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Zineb El Rhazoui (centre) at the funeral of Charb (Stéphane Charbonnier), the editor of “Charlie Hebdo”, in 2015 (©AFP PHOTO / POOL / MARTIN BUREAU)


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.”

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