A terrible attack on the French controversial satirical magazine Charlie Hebdo has destructively polarized the western society and opened a new confrontation against ‘Islamic radicalism’. On January 7, three masked gunmen wielding AK-47s stormed the headquarters of Charlie Hebdo in Paris assassinating the entire leadership of the magazine. Twelve people were killed in the ensuing rampage, mostly Charlie Hebdo employees and two policemen. The attack is largely believed to have been launched over Charlie Hebdo’s previous cartoons of the Prophet Muhammad (PBUH).
France’s Prime Minister Manuel Valls has said that his country is now at war with radical Islam. According to him, ‘It is a war against terrorism, against jihadists, against radical Islam, against everything that is aimed at breaking fraternity, freedom, solidarity.’
But what is the fact? The provocative magazine Charlie Hebdo and the abuse of freedom of express under the shadow of secular state mechanism is totally a political project against Islam. It is the hegemonic narrative of western liberalism that one could reach the conclusion that the biggest threat to freedom of expression in the world today, is Islam. To frame these events without accounting for the broader context and power relationships at work inhibits any sensible understanding of the deep conflicts plaguing our world at present.
We must not forget that the first victim of Paris attack was a Muslim. His name was Ahmed Merabat. The 42-year-old French Muslim policeman was executed on the sidewalk of Paris’ 11th borough – the enclave where Charlie Hebdo’s headquarters is located. But Ahmed Merabat was purged from the headlines. The Charlie Hebdo killings manifest the baseline that Muslim identity is only relevant – and indeed newsworthy – when the subject is standing behind the gun, Not in front of it, In most everywhere in the world, but especially France – the architect of modern Islam phobia.
Muslims comprise a considerable percentage of the French polity. Islam is the nation’s second biggest religion, and figures place the Muslim population at 5 percent to 10 percent of France’s 66 million citizens. Islam’s size, and demographical rise, has spurred some of the most draconian policies against Muslims in modern times. The headscarf ban in 2004 followed by illegalization of the niqab, or face covering, in 2010, codified core Islam phobic ideas. This legislation also functioned as a firm and fervent declaration by the state that Muslim and French identities were at odds and irreconcilable. The French laicize model provided the structural underpinnings to carry forward Islamophobic legislation, but more nefariously, guise it under the banner of state-sponsored secularism.
Charlie Hebdo was introduced in 1970 after another publication, Hara-Kiri, was banned for mocking the death of former French President Charles de Gaulle. Much of Hara-Kiri’s staff simply migrated to the new publication, which was named in reference to Charlie Brown comics. Hebdo is short for hebdomadaire which means weekly in French.
In 1981, Charlie Hebdo ceased publication because of a lack of funds, though it was resurrected in 1992. In 2006, the publication caused widespread controversy when it republished the controversial cartoons of the Prophet Muhammad that were first printed in the Danish newspaper Jyllands-Posten and prompted protests from Muslims around the world.
The magazine was politically positioned on the extreme left with anarchist tendency and provocation. Since 2000, under its new editor Philippe Val, Charlie Hebdo shifted direction, taking a stand against the Palestinians and supporting the Israeli aggression against Lebanon in 2006. This came during the second Intifada.
At the same time, the newspaper started to launch Islamophobic campaigns. In 2006, it republished the cartoons of the Prophet Muhammad that were previously published in Denmark.
A number of intellectuals then pointed out that while in France we cannot accept censorship, sometimes it can be irresponsible to publish drawings fuelling sectarian tensions in the country.
Recently, Pope Francis has said there are limits to the freedom of expression – and that anyone who swears at his mother deserves a punch. He said that freedom of speech and expression are fundamental human rights however he added that he believes there should be limits to offending and ridiculing the faiths and beliefs of others.
A survey conducted by Le Journal du Dimanche, a French weekly newspaper, almost half of French people (42%) believe cartoons of the Muslim Prophet Mohammed – like those printed by satirical magazine Charlie Hebdo – should not be published, with a similar number in favor of ‘limitations’ on free speech.
In fact, there are limits to any right. In France, freedom of expression ‘is limited by strict defamation and privacy laws’, and ‘some of the toughest hate speech laws in the EU’, according to Index on Censorship.
In France – and other European states – it is a crime to deny the Holocaust, but not other genocides. Muslims are disproportionately surveilled. Wearing religious signs or clothing in schools is forbidden, as is the face veil in public places, and Islamic prayers in the streets.
The western countries have had no qualms about setting aside their liberal values to offer full-fledged support to authoritarian regimes in the Middle East that, incidentally, create the repressive climate that has been proven to give rise to militant extremism. Nor have western societies proved unwilling to abandon claims about support for free speech when the question of social cohesion arises.
France banned rallies in solidarity with Gaza during last summer’s war and the state has consistently prosecuted writers, comics, and even cartoonists whose work was deemed to risk “disruption to the social order”. French Prime Minister Manuel Valls commented on the state’s robust record of prosecuting artists saying: ‘Faced with this creativity of hate, should we do nothing? Certainly not’
In 2008, Charlie Hebdo fired an artist and writer for a column that the editors found to be anti-Semitic. Similarly, Danish newspaper Jyllands-Posten said soon after publishing cartoons of the Prophet Mohammad in 2005 that it would not publish cartoons offending Christians and Jews.
The media has largely glossed over such limitations in France and other countries that claim unrestricted free expression. Also largely absent, though crucial, is acknowledgement of the double standards in applying free speech.
The media seems reluctant to investigate the causes of radicalism that lead to such attacks, as if doing so implies justification. Thus, there is little discussion about Muslim alienation in France and elsewhere in Europe.
The racist expressions of Enlightenment philosophers or the cartoons of Charlie Hebdo, these provocative views cannot be separated from the broader political projects at work. At the same time that western liberalism gave rise to modern states committed to freedom, democracy, and the rule of law, it also saw to the continuation of slavery, the colonization and subjugation of large segments of Asia, Africa, Australia, and the Americas, and global economic exploitation and environmental degradation.
It is to be noted that at least two of the Charlie Hebdo attackers are reportedly of Algerian descent and the third from Senegal. It also have to remember France’s 1830 invasion of Algeria began a 130-year odyssey of murder, expropriation, racism, exploitation and misrule that only ended after a vicious anti-colonial struggle costing well over one million Algerian lives. According to Algerian President Abdelaziz Bouteflika, ‘Colonization brought the genocide of our identity, of our history, of our language, of our traditions.’
However, at present western Muslims remain excluded from national dialogues regarding the question of social cohesion. The historical continuity of racial discrimination, coupled with a ramped up pursuit of strategic objectives across a number of Muslim countries during the last two decades have seen to it that an atmosphere of suspicion and hostility has permeated the public sphere in the US and revived the legacy of intolerance in Europe.
The religious expression bans disparately impacted French Muslims. In addition, they chilled bodily and verbal expressions of Muslim identity. The state aim of compelling secularization upon its Muslim citizenry was based upon the civilization binary, and ultimatum, to choose between ‘Islam and the West’, ‘Muslim lands or France’. Now, the journalists have jumped on the ‘Je Suis Charlie’ (I am Charlie) bandwagon. Many would never condone Charlie Hebdo’s content, so why self-identify with the magazine? One can condemn the murder of its staff without embracing what it stands for.
Collateral indictment of French Muslims, by politicians and media alike, infused with an already fervent culture of Islamophobia on the ground, will surely incite violent backlash against Muslims and Muslim communities in the country.
French Islamophobia stands to become far more severe and strident. The conflation of the terrorist’s acts with France’s Muslim population, from the perspective of hatemonger’s, holds the latter vicariously liable. This connection, that links three deviant actors with an entire faith and millions of disconnected citizens, will fuel rabid backlash against Muslims in France, and more than likely, claim additional victims.
In neighbouring Germany, the thousands of Patriotic Europeans Against the Islamization of the West (PEGIDA) who have turned out to rallies, though still small enough to be labelled a ‘flop’, has set alarm bells ringing to the extent that strong counter protests have taken place.
The ultimate truth is that the Islamic civilisation is so hard-wired into Europe’s cultural, social and intellectual DNA that it would be impossible to expunge its influence. The same applies in the other direction, in light of Christendom’s and the West’s powerful influence on Arab and Islamic society. But west need not fear over Islamic radicalization. Islamic extremism is mostly a threat to Muslim societies, not to Europe, as a minority has never, in history, imposed its will on a majority, except in the form of a military conqueror.