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What Do French Muslims Think About the PEN/'Charlie Hebdo' Controversy?

Very little bandwidth has been given to one of the most directly affected and knowledgable groups in the matter: French Muslims.
May 9, 2015, 2:30pm

Muslim women protesting in France in December 2003. Photo credit: Getty Images

Since last week, when six writers pulled out of the PEN Gala in protest of an award being given to Charlie Hebdo, the literary world has been consumed by a series of arguments over the controversial publication. Is the famed French satirical magazine racist against Muslims? If so, it inappropriate to fete it at a fancy Manhattan fundraising party? Is honoring it in that way somehow an endorsement of Islamophobia—or, conversely, would not honoring it be a capitulation to the terrorists who murdered the magazine's staffers in January?

The people arguing over these questions are mostly American and British writers, many of whom weren't familiar with Charlie Hebdo until the publication was attacked. Very little bandwidth has been given to the views of French Muslims—who, presumably, would have something to say about the cultural context of Charlie Hebdo's cartoons and their alleged racism.


To find out if their perspectives differed from those being tossed about on the English-language internet, I reached out by email to seven French Muslim individuals to gather their thoughts on the controversy, and have included their replies below. (They have in some cases been edited for length and clarity.)

Hajer Naili. Photo credit: John Walder. Courtesy of Naili

Hajer Naili, 29, a multimedia reporter at Women's eNews and a contributor to Al Jazeera Plus, now based in New York:

I, like every French citizen, followed the Charlie Hebdo attack. I was here though. I cried to see such attack happening in my country and to see fellow journalists and cartoonists being assassinated. There was no excuse for such attack. I stand against these extremists and those who think the attacks were justified.

Yet I do not stand with Charlie Hebdo when they provoke and insult the beliefs of billions of people including myself. By awarding Charlie Hebdo, PEN is honoring cartoons that are denigrating Muslims, their identity and beliefs. It is encouraging misinformation and the right to hate.

When the prophet Muhammad is being depicted with a turban shaped like a bomb, Charlie Hebdo is sending the message that those who follow or take the prophet as an example are terrorists or at least condone terrorism. I do not condone terrorism! I have never! And I never will! Today, drawing the prophet of Islam seems to have become an international sport. Everyone wants to compete and hope to be the best in pushing the offense to the extreme. The recent drawing contest of cartoons of the prophet in Texas is just the latest illustration. The very large majority of Muslims stand up against terrorism. Why don't we listen to their voice? I believe in the freedom of expression but if used to misinform and attack individuals, it becomes dangerous. I believe in the freedom of expression as a way to empower individuals, to exchange and debate ideas and opinions within the boundaries of respecting one's identity. I'm afraid that by giving an award to Charlie Hebdo, PEN is just telling the world that it's OK to ridicule someone's beliefs and to spread inaccurate facts. There is a thin line between the freedom of expression and hate speech. Unfortunately, Charlie Hebdo crossed that line years ago.

Mabrouck Rachedi, 38, a French writer born on the outskirts of Paris in Essonne. Rachedi is the author of five books, most recently Tous les hommes sont des causes perdues ("All Men Are Lost Causes") (éditions L'âge d'homme, 2015):

I am proud of my Arab-Berber-Muslim cultural heritage, but I insist on making clear that I speak now as a Frenchman. My public stances are a function of nonreligious principles learned in the schools of the Republic. It is these principles that lead me to hold up freedom of speech as a cardinal virtue. In the Charlie Hebdo affair, I insist on distinguishing between two facts. On one hand, the attacks on the newspaper and the kosher supermarket, which I firmly condemn without the slightest hesitation.


On the other, in the world after the attacks, a kind of forced-march unanimousness slipped in behind the republican spirit. Any voice saying anything other than, "I am Charlie" automatically became suspect, jeopardizing the very idea of free expression.

I haven't always agreed with Charlie Hebdo's editorial stance—far from it—but I've always recognized the magazine's right to express its opinions. By shooting at people, the killers took aim at freedom of speech in the form of the freedom of caricature. That is why I think that, no matter one's opinion of Charlie Hebdo, PEN's tribute is justified. Since its founding, Charlie Hebdo has been anticlerical, anti-system, anti-conformist, etc. The argument that the satirical paper is unsavory because it targets the weak in French society seems inadmissible to me. Would it not be a confession of weakness to demand a favorable regime while, at the same time, calling for equality? That is all I ask: equality for all, and nothing but equality. For all French people, no matter who they are. To be socially underprivileged needs not necessarily mean being weak. Being strong also means building a solid identity that mere caricature is not enough to rattle.

Mina A., a 35-year-old executive in public service who lives in the Paris region:

First of all, I should say I'm of Moroccan origin—Berber to be precise. My parents are Muslim, but I'm an atheist. They had ten children in total, of which five are atheist and five believers. Of these five, three are practicing. Oddly enough, the most devout are the youngest.


