Don’t betray Charlie Hebdo’s heroic cause

Zineb, a Moroccan-French journalist who missed the Paris massacre, describes its traumatic aftermath and life on Islamic State’s death list

Helle Merete Brix

I am on my way into one of the bigger rooms of an elegantly designed building in Covent Garden, and the bodyguards who are always in attendance on the woman I’m going to interview point me in the right direction, a room adjoining the street. They know exactly which part of the building they want us in. Participants in the sold-out international conference on blasphemy, free speech and apostasy from Islam have repeatedly been told not to reveal its whereabouts.

The woman is Zineb El Rhazoui, usually known as just Zineb, and she is on the Islamic State’s death list. Zineb is a journalist, and until January last year she worked for the French satirical magazine Charlie Hebdo. When the massacre of 12 of its journalists took place on January 7, 2015, she was on holiday in Casablanca.

Zineb closes the two-day conference with an impassioned speech based on her latest book, Détruire le Fascisme Islamique (“Destroying Islamic Fascism”), which is dedicated to atheists in the Muslim world. She gets a standing ovation for saying that after a terrorist attack there is no need for imams to “go on the telly and condemn it. It’s already forbidden by law. What there is a need for is for them to condemn the Islamic texts that legalise terror.”

In our conversation she is more subdued. We sit in chairs furnished in soft colours, with the bodyguards at a round table nearby. Zineb is wearing a badge from the American ex-Muslims’ stand on the floor above. It says “Awesome without Allah”. Zineb doesn’t hide the fact that the period succeeding the Charlie Hebdo attack was very difficult.

“After the attack I was homeless because I was under constant police protection and I couldn’t live where I used to. I had my luggage in the bodyguards’ car. Sometimes I even changed clothes in their car. I had to move from hotel to hotel several times a week and I was still in shock. But just like the other survivors, I thought the worst was over. It’s true I got a lot of threats, hundreds of them, but I was used to that from Morocco.”

Zineb was born in Morocco; her father was Moroccan, her mother French. She left her homeland in 2009. She had been arrested several times by the Moroccan authorities, among other things for having organised a public picnic during Ramadan. In 2011 she was invited to Charlie Hebdo by the editor, Stéphane Charbonnier — “Charb” — who was one of those killed in the massacre. But this time things were different, something she hadn’t experienced before. There was a campaign against her on social media. “Two hashtags were especially threatening. One of them spoke about an obligation to kill me for having insulted the prophet. The other one said flatly: ‘Find her and kill her.’ It justified every Muslim’s obligation to kill me. How my tongue should be cut out, and — in the event of not having bullets or bombs — how to smash my head with heavy stones, burn me or burn my house. They tried so hard to find me that the French police took it seriously.”

When Zineb was taken under police protection she realised “for the first time in my life that I was up against something I couldn’t tackle alone. A few weeks after the murder of our colleagues, we who survived ended up in psychotherapy. It took me months to free myself from a feeling of guilt. I felt it was my fault. I was alive and the others were dead. Today I can see that that the only guilty parties are the Kouachi brothers” [the murderers].

Guilt had become very tangible: “I thought I would go mad when I heard that Moustapha Ourrad, our proof-reader, had been killed. He was usually never there on Wednesdays, only on Mondays. He never said what he thought about what we wrote, he concentrated on the grammar. I felt that he’d been killed because of me. It was mostly Charb and I who wrote the critical articles. Moustapha just corrected any mistakes. But he was the one that was killed.”

In the spring of 2016 Zineb published a book, 13, containing interviews with a series of people who experienced the terrorist attack in Paris in November 2015. But she doesn’t see herself as a victim of terrorism:  “I haven’t been physically hit, and the pain I feel and the threats and my changed life, they are nothing in comparison with the price these people and my colleagues are paying.”

Zineb gives an example. Simon Fieschi, Charlie Hebdo’s webmaster, was the first the Kouachi brothers shot when they forced their way into the editing room. The bullet went through his spine but he didn’t become lame as everyone feared: “Simon got miraculously better. But when I saw him a short while ago I felt very sorry for him. He had changed so much physically. He can’t walk properly and he can’t eat in a normal way. He can’t live in a normal way.”

But the horror also brought something paradoxical with it  which Zineb explained to me: “Something very beautiful happened to Charlie Hebdo after the attack. Most of us were single and there wasn’t much interest in marriage and having children. But I think five babies were born the same year, and I was one of those that brought a new life into the world.”

Zineb had to go through a divorce first: “After you’ve gone through something so terrible you feel divorced from the world. But you’re also very conscious of the important things in your life. And that was why I divorced my husband. I couldn’t live with somebody who didn’t understand the pain I was going through, and didn’t understand that I would always be marked by that attack and the sorrow it caused.

“For months I was sure that I would never feel anything positive again or fall in love again. Part of me was dead. But at the same time I felt an almost violent urge to give life. For the first time in my life I wasn’t afraid of becoming a mother. And then I met the man I live with now. My daughter is nearly 15 months old and I’ve never regretted my decision. For the first time in my life I’ve got a family.”

Zineb is still consumed by a will to “never betray our common endeavour”, by which she means the work for which Charlie Hebdo’s staff were murdered. She left Charlie Hebdo last year because of a change in the magazine´s editorial line and because of the split over money between employees and shareholders.

“I don’t want to see — some day in the future — that my colleagues were killed for nothing. The men that killed them must realise that the values Charlie Hebdo fought for are growing stronger. Terrorists must not be allowed to win the ideological war. When people protect me it’s not just me they’re protecting, they’re doing it so I can keep on opening my big mouth.”

She normally doesn’t think about the dangers involved: “You forget it, you’re with friends, you make food and things like that. But suddenly fear rears its head again. You hear a sound, you see a shadow, a car, and then in a split second you’re gripped by fear. And you also know that one day you might have to act very fast.”

What she does think about every day is Charb, who was like a big brother for her: “He had such a big heart and he was very tolerant to people who saw the world in a different light. I could talk to him about everything, money problems, love, everything. He also understood that as editor of a magazine like Charlie Hebdo he had to give his staff loose reins. So how could you not miss someone like that? We laughed about the threats he received. We said that they had not put a big enough price on his head, and that it wasn’t enough to save Charlie Hebdo from going bankrupt. And Charb would sometimes walk through the editing offices and say ‘Allahu akbar’ (God is great). It was a joke. But when the assassins came, that’s exactly what they said before they shot him: ‘Allahu Akbar’.”

Zineb can’t say who her new husband is for security reasons, but explains: “He met me when I was already under police protection. It’s not easy for him and everything we do has to be carefully planned in advance.

“But he’s very proud of what we do, and he does his best to help. He understands that this is a question of barbarity versus civilisation. He’s very interested in the Arab world for several reasons, he loves it and he’s very unhappy about the way things are going there. When he decided to share his life with me, he did it knowing that he would have to share the risk and the burden. I’m very grateful to him.”  

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