Interview with former Charlie Hebdo journalist, Caroline Fourest, on France, Charlie Hebdo, religious fundamentalism and secularism

26/01/2015

“Who is this Caroline Fourest?” most of you would ask. Well she’s a well known “militant for minority rights” in modern history of France, yet she’s not just one but many things. She’s a journalist to begin with, an author, a director, scriptwriter and co-founder of the feminist, anti-racist and secularist magazine ProChoix.

Having worked for Charlie Hebdo for 6 years, she’s well known for her works on critics of the far-right and fundamentalism, her support on secularity, women rights, LGBTI rights and anti-racism. Her previous works mainly focused on universalism and multiculturalism. For 16 years she’s worked on all types of religious fanaticism. She also had a column in Le Monde for 5 years. Currently she has a daily editorial on radio channel France Culture and has a program during the summer season on radio channel France Inter.

I have to admit, I’ve been very nervous before I met her. The first interview I’d do in my entire life would be with an important character from France’s feminism history and a former journalist of Charlie Hebdo! Even though that I’ve been living in Paris just for 1.5 years, over the past 3 weeks, I could tell that Charlie Hebdo became the milestone of a new era. En era of fighting for freedom of speech, fighting for secularity and fighting against fanatics. We met at a café in the Marais, and we’ve got into a deep conversation immediately.

– Let’s begin by talking about Charlie Hebdo. How would you define Charlie Hebdo?

Charlie Hebdo is a satirical newspaper, it’s a paper known to make people laugh about all types of power, domination and ideology. It’s very important to understand that no cartoon in Charlie Hebdo goes to publication without context. The fanatics and the literalists cannot or do not want to understand this. It probably did a hundred times more caricatures of the Pope, the Catholic Church then of Islam. They’re making caricatures about politics a lot, all types of politicians but especially the extreme right. The worst enemy of Charlie Hebdo is National Front and Marine Le Pen. There were lots of caricatures about Nicholas Sarkozy as well because it’s a leftist newspaper. It defends another type of economy, a less capitalistic one. Charlie Hebdo defended Palestine as well, yet it is less known. Charb and Tignous who got killed were strong pro-Palestine activists and there were many caricatures about Israeli soldiers at Gaza in Charlie Hebdo. It’s a newspaper reacting to the actuality. It means that if a Rabbi would kill in the name of defending Moses, then probably Moses would be the cover, as that would be the current actuality.

– You were working for them during the time when Danish newspaper Jyllands-Posten published the caricatures of the prophet Mohammed. Charlie Hebdo decided to publish them as well. How was that process?

It’s very important to understand why a newspaper very different from Charlie Hebdo, a lot more conservative one, published those cartoons. A publisher in Denmark wanted to do a book about Mohammed, a very positive book to explain his life and the importance of him as a character. Yet not a single cartoonist wanted to contribute because they feared of dying like Theo Van Gogh in Netherlands. Jyllands-Posten published those cartoons in the context of denouncing auto-censorship. 12 cartoons have been published. Probably nobody saw them in Syria or Iran, before to burn the embassy and to threat the citizens of Denmark, yet those cartoons were innocent. Mohammed was portrayed in a sweet manner. There was only one which created the debate, one which showed a bomb inside the hat of Mohammed. There’s a saying in Denmark. “If you put an orange in your hat, it’s giving you luck.” This cartoon is showing that putting a bomb in your hat gives you bad luck. And it wasn’t a new cartoon. The cartoonist did that cartoon back in the 90’s to denounce the bombings in Algeria. It just got republished. Yet all these details don’t mean anything to the fanatics who did not see the cartoons. The cartoons have been instrumentalized and manipulated by some countries. It’s important to know the political context of these events. For example, during the Rushdie affair, Saudi Arabia was in the course of winning a war in Afghanistan, with USA of course. During cartoons’ affair of 2006, Iran was in a difficult situation with the nuclear program, Syria was under huge pressure about the case of Hariri’s murder so they all decided they needed to do something to speak in the name of the Muslim world and they all attacked these cartoons.  Suddenly spontaneous crowds started to demonstrate in those countries, where we know demonstrations are not so free. “Spontaneous” crowds started burning Danish embassies. In Charlie Hebdo, we had one job as any newspaper did, to cover the actuality, so we did. But as we are Charlie Hebdo, we wanted to cover the actuality in our way. We published those cartoons inside the newspaper and our cover was different. We decided in a meeting that these fanatics are always making Mohamed speak in their sense, giving a bad image about religion. We wanted to portray Mohamed thinking he cannot stand those fanatics speaking and killing in his name. So in that cover Mohamed is almost in tears and saying “it’s so hard to be loved by assholes!” That cover is the reason why they killed my colleagues because the death treats started after that.

– Mocking religion goes back in France history, about 500 years. During the Renaissance there were many representations of priests as “importunate louts” or of mocking church bells for public disturbance. France abolished the offence of blasphemy 1791 as well. How would you define this culture of blasphemy in France?

Our culture, our philosophy our democracy is based on that possibility of laughing about religion. This is why there’s no religious majority who can oppress another religious minority within the state.  The state does not fund any religion as the state does not have a religion. Whereas in Turkey, Sunni Islam is the majority and even the Shiah Islam and Alewi Islam under a clear discrimination, let alone any other religion, or non-believers. In France, we want every religion to be equal, and no religion is favored or prioritized by the state. To obtain that, we had to fight the Catholic Church, which was connected to state back in the medieval times and during the monarchy times. We established a secular republic by fighting against this. In order to fight we had to first de-symbolize the sacred power of the Catholic Church. It was a very insulting and violent process. For example in Charlie Hebdo, the actuality of pedophilia in church was covered many times, by portraying priests as child molesters.

– There is a story going around in Turkey that in 2009 a cartoonist name Siné was fired from Charlie Hebdo, because he drew about Sarkozy’s son and and about Jewish people. Is this story true? If it’s true would you now consider this favoritism? If it’s not true why do you think his expulsion is related with his drawings?

I know this story very well and the propaganda that goes with it. Siné was fired because he insulted our director, wrote a lie in his column and then refused to correct it. This is something unacceptable in journalism! Yes, he used all racist clichés about Jews in his column. As I said, Charlie Hebdo is an antiracist newspaper. It defends the right to mock ideas or belief but not being racist against people. This is also against the antiracist law in France. A few years ago, Charlie Hebdo’s director did the same thing with another journalist who supported a writer who attacked Muslims. Surprisingly no one was shocked this time or no one noticed that this is solid proof that Charlie Hebdo is an antiracist newspaper. What is strange to me is why some people are accusing Charlie Hebdo of being Islamophobic yet they refuse to see that Charlie Hebdo does not incorporate racist journalists? Is it because for some people being racist against Jewish people is OK but blasphemy is not? I think we all know what their problem is.

– I believe Charlie Hebdo has expanded its meaning after the shooting. In your opinion, what does Charlie Hebdo represent today in France?

The irony of this crime is that those jihadists have killed the journalists of Charlie Hebdo because they wanted to silence this newspaper, but today they pushed the whole world to subscribe to Charlie Hebdo. The cartoonists who have been killed, we grew up with them. They made us laugh since we were very young, about the actuality, about religion, about politicians, about everything! To see this pure violence, fanaticism, this completely stupid brutality against these sweet, smart and funny people, it created a big shock in France.  Today, Charlie Hebdo is the symbol of the progressive people who want to continue to be free to criticize religion, to defend a secular republic and democracy. It’s the symbol of those people who are fighting against the extreme-right, the conservatives who want to divide people and create hatred against Muslims. This was, is and will be the symbol of Charlie Hebdo. This is the balance, which we want to keep alive for many years.

– You’ve been invited for a live interview with Sky News, a TV station which has chosen not to show the cover of Charlie Hebdo yet you’ve showed the cover of the magazine and they cut you out of the interview. What do you think about that?

In the middle of this horror, it has been great to see the support of some colleagues from all around the world, even from those who took a risk, like in Turkey.  Yet, we’ve been completely betrayed by many of the newspapers from USA and UK. As they live in complete democracy, they’re not taking any risk, or they are not facing any pressure like the journalists in Turkey, yet they failed to show the cover. They’ve asked us continuously “what will Charlie Hebdo’s new cover be?” because the whole world was wondering about it. So I showed the cover on the Sky News, and they cut me out. And they’ve apologized to the viewers who could have been shocked! This is just insane! It’s a very sweet cover, where Mohammed is crying, it’s a cover of forgiveness for these brutal attacks. It’s what my colleagues could do after surviving a slaughter like that. And the channel is apologizing to the believers who can be offended by a cover of forgiveness, but not by the killing? There are many people coming from Muslim background who don’t share this opinion of these journalists. By saying that my colleagues did something “wrong” by drawing this cover, they are justifying violence. It’s very irresponsible of these media platforms. In France we have a completely different story about secularism and freedom of speech. In USA, freedom of speech is based on freedom of religion, not freedom of believing or not believing. And in England the state has a religion, where Anglicans are favored. I believe the religious rights are becoming more important than the rights of non-believers’. They revealed the bloody images of the victims from the slaughter, yet they cannot show a simple cartoon about religion. What Sky News did, created a scandal, and the debate is not over on that.

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– You know that Cumhuriyet has published 4 pages of Charlie Hebdo’s post-attack issue in Turkish without the cover, and two journalists wrote about Charlie Hebdo in their columns with publishing the cover. T24 has also published the whole issue in Turkish without any censorship. At the moment, Cumhuriyet is under many threats, being protected by security forces 24/7 and an investigation has begun against the journalists for “offending religious values and agitating the public to grudge and enmity.” What’s your opinion on that?

In the middle of this solidarity and bravery, the support of our colleagues from Turkey was really important. We found hope on that. I’ve been to Turkey many times; I did even a big TV inquiry about AKP in solidarity with journalists from Turkey who are in jail. It is so important that we maintain this common history, culture about secularism, between Turkey and France. Turkey has a constitution which is more similar to France, in terms of secularism, because AKP did not change it yet. I also would like to emphasize on the hypocrisy of Prime minister of Turkey, Ahmet Davutoğlu who has come to the march in France. We know that many cartoonists in Turkey are under a big pressure for mocking the president of Turkey, Recep Tayyip Erdoğan. Turkey is still one of the countries with the biggest number of journalists imprisoned.  These journals in Turkey are brave enough to inform, even under this pressure. They are brave despite the fanatics and the religious politicians. I think this is where the resistance is! This battle is going to be a long one and an important one.

– The president of Turkey, Erdoğan attended the 10th Conference of Parliamentary Union of the Organization of Islamic Cooperation Member States and he has said that “Islam’s prophet is the red line for the Muslims. Just like killing people because they’ve drawn comics is terror, provocative actions are just as much terror.” What do you think about this?

I think that if someone once believed that Erdoğan was a democrat, they can see in his sentence, he’s anything except that. He’s speaking as if he’s leading a religious state, not a democratic one. In a democratic state, he has to respect all citizens who believe and who do not believe. I know that he’s always tried to censor journalists. Trying to compare someone who’s drawing to support freedom speech and secularism with someone show’s killing, physically killing, because they don’t share the same opinion is just showing that there is something deeply wrong in his view of democracy. He’s losing rationality. Having a president of a state who is losing rationality at this point, it’s something very dangerous for everyone.

– You’ve attended the Secular Conference back in 2014 November, where CHP PM Şafak Pavey was invited as well. You’ve spoken about AKP’s policy on secularism there, and you’ve written some articles on this issue too. What is your opinion of secularity in Turkey?

If Turkey is losing its tradition of secularism, it means that the world is losing something. Of course I worry about my secular friends and colleagues from Turkey. Erdoğan is showing more and more his goal is to break, to kill secularism. Adding the corruption and censorship on top of that, it’s really a lot! He’s also transforming education. Last time when I was in İstanbul, I realized not many journalists were talking about the public schools’ transformation into religious Imam Hatip schools. It’s not a minor number, we’re talking about thousands! We’re in the middle of a big debate about secular education in France at the moment, and as secularists we believe fanatics are trying to wash the brains of children. In Turkey, these schools are state funded schools and the government is doing this with intention. They want to create future fanatics, not citizens.

– Your books especially “Crossfire: a comparison between Jewish, Christian and Muslim fundamentalism”, “Brother Tariq : the doublespeak Tariq Ramadan” and  “Marine Le Pen unmasked” were highly criticized. You’ve become the hate target of the far-right. How could you manage to stay strong and keep speaking up?

I don’t consider myself brave because I’m surrendered by much more brave journalists and activists. Surrendered by colleagues from Turkey, Tunisia, Algeria who have been under much more worse pressure. I only have to fight the fanatics, not the state. On the contrary my colleagues have to fight both the fanatics and the state which is against them, instead of protecting them. They can’t work under a democratic context. I know it’s a privilege for me to continue my work as a journalist from a secular democracy like France. So I consider myself quite comfortable. Even inside this secular democratic country, I’m criticized and insulted a lot for my works. I’ve been portrayed as an “Islamophobic”, since I criticize religion, and I’ve been attacked as “Islamophile” by National Front and the Catholic fundamentalists.

– Yes about that, you’ve been beaten on the street on broad day light by the conservatives, how did that happen?

For France 2 channel, I was covering as a very big Catholic protest against same-sex marriage. Yet I hid myself with a hat and a scarf.  FEMEN arrived and those fanatics attacked them brutally. In the middle of the fight they recognized me. I’m a journalist they particularly hate so they beat me as well. I have no doubt that every extremist can be as brutal and stupid as the other one. They’re using different identities, different flags such as a flag of a religion or a nation but once they’re patriarchal and extremists, they look quite the same to me. In their mind, in their hearts, they look very much alike.

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– How about the French government’s attitude as an outcome of these shootings? What was your opinion on the Republican march on January 11th? Many left organizations have criticized it because of the call for “national unity” and for inviting world leaders who have nothing to do with freedom of speech in their countries. There are also many concerns on how this would affect the Muslim minority in France. What do you think might happen?

The march of January 11 was really moving. I’ve never seen Paris or France like that before. Streets were full of all sorts of different people in a complete communion supporting freedom of speech. We did not see those authorities there; all we saw was that huge crowd. Honestly the authorities of France have been very kind and supportive. François Hollande supported Charlie Hebdo, during the events in 2006. He was not in the position to become a president back then. He has a big sense of humor, including when we mock and criticize him in Charlie Hebdo. Believe me we did caricatures about Hollande that could make him cry, but still he is full of respect. He has some other defaults but he is real democrat and he is someone who respects humor. So they’ve been doing their best after that slaughter.  We’re hoping the citizens of France would avoid believing National Front is the answer to those fanatics’ act, as this is the risk for the Muslims living in France. Marine Le Pen was the only politician missing in that communion. Honestly people from Charlie Hebdo did not want her to be there; but she insisted to be in the front, with her flag. No other politicians were there with a flag. She wanted those cartoonists to look like martyrs, yet she was not considerate. My colleagues were not even buried and we were just mourning them. I hope her actions would help many conservatives of France to understand that National Front is not the answer against jihadists and fanatics. Secularism is the only qualified answer.

– What do you think about the “rising right” in France? National Front got a 25% vote on the European Parliament elections last year. Marine le Pen has used Charlie Hebdo shootings on her advantage by declaring a war against Islamists in France, and addressed this issue as a problem of immigration laws in France. What is your idea on fighting Islamists by using racism and religious fundamentalism?

Marine Le Pen did not declare a war against Islam, she is trying to avoid speaking that way and that’s why support is growing for her. She’s trying to appear very moderate by doing this distinction between Muslims and Islamists. Of course, we all know that inside her party they all think the problem is Muslims not Islamists. I think that she’s the one who is the most illegitimate person to speak in the name of Charlie Hebdo. She’s one of the main targets of Charlie Hebdo, it’s known that Charlie Hebdo hates National Front. The organizations that sued Charlie Hebdo the most are the Catholics close to National Front. So she’s in a bad position to claim herself on Charlie Hebdo’s side. Yet she will loose from that 25%. I don’t know maybe in 2 years. It depends of the attitude of Muslim French citizens too. It’s difficult when Muslim organizations in France, close to the Muslim Brothers continue their hypocrite, double speech. They say on one hand, they do not support the terrorists, but on the other hand they condemn those cartoons. They can disagree, they can even sue, yet as long as they don’t add the sentence “but they have the right to draw those cartoons” then it’s double speech. If they add that missing sentence to their announcements, then people will start to believe Muslims are capable of accepting freedom of speech for real. We try to explain there are a lot of Muslims in France who are supporting Charlie Hebdo. They’re trying to confuse all Muslims with the conservative ones. I try to avoid using the term Islamophobia because this is creating a huge debate. Semantically, the word in definition is a phobia against Islam, therefore you are racist. There are people who are criticizing religion who are secular, who are feminists, and they definitely are not racist. There are many racist writers, who are xenophobic, who try to look as simple secularists yet they are the racists ones. Is there racism against Muslim in France? My answer is yes. Mostly it’s from the colonial times. But honestly this racism was nothing before 9/11 because the new generation in France is very anti-racist. They’re very different. So this racism was almost dead in France before 9/11 occurred. After that, some religious organizations tried to fight secularism, the right of blasphemy, and test the French philosophy. So this created reaction. So the situation is more complex then racism. The blame is on the people who are killing in the name of Islam. They are the ones who create fear amongst non-Muslims.  But how could non-Muslims not be afraid of seeing the actuality? It’s true that exactly after 9/11 France has added acts that I qualified as racist yet these attacks against Muslims during the past weeks are the first time in France. If you look at the statistics of attacks before the slaughter, only 4% of Muslim cemeteries were under graffiti attack, yet the attack against Jewish cemeteries were 11%.

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– Being a strong-hearted feminist, you’ve also written a book about the founder of Femen, Inna Shevchenko. Did you know that Femen exists in Turkey as well? Feminists in Turkey are fighting a big battle. What is your opinion on the relationship between religion and feminism?

I am far from FEMEN today but what interested me was their beginning. Those feminists in Ukraine were fighting against prostitution, against patriarchy in Ukraine. Probably this was one of the things that lead to the Ukrainian Spring we witnessed afterwards. All the feminists fighting in the Arab Spring or the ones fighting in Turkey are showing that there’s a link between secularism and equality. There are no women’s rights in religious regimes, never! Because the religious domination always attacks the women’s body first. They want to control the body of women. I think it’s their main motivation. It’s been almost 16 years that I’m working on fanatics from all religions and I do not find them obsessed by spirituality. They are more obsessed about women and controlling women. This is why feminism should be leading the resistance against the fanatics. Of course this is exactly what the fanatics are afraid about. As a backlash to religious fundamentalism, fight for equality will grow bigger, a lot bigger than how fundamentalism is growing.

– What would your advice be to the feminists in Turkey?

To continue to be strong feminists, secularists and democrats. And we will win! You know why? If the fanatics succeed in creating a state with a regime according to their law and their view like in Syria today; that country will be a nightmare for everyone except them. When secular democrats are leading a state, when they’re really democratic, and not dogmatic, there’s a place for all. This is why secular democracy will out-number theocracy. People can be completely crazy enough to join a sort of jihad to go kill and rape in Syria but at the end of the day, the majority of human beings want to live under regime of respecting basic human rights and that is a democratic and secular state.

(A shorter version of this interview was published on Radio Farda in Persian.)