Moroccan journalist Ahmed Benchemsi spoke to Emerson students recently about the controversial journalistic decisions he has made and the misconceptions he said that many Americans have about the Arab world. The majority of the students he spoke with are enrolled in a Communication Studies class taught by Associate Professor Gregory Payne.
Benchemsi’s visit to Emerson was the first stop in a tour of several universities in and around Boston. The series was organized by Project Nur, a student-run initiative that is part of the American Islamic Congress (AIC), an organization dedicated to building understanding and friendships among people of different faiths and ethnicities.
During his visit, Benchemsi presented a slideshow of covers from two magazines he founded in Morocco, Tel Quel and Nishan, and talked about the progression of stories the magazines reported. He gave background information about why the stories mattered or were controversial.
After the death of Morocco’s King Hassan II in 1999, Benchemsi said he recognized the instability in the government as a journalistic opportunity and founded Tel Quel, a “boldly honest” news-weekly that became the country’s best-selling magazine. Printed in French, the publication ran cover stories about virtually every taboo topic in Morocco, including women’s rights, contemporary slavery, reinterpreting the Qur’an, and homosexuality. In 2006, he founded an Arabic version of the magazine, called Nishan, to cater to an even wider audience.
Benchemsi recounted stories that made him particularly proud of his work. “The first [public] coming out of a gay person in the Arab world happened in our magazine. It was the first time that ever happened. I’m proud we did that,” he said.
The weeklies went through years of conflict with the authorities, Benchemsi said. Some of the magazine’s writers were even imprisoned on charges of “damaging Islam.” In October 2010, Benchemsi said he was forced to discontinue Nishan after the royal palace took away its advertisers. A few months later, Benchemsi left Tel Quel in hopes the magazine could better survive without someone at the helm who had become as inflammatory as he. He is now a visiting scholar at Stanford University.
Benchemsi also discussed how the West views people from Middle Eastern countries, particularly through the prism of religion. He gave an example of a conversation he had with a reporter whose name was Paul. The reporter wanted to hear Benchemsi’s explanation of how Islam is a peaceful religion. Benchemsi asked the reporter, “Why did you assume I was Muslim, just because my name is Ahmed? Your name is Paul, and I did not assume you were Christian.”
Benchemsi noted that secularism does exist in Arab countries, and people often don’t recognize that. “The majority of Western media tends to see [the Middle East] as culturally pre-destined. That’s not true. Some of us are Muslims, some of us are not, to say the least.”
Benchemsi was born and raised in Morocco and studied political science in Paris. He received awards for his envelope-pushing journalism from the European Union and the Samir Kassir Foundation, primarily for his work on the “cult of personality” surrounding Morocco’s King Mohammed IV.