Charlie Hebdo attack

Shocking in Paris

Print edition : February 20, 2015

The January 11 rally in Paris in tribute to the 17 persons killed by Islamist militants. Photo: BERTRAND GUAY/AFP

This March 15, 2006, photograph shows members of the Charlie Hebdo team, including cartoonists Jean Cabut (left), Stephane Charbonnier (second from left), Bernard Verlhac (fourth from left) and Philippe Honore (fifth from left) in front of the then headquarters of the weekly in Paris. Photo: JOEL SAGET/AFP

The two gunmen gesture as they return to their car after the attack in this still image taken from an amateur video on January 7. Photo: Reuters

Floral tributes left outside the Charlie Hebdo office in Paris. Photo: JACQUES DEMARTHON/AFP

The Charlie Hebdo attack leaves the world shocked but throws open questions about the limits of freedom of speech, the selective demonising of certain religions, and France’s own role in fostering jehadi elements in West Asia.

THE terror attack on the offices of the French satirical magazine Charlie Hebdo on January 7 shocked not only France but the entire international community. Twelve journalists working for the magazine lost their lives in the attack. On the following day, a hypermarket in Paris was targeted by a lone terrorist. Four people were killed in that attack. Two policemen were also killed in three days in January. Paris had become a city virtually under siege.

Charlie Hebdo specialised in caricatures, which often verged on vulgarity. The magazine was generally viewed as being anti-establishment. In recent years, it had caricatured leading French politicians, the Pope and the Catholic Church. But it had also gone out of its way to repeatedly lampoon Islam and its Prophet. The magazine, which until now had a very limited circulation, was among the handful of publications that reprinted the cartoons depicting Prophet Muhammad, which had appeared in a Danish paper, Jyllands-Posten ( J.P .), in 2005. The appearance of those cartoons in 2005 had led to riots in many parts of the Muslim world. J.P. is Denmark’s leading newspaper and had taken an avowedly anti-immigrant and Islamophobic editorial position from the beginning of the last decade.

Anders Fogh Rasmussen, the Prime Minister of Denmark when the first cartoon controversy erupted in Europe in the middle of the last decade, had declared a “culture war of values” between the West and Islam. The anthropologist Peter Hervik, author of the scholarly book The Annoying Difference which catalogues the rise of “neoracial” politics in the Danish media, has argued that the Danish cartoons picked up by Charlie Hebdo were intended to be part of the provocative local anti-Muslim campaign sweeping Denmark and was not a statement about free speech. The French President at the time, Jacques Chirac, had condemned the reprinting of the cartoons depicting the Prophet. “Anything that can hurt the convictions of someone else, in particular religious convictions, should be avoided,” Chirac had said. “Freedom of expression should be exercised in a spirit of responsibility.”

Stephane Charbonnier, the late editor of Charlie Hebdo, had kