In the days after a deadly terrorist attack at the offices of French satirical newspaper Charlie Hebdo, one of the paper’s illustrators drew up the next front page: a depiction of the prophet Mohammad holding a sign reading, “I am Charlie.”
Then he broke down and wept, Zineb El Rhazoui, one of the paper’s writers, told a packed crowd in a University of Chicago auditorium Thursday night.
“Not everyone can be Charlie Hebdo,” El Rhazoui said. “Being Charlie Hebdo today means to die because of some ideas. Not everyone, excuse me, has the balls to die for . . . ideas.”
Twelve of El Rhazoui’s colleagues died after armed gunmen stormed the Paris offices of Charlie Hebdo on Jan. 7, apparently outraged over drawings they believed were offensive caricatures of Muhammad. The gunmen were later shot to death by police.
During a wide-ranging discussion that touched on freedom of speech, the responsibilities of journalists and the longstanding French tradition of crass satire, El Rhazoui also discussed how her life has changed since the attack.
The Thursday night event, which featured heightened security, marked the first public U.S. appearance by a Charlie Hebdo staffer since the attack, according to the U. of C.
El Rhazoui said that, these days, she is protected by six guards. That came after the radical Islamic caliphate, ISIS, made threats on her life.
“I am threatened. I didn’t even draw Mohammad,” said El Rhazoui, a one-time activist, originally from Morocco, who was recruited to write about religion for the paper in 2011 after the Arab Spring.
Despite the threats on her life, she said it was nonetheless the responsibility of Charlie Hebdo not to bow to pressure for the publication to strike a more moderate tone.
“We’re not responsible, we warn people,” El Rhazoui said. “If [readers] are shocked, they are not obligated to buy it.”
After the attack, the newspaper, which faced financial troubles and a dwindling readership, was inundated with monetary support. “I am Charlie Hebdo” became a refrain of solidarity. And the number of subscribers soared to 200,000, El Rhazoui said.
Still, she said she would rather go back to the days before the gunmen — whom she referred to as “donkeys — entered her life.
“All of us would stay poor and unread instead of paying the very expensive price that we paid to have 200,000 subscribers,” she said.