Rahila Gupta

The right to blasphemy: is this the boundary between civilisation and barbarism?

Former Charlie Hebdo journalist Zineb El Rhazoui collects fatwas like badges of honour. Her recent book outlines similarities between the Islamic and European far right.

Zineb El Rhazoui at the London conference.

Zineb El Rhazoui at the London conference. Photo: Victoria Gugenheim.

In heated debates following the 2015 massacre at Charlie Hebdo, apologists for the violence condemned the ‘racism’ of its cartoons. Staff of the French satirical magazine were frequently presented as part of a white racist left.

But how many people knew that – along with an Algerian copy-editor, Mustapha Ourrad – there was a young Moroccan woman, a journalist named Zineb El Rhazoui, on its payroll?

This question reeks of the worst kind of identity politics – it shouldn’t matter whether there were Muslims on the staff if we believe that religion is fair game for satirists. Though it does make it harder for allegations of racism to stick.

El Rhazoui wrote the text for a 2013 special issue of the magazine including a comic-strip retelling of the life of Muhammed.

She was on holiday in Morocco on the day of the 2015 attack, when 12 of her colleagues were killed. But her life has also been threatened, repeatedly, obliging the French government to provide her with 24/7 security.

A tribute to Charlie Hebdo after the attack.

A tribute to Charlie Hebdo after the attack. Photo: Patrick Bernard/ABACA/PA Images. All rights reserved.

More than two years after the attack, El Rhazoui (who no longer works at Charlie Hebdo) arrived in London last month for the 2017 Conference on Freedom of Conscience and Expression, organised by the Council of ex-Muslims of Britain (CEMB). She had two security guards in tow and guts of steel on full display as she delivered a fiery condemnation of Islamists.

In a previous TEDxKalamata talk, El Rhazoui explained how her life had been transformed by her security detail. Whether she goes to buy bread at a shop, or to the toilet in a restaurant, a guard will be standing outside.

El Rhazoui contributed to Charle Hebdo’s so-called survivors’ issue, published after the massacre, for which the magazine’s regular print run of 60,000 was upped to nearly 8 million to meet demand. On its publication, she was interviewed by Arabic media and says she received serious threats as a result.

At the conference, she said that she had escaped the attack “by miracle” and that Islamists “wouldn’t sleep until my body and head were separated”. She described receiving a video message threatening her life from a group called Anonymous Islamic Youth. In 2015, two tweets in Arabic said it was the duty of every Muslim to kill her to avenge the prophet. French authorities finally took notice and put her under police protection.

El Rhazoui collects fatwas like badges of honour. At the conference she told us about her very first, received while still living and working in Casablanca. With a group of ex-Muslims, she had organised a public picnic during Ramadan. This, she said, breached a law against public drinking and eating during this time which carried a jail sentence of up to six months. In addition to a fatwa, she was arrested (though released).

During the ‘Arab Spring’ of 2011, El Rhazoui was a vocal member of the resistance. This, she said, made her continued presence in Morocco untenable and she moved to France.

At a panel discussion at the conference, on “Identity politics, communalism, and multiculturalism,” she traced the growing sophistication of Islamists. While they initially condemned democracy as apostasy (as any system of governance not God-given is automatically this), today most support a debased version of democracy, she said.

“For them, democracy is the rule of the majority,” said El Rhazoui, describing this as ochlocracy, a Greek term that she translated as ‘the reign of the vulgar’ or what we might understand as mob rule. She gave an example of what this might mean in a Muslim majority country where such democracy might lead to the jailing or killing of LGBT people. “When majorities are conceived in religious, ethnic or racial lines,” she warned, “it can sometimes lead to genocide”.

For El Rhazoui, democracy must also secure human rights, individual freedoms, protections of minorities and equality between women and men. At the conference, she speculated that maybe one day Islamists will talk about secularism and the defence of LGBT rights, “only to empty them [of] their sense and their meaning”.

To this, the executive director of the Centre for Secular Space Gita Sahgal responded that Islamists are already putting themselves forward as champions of gay rights in Britain. She gave the example of the East London Mosque which complained to organisers of the 2017 Pride march about a CEMB banner which said: “East London Mosque incites murder of LGBTs”.

In this case, a spokesman for the mosque pointed in its defence to its supposed track record in challenging homophobia including a campaign to remove “gay-free zone” stickers that had come up like a rash in east London in 2011.

According to CEMB and human rights campaigner Peter Tatchell, the mosque has also hosted preachers who support the death penalty for homosexuals. Maryam Namazie at CEMB has said its track record “only seems to extend to white gay men in East London and never to Muslim and ex-Muslim LGBT or LGBT persecuted outside of Britain in countries under Sharia”.

The East London Mosque.

The East London Mosque. Photo: Philip Toscano/PA Archive/PA Images. All rights reserved.

Much of El Rhazoui’s keynote speech at the conference explored the similarities between the European far right and the Islamic far right – a striking comparison she explores in her book, Detruire le Fascisme Islamique (Destroy Islamic Fascism), which was published last year but is not yet available in English.

The European and Islamic far right want to construct very different societies, but both “divide society into communities and they believe that those communities don’t have the same rights,” she said. “The far right thinks that Europe has to be white, Christian, Roman and they have more rights because they are the oldest in that country and this Islamic far right think they have more rights because it’s the will of God”.

The cult of the chief is also common to both extremisms, El Rhazoui added. In Islam, “it is still Muhammed and we are still paying the price for criticising him like any other dictator in the world”. Other common features in her analysis include “a ready-to-think ideology, a ready-to-speak language against arts and intellectuals and oppressive sexism against women and homosexuals”.

El Rhazoui noted humorously that spying is common to both the European and Islamic far right but that Muhammed invented the world’s cheapest surveillance system because he placed two angels permanently on your shoulders. The angel on the right notes the good things you do; the one on the left notes the bad. “This idea of being spied upon and reporting the bad and punishing and intervening in the lives of others is at the heart of Islam,” she said.

According to El Rhazoui, Islamic fascism destroys cultural and national specificities in order to build a global community (the ummah), speaking classical Arabic and wearing a uniform of black for women and white for men. Like European fascism, it is imperialist in aspiration – wanting to colonise the whole world – and driven by an ideology of victimisation that the group belongs to a persecuted community that needs to fight for its dignity and rights.

When the Islamic far right failed to get international institutions to criminalise blasphemy, they used the concept of offence to shut down criticism, El Rhazoui noted. She made a similar point in her TEDx talk, in which she argued powerfully that “the right to blasphemy [marks] exactly the boundary between barbarism and civilisation”.

At last month’s conference, it was striking how many Muslim women are on the frontline of resistance to Islamism, and how bold speakers were in their condemnation of Islam and Islamism. They showed none of the reticence of non-Muslims who tread that fine line between anti-Muslim racism and criticism of Islamic fundamentalism.

For El Rhazoui, anti-Muslim racism is visible in the vitriol directed at people and not their beliefs. But the European (and American) far-right have also blurred Islam and Islamism as a strategy to attack Muslims, under the guise of attacking their beliefs. Allies of ex-Muslims cannot afford to do the same; it would mean occupying the same space as white racists, but also invisibilising all those shades of Islam that rely on a more liberal, less literal, reading of the Qur’an.

This article is part five of a series on the Conference on Free Expression and Conscience, which took place in London in July 2017.

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