Who is Charlie?: A Conversation on Freedom of Expression

February 26, 2015
1 hour 30 minutes 
Glen A. Lloyd Auditorium, University of Chicago 

Program Overview

On the 7th of January 2015, the Paris offices of the satirical newspaper Charlie Hebdo were the victim of a terrorist attack carried out by men who identified themselves as belonging to a branch of Al Qaeda. Twelve people were killed and many others were injured. The attack is believed to be a violent reaction by Islamic fundamentalists in response to Charlie Hebdo’s publications of cartoons depicting the Muslim Prophet Muhammad. Reactions to the events varied throughout the world, sparking debates about blasphemy, censorship, and freedom of expression.

These themes and more are explored in this discussion between Robert Morrissey, Benjamin Franklin professor of French literature and executive director of the France Chicago Center, and Zineb El Rhazoui, human rights activist and journalist for Charlie Hebdo. The French concept of “laïcité”, secularism, and the history of the Charlie Hebdo publication are also discussed. A moderated question and answer discussion with the audience follows the talk.

Outline of the Program

About Zineb El Rhazoui

Born in Morocco, Zineb El Rhazoui has dedicated her life to championing women’s rights and secularism in her work both as a human rights activist and a journalist. Her career began with investigating religious minorities and exploring the themes of freedom religion in Morocco. El Rhazoui has faced strong government censorship, has been arrested three times and never tried, and has been exiled to Slovenia. She is the founder of various organizations including MALI, a pro-secularism, pro-democracy movement that translates to the Alternativement Movement for Individual Freedoms. She met the Charlie Hebdo as a participant in the Arab Spring, and subsequently co-wrote a comic book called “The Life of Muhammad” with the former editor-in-chief Charlie Hebdo, the late Stéphane Charbonnier. She is a former member of the Charlie Hebdo team. 

Discussion Questions

Whether watching the video on your own or with a group, we invite you to follow along with the thematic discussion questions listed below, which will help spark debates and gain a better understanding of the subjects examined throughout the video. 

1. What do you think of El Rhazoui’s comment that one should leave one’s Muslim identity at home and be a French citizens while outside? 

2. What are the challenges and advantages of laïcité as defined by El Rhazoui? 

3. What should nations and individuals do to combat the rising threat of Islamic fundamentalism? 

4. Where is the line between defending freedom of expression and supporting hate speech? 

5. Critics of El Rhazoui have labeled her as guilty of Islamophobia while she maintains that criticizing Islam does not constitute racism. Discuss. 

6. How will the attack on Charlie Hebdo impact the international community? 

7. Click here to read a recent declaration of Pope Francis in regards to France not being secular enough.

Online Resources for More Information

French magazine illustrates the Prophet Muhammad’s life (Al Jazeera) 

This article from December 2012 reports Charlie Hebdo’s plans of publishing a comic book about the Prophet Muhammad’s life. This comic book was co-written by Zineb El Rhazoui and the late editor-in-chief of Charlie Hebdo, Stéphane Charbonnier. 

Charlie Hebdo (in French)

This is the official website of Charlie Hebdo. It is entirely in French.

Letter: Freedom of speech should have been met with accountability at Charlie Hebdo event (The Chicago Maroon) 

Following the Who is Charlie? discussion, University of Chicago student Carol Ann Tan pens a letter in response to the debates sparked by the last audience question. She argues that the University of Chicago community should not have enthusisastically supported and applauded the views of El Rhazoui as her remarks were unjustified and offensive. 

Charlie Hebdo slammed as ‘hypocrites’ over staff dispute (France 24)

Three months after the Charlie Hebdo attacks, Zineb El Rhazoui is suspended by new Charlie Hebdo management. 

Old Tradition of Secularism Clashes with France’s New Reality (The New York Times) 

This New York Times article published one month after the Charlie Hebdo attacks discusses the current and future role of laïcité in France