Who is Charlie? Charlie Hebdo survivor and journalist explains French secularism


Meghan Joyce

The Alliance Française is located in Minneapolis.

Meghan Joyce, Arts & Entertainment

In the heart of Minneapolis, amidst construction and traffic, the bottom floor of an imposing building is occupied by an undeniably quaint baby blue space. Above its doors, golden letters spell out the words “Alliance Française,” an American flag to their right, and a French flag to their left. The Alliance Française is a French language school and cultural center, but on Mar. 3, the topic was very serious: the Charlie Hebdo attack.

Charlie Hebdo is a French satirical magazine known for pushing the limits with humor often deemed crude, rude, and offensive. After publishing a particularly controversial cartoon of the Prophet Muhammad (depicting Muhammad in any way is not allowed in Islam), two gunmen claiming to avenge the crime killed a dozen Charlie Hebdo journalists on Jan. 7.

Now two months after the terrorist attack, the University of Chicago invited Charlie Hebdo journalist and a survivor of the attack, Zineb El Rhazoui, to discuss freedom of expression. Due to security concerns, the Alliance Française was unable to participate directly in the conversation, but hosted an event called  “Who is Charlie?” in which the recording of the Chicago interview was played for free public viewing.

While the French teachers at St. Paul Academy and Summit School sent out an email to all of their students about the event, only junior Caroline Montague made it. “I learned a lot about her, or the French, which one I don’t know, standpoint on cultural diversity, which was surprisingly different” Montague said.

El Rhazoui is the first Charlie Hebdo journalist to speak in the United States since the attack, and provides a unique perspective as both a religious writer for the magazine and a Muslim.

Montague was especially interested in El Rhazoui’s point about laïcité. “There was a lot of discussion of laïcité and how the cartoon follows french laws and not the laws of a certain religion,” Montague said. “Under la laïcité, religion must be completely private and kept at home, with no outward signs in public, a principle that goes too far.”

El Rhazoui described the uniquely accepted harshness of French satire, explained the concept of laïcité, and defended the right and even the responsibility of Charlie Hebdo to be as irreverent as they are. She expressed strong opposition to discrimination of any person based on their race, religion, or other background, but said that she believed in teasing the ideology as opposed to the people who believe in it.

Charlie Hebdo seems to share that belief. There is a line which Charlie Hebdo tries not to cross, but it is very different and much more extreme than where the line is in America. In 2009, one of their reporters was actually fired for writing anti-semitic material for the magazine. Even when designing the cover which led to the attack, careful consideration was put into the cartoon (one journalist said “So, let’s concentrate. Are there any of these that we might regret?”).

After the event, with the cartoon put in perspective of French satire, Montague said she understood that the cartoon was meant to be critical of Islam, not of Muslims, but maintained that it was still “not that great.” The terrorist attack, regardless of how offensive the cartoon may have been, was “obviously super terrible,” Montague said.