When I was younger, no women wore hijabs, nor men beards, in my neighborhood. My parents practiced a form of Maghrebi Islam, which was more discreet, less ostentatious, and above all, very far from the political Islam of some of today's youth. What I mean to say is, a politicized form of Islam has taken root in our neighborhoods and in the minds of the young, a form very far from that of our parents. And this is the Islam that took aim at Charlie Hebdo.

"The act of calling them racists is a complete misread of what these caricaturists stood for in France."

On January 7, I was, like all French people, completely in shock. Cabu, Wolinski, and Charb were very famous cartoonists; I'd grown up with them. The act of calling them racists is a complete misread of what these caricaturists stood for in France. They were, in every struggle, against the [far right-wing party] National Front.

Lastly, I insist on saying to Americans: There is no "Muslim community" in France. In France, we do not think in terms of "communities." I am of Moroccan descent and an atheist—so, in your opinion, what "community" would I belong to? The strength of secularism was to allow social mingling. And secularism is no myth. I went to the same school with all the other French children. No one spoke of religion, or of belonging to a community.

Today things are different, for some people, albeit a minority, are attempting to impose religion in schools (the hijab, halal menus). This is a reality.


"Je suis Charlie" because I would like us to be able to discuss and critique the return of religion to the public sphere without being called a racist or an Islamophobe.

Jamal, 30, a French-born sales consultant now living in Ireland:

The whole country has been in a state of shock after these horrible assassinations. In the streets, everywhere in the country, and abroad, you had the opportunity to see French people of color showing the world that they were horrified and against any form of terrorism or violence.

I am French, born and raised, from an Algerian background, so I know how much racism and terrorism can be destructive for our society. I grew up in a beautiful city in the south of France (Toulon), where being racist was normal. For me, racism in all its forms have always been a plague, and I've always fought against it.

"I think they are more stubborn than they are courageous."

I remember I was only a teenager when in Algeria terrorists were killing, kidnapping, raping, burning, bombing, the country lived in a constant fear, babies, kids, women, men, old people were dying for no reason—during those ten years I was worrying for my family every day on the other side of the Mediterranean. I respect their resistance, their faith, their courage, they never gave up, never lost hope. The people didn't deserve to live ten years of a horrific civil war. Thirteen years later, the country hasn't bandaged all its wounds yet and I don't want that to happen in France.

I don't know if the cartoonists were really racists or not, but in the last few years their work only served to stigmatize a fringe of the French society. Charlie Hebdo has always been the newspaper that people liked to hate, a satirical newspaper with shocking covers. It's their right to do it, so I respect that. It's also my right to say that I don't like everything they do. The freedom of speech is vital, but respect is more important for me. I would have enjoyed it so much if the drawings would have helped people unite instead of playing the game of the politics by digging deeper and larger ditches between people, fostering racial discrimination (Islamophobia). They absolutely did not deserve to die in such horrible conditions, just because they were insulting and provocative, just because they were cartoonists, or because their drawings depicted the Prophet Muhammad, who himself was known for ignoring people who were insulting him.


A Muslim has to answer to a bad deed with a good one.

I think [the staff of Charlie Hebdo] are more stubborn than they are courageous. They are more determined than ever now, but people aren't queuing anymore to purchase their newspapers.

I don't think it's fair to the millions of people who are suffering from the comparison with deadly terrorists that the work of Charlie Hebdo is highlighted and rewarded. But, at the same time, in the name of the freedom, I am not against [the PEN award] because somehow I feel detached from this polemic.

I think it's all political maneuvers, and nobody can do anything about it.

Mehdi Ouamrane, 34, an administrative manager in a construction firm in Paris and a practicing Muslim:

For me, Charlie Hebdo has become what it always abhorred. The tipping point has a name, and it is Philippe Val [who ran the magazine from 1992 to 2009]. There's a before and an after. Before him, Charlie Hebdo was a hideout for avuncular old May '68-ers you'd be a bit embarrassed to have over for a family dinner. They were harmless, just kind of embarrassing with their trivial jokes and less-than-clever wordplay. But I put up with them because I knew what they were about deep down. Deep down, they meant well.

After Philippe Val, you found Caroline Fourest and Fiammetta Venner in the newspaper's ranks, and Siné was nowhere to be seen. That alone says it all. Siné was fired for the antisemitism in one of his cartoons. Now that's hilarious. After Val, Charlie Hebdo voluntarily began to serve the powerful. Look back at the trial where Sarkozy, Hollande, etc. all paraded by to testify in favor of the paper and you'll see. [Famed satirist] Professeur Choron would never have allowed representatives of the state to defend Charlie Hebdo.


I'd like to emphasize that drawing cartoons is not courageous. I'm sorry, but that just isn't part of my definition of courage.

"If you ask me, a prize from the comics world would have been much more logical."

As far as the treatment of marginalized communities is concerned, Charlie Hebdo applies a double standard with great calm. It slags Islam every chance it gets because it makes for better sales. The paper has gone from [being full of] good-natured anarchists to a neoconservative editorial line.

At no moment did this paper deserve a literary prize. It's a newspaper with cartoons that objectively have little literary quality. If you ask me, a prize from the comics world would have been much more logical. Whatever, prizes are like Oscars—everyone forgets them in the end. If it lets them travel a little, good for them, but they should know they don't deserve a literary prize because they write very badly.

