cartoons of Jesus and Jewish rabbis. You may not like Charlie Hebdo. You might think they’re immature and in poor taste, and I won’t argue with you. But they have pushed the limits of free speech and encouraged debate, particularly about Islam.
Not surprisingly, Islamists took notice. Charlie Hebdo’s editors began receiving death threats and in 2011 their office was firebombed, although no one was injured. Then, in January 2015, two brothers of Algerian origin with ties to al-Qaeda attacked the magazine’s Paris office and killed 12 staff members, including their beloved editor Stéphane Charbonnier, and injured several others.
A week after the attack, the remaining staff put out a new edition showing Mohammed holding a sign that read “Je suis Charlie,” the hashtag that was used on social media to express solidarity with the magazine. Yet six months later Charlie Hebdo staff decided to stop drawing cartoons of Mohammed.
Resisting Islamic Fascism
To Rhazoui, this was a fatal blow to the fight for freedom of expression and for keeping Islam’s dictates from becoming the de facto law of the land in the West. To her, it’s also about fighting fascism.
In an interview from November in Le Figaro, she argued that Islamism is a form of fascism. Both ideologies celebrate an “absolute cult of personality” regarding their leader. In the case of Islam, that person is Mohammed, who is so sacred that it is forbidden to depict him. Islamism, like fascism, demands “uniformity of thought.”
For Islamists, and indeed many Muslims, it’s not enough that Muslims not depict Mohammed. No one else must be permitted to do so, regardless of their beliefs. Everyone in the entire world, as far as Islamists are concerned, must conform to this set of rules and strictures. This is why, for Rhazoui, continuing to publish images of Mohammed is so important to battling Islamism. It pushes back against this cult of personality that she identifies as so dangerous.
Rhazoui was not in the Charlie Hebdo offices on the day of the attack, but she’s no stranger to the trade-off between speaking out about Islam and personal safety. She now has 24-hour security and is sometimes called the most protected woman in France because of her open criticism of Islam. To her, this risk is worth it.
Terrorism Has Accomplished Its Goals
That doesn’t mean the other side’s arguments are without merit. When announcing the decision to stop drawing Mohammed, Charlie Hebdo’s editor, Laurent Sourisse, said, “We’ve done our job. We have defended the right to caricature.” He notes that while they are expected to continue exercising their freedom of expression, no one else is similarly willing to take the risk of depicting Mohammed.
Sourisse told the press that he fears the public is less and less tolerant of the magazine, and that no one would defend their right to publish a cartoon of Mohammed now. He might be right. People are also afraid to speak out, and understandably so. Last year, the magazine’s financial director, Eric Portheault, said, “We feel terribly alone. We hoped that others would do satire too. No one wants to join us in this fight because it’s dangerous.”
Despite the initial outpour of support, the magazine has continued to face criticism for its daring. A few months after the 2015 attack, Doonesbury cartoonist Garry Trudeau published an article in The Atlantic in which he accused Charlie Hebdo of committing a cardinal sin of satire, “punching downward.” In January 2016, the liberal media hordes came out in full force against the magazine for its depictions of a Syrian boy who washed up on the shores of Turkey.
International solidarity with the magazine came mainly from sympathy toward victims who suffered a terrible death, not from a true commitment to free speech. After all, many news outlets, including Jyllands-Posten, declined to reprint the cartoon.
So maybe the editors of Charlie Hebdo are right—there’s no real appetite to push back against the censorship that Islamists, and many on the Left, are pushing. Elsewhere in Europe, comments about Islam and migrants continue to spur objections to free speech. Dutch lawmaker Geert Wilders was convicted in December of “inciting discrimination” for asking a riled-up crowd whether they wanted more or fewer Moroccans in the country.
Beyond state action, a general climate of self-censorship prevails across Europe, where citizens are afraid to criticize anything Muslims do, much less Islam itself. But is the fact that no one else will do it, or that Charlie Hebdo has fewer and fewer defenders, reason enough to stop? Rhazoui says no. Sadly, she may be one of the few remaining holdouts. If the most daring publication in the world won’t publish images of Mohammed, who will?
Correction: An earlier version of this article misstated the nationality of Geert Wilders.