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The Paris attack – a pathway to extremist Europe



The attack on the headquarters of French satire magazine Charlie Hebdo, which resulted in the death of 12 people on Wednesday, has triggered a wide range of reactions: from shock and solidarity, to anti-Muslim feelings, clash-of-civilizations arguments and victim blaming.

While most mainstream media organizations have been quick to condemn them and rally around the inalienability of freedom of speech, in comments and editorials across the world, the very question of whether Charlie Hebdo was right to continually ‘push the limits’ of satire is still being debated.

Of course, that’s just the problem.

Charlie Hebdo was not in the business of publishing divisive cartoons for the sake of it. There is an important distinction to be made between criticizing a people and criticizing a set of ideas, which is what all religions are. Similarly, criticizing Islam, or Judaism, or Christianity as a religious whole, is not the same as criticizing these religions’ extreme minority factions, which have real political repercussions in a world where religion should long ago have been stripped of political power.

Freedom of expression does not stop where cultural taboos are in place – in fact, one could argue that its main responsibility lies in challenging those taboos, saying the unspeakable. The right to question is at its most valuable when the stakes are higher, when the danger is greater: when you receive death threats, your headquarters are firebombed and you need police protection to do your job, and you still keep doing it.

However, Charlie Hebdo had been criticized throughout its history, including by the French government, now united in support for the magazine. What was once seen as stupidly adding fuel to the fire, has now become a symbol of France itself, hit in its heart. The 9/11 of France, they’re calling it.

This is the crux of the matter. The attack on Charlie Hebdo is less about religion and much more about politics, the very politics which created the need for it to continue publishing anti-Islamist cartoons. And what would politics be without powerful symbols behind it?

Take the attackers, for example. So different from a lone suicide bomber, with a DIY-bomb strapped to his chest, their modus operandi has been nothing if not sleek, prepared, a clean execution. Their impeccable French, clothes, their knowledgeable movements, their marksmanship – they all spell out a pre-planned visible provocation. They push the boundaries of our fears deep into our safe zones, disproving the theory that attacks like these are rooted in madness, showing instead a carefully thought-out, lucid plan.

It’s a clever, manipulative practice, forcing the hand of a government which has reacted predictably, with strong-arm tactics. By using 9/11 imagery and rushing to brand it a terrorist attack, French officials are linking this atrocity to the ‘war on terror’, suggesting a dangerous future for any possible resolution to the conflict and fuelling yet more war rhetoric. Have we not learned our lesson yet, after 14 years of a failed ‘war on terror’, the consequences of which have directly played into this and similar attacks?

If the French government keeps up this rhetoric, the only possible winners here will be the extreme rightwing and the fundamentalists.

Indeed, Marine Le Pen, the leader of the far-right Front National, has wasted no time devising a strategy on how to maximize votes from this situation. She, too, has embraced the ‘France is at war’ rhetoric, calling for more secure borders and a tougher police force, going so far as to suggest a referendum on the death penalty.

In Germany, the anti-Islam Pegida protesters have just been given a perfect excuse for justifying their existence – this is what Europe must be protected against, ‘the likes of them’. In Britain, UKIP leader Nigel Farage has already come out blaming multiculturalism and a loosey-goosey attitude to immigration for the attacks, raking in more votes.

At the other end of the spectrum, somewhere in Syria Islamic State (IS)’s leader Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi is having the best day of his life.

The terrorists have been linked both to al-Qaeda and IS, adding to the confusion, and both organizations – the latter an offshoot of al-Qaeda – stand to gain much from this. Their appeal lies in that revolutionary glow which attracts foreign recruits in their dozens, promising what the ‘Western’ lifestyle as they know it has not been able to deliver: empowerment.

For the many forgotten in the banlieues of the world, constantly alienated in a society which at once demands their integration and prevents it, it’s that promise of power – or its semblance – which is most appealing. If that comes via a religious heatwave, then so be it.

In the midst of these two extremes are countless ordinary citizens, a mainstream Europe of tolerance, for whom multiculturalism is a reality, not wishful thinking. So far, the attacks have prompted people throughout the world to show their solidarity by mobilizing in their thousands, calling for reflection and unity.

How much longer will a moderate attitude survive if tensions continue to rise, escalating with each new attack? Will tolerance and liberal values prevail in the face of the horror of Kalashnikovs ringing out on what was supposedly just an ordinary day?

There is much to be won for extremists from a Europe divided, reduced to nation-states fiercely protecting their borders, dwarfed into political ignominy.

Indeed, the day after the attacks, ‘Freedom has been killed’ was the headline of many newspapers in France, a signal of just how deeply this has shaken the core of France’s liberal values; exactly the result the attackers were after.

Wanting to make sense of this tragedy is understandable, but to package it into an ‘us’ and ‘them’ issue would be an oversimplification and a strategic mistake (Which us? Which them?). Identity-politics should be cast aside, and unity become more than a slogan.

Already, there is dissension in the ranks of the ‘united’ French government regarding a memorial march scheduled for this Sunday, to which the Front National have apparently not been invited.

Meanwhile of course, there are calls for Muslims to come out and take a stand against the attacks, as if the attacks have anything to do with the majority of the world’s 1.6 billion Muslims. As if Islam, as understood by that majority, has any relevance in what is fundamentally an extremist attack which serves a political interest, disguised under the murky layers of religion.

France appears to be at war. Throughout the country, four mosques have been attacked already. The war has begun, but who is fighting it?

As for Charlie Hebdo, its staff have been the tragic victims of a political conflict under the guise of a religious taboo. What would happen if major media outlets around the world dared to show the cartoons tomorrow – would the taboo be broken, or reinforced?

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