I admire the American writers who rose up and denounced the fraud that this prize represents.

It's clear that France has a mental block about Islam. Muslims are more up on French culture than the French are on Muslim rites. Mental laziness is a plague in France, and lots of people are just fine with mass media when it comes to forging their opinions. On the other hand, where true religious and social intermingling exists, problems are few. It's high time to confront reality for what it is and stop making people believe that Muslims are to blame because there are no jobs, no economic growth, and a bad feeling throughout the country. With the invention of the Ministry of Immigration, Integration, and National Identity, [former prime minister Nicolas] Sarkozy kicked off racist speech in my country. During his term, he was hard on Muslims and some people thought it was only natural to declare your racism. But it's not OK. My generation won't accept that. I take every chance I can get to educate people. Sometimes I use discussion and sometimes a form of intellectual violence or provocation. Because when it comes to people's capacity to take part in a constructive discussion, there's a long way to go.

Youssef Faraj

Youssef Faraj, 33, a Muslim philosophy teacher, community worker, and hip-hop educator in Brussels, Belgium:

I don't think Charlie Hebdo is a satire magazine. We can surely acknowledge the fact it was always attacking the church and government as powerful and symbolic institutions in France. Nonetheless, it has attacked minorities and marginalized communities in France by focusing on a highly sensitive target: their religious identity. Thus, this fragment of identity is always targeted through an increasing Islamophobia crystallized by systemic racism. The writers and novelists protesting against PEN are totally accurate.

Karim Frikh, 35, who is preparing for the entrance exam to law school after having trouble finding a job in these times of crisis:

When the Danish cartoons were picked up by various European newspapers, including France Soir in early 2006, I understood why journalists felt the need to defend freedom of expression at any price, especially freedom of the press. More than the content—the nature of the caricatures, insulting or not—it was the form they said they wished to defend.


Faced with the public debate, and in reaction to the consequences and threats France Soir received, Charlie Hebdo decided, knowing the danger, to publish the Danish cartoons, no doubt to prove that we must not give into threats and censorship.

For this action precisely, even if I clearly know that many journalists are in prison all over the word and must be rewarded for their commitment too in China, Eritrea or Iran, Charlie Hebdo deserves without question the prize they have been awarded, in my opinion.

When they published the Danish cartoons again in 2012, not only did I find it inappropriate, but I thought it an unnecessary act whose sole objective was to fill the paper's desperately empty coffers.

Cynically riding the wave of growing Islamophobic sentiment in France, this republication followed on the heels of a revolting and deliberately anti-Muslim film [ Innocence of Muslims] whose emergence the right to freedom of speech, largely guaranteed in the US, had allowed.

For all that, this lapse in conduct cannot erase the memory of the political commitment and convictions Charlie has shown.

"Though I think of Charlie Hebdo as provocative and juvenile, I have never thought of it as racist."

Sadly, history has shown that they had the courage of their convictions and were at peace with the idea of paying the ultimate price for them.

Though I think of Charlie Hebdo as provocative and juvenile, I have never thought of it as racist. Certain members of the editorial staff could be [racist], just like more than 20 percent of France's voting population. For example: Though I agree with her on some issues (gender equality, the struggle against homophobia, etc.), Caroline Fourest holds suspect views in her discussions of Islam—in my opinion, probably without even knowing it.


I think that it was inappropriate to mock Islam and the Muslims, even in spirit of "fairness," during a confusing period of discrimination when the secularism is instrumented in a certain way to express an intolerance in all but name.

The paper is clearly anticlerical in general, but not specifically Islamophobic.

I think it's a good thing this prize was given by an international organization, not French or at least not attached to a particular state.

And I know you didn't ask me this question, but: Yes, I am still Charlie.

I am French, even if many people who ask me the question "Where are you from?" look really surprise whenI simply reply with false naïveté, "Toulouse. Southern France." My parents immigrated, I did not.

I am Muslim in the way that many people are Catholic or Jewish in France—that is, in my own way, as I see fit. I observe the essentials (Ramadan, etc.), but I'm not curious about attending mosque a lot (except when my family requests I give to the needy in our name).

I hope we will not forget those who, every day, fight physically to defend democracy and its freedoms, whatever their religion or political leanings:

  • the soldiers, many of whom are of Muslim faith, in Syria and Iraq or the Sahel, faced with a sect that calls itself the Islamic State,
  • the gendarmes and policemen, including Ahmed Merabet [the Muslim police officer who died trying to stop the Charlie Hebdo attack], who keep the public peace within our democracies,
  • the ordinary citizens like Lassana Bathily, who found it in themselves to help the forces of order save Jewish hostages during the attack on the kosher supermarket.

France has shown its gratitude to the anonymous heroes of this massacre. But public opinion must also recognize these heroes.

Edward Gauvin and Yérim Sar contributed reporting.

Interviews with Mabrouck Rachedi, Mina A., and Karim Frikh were translated from the French by Edward Gauvin.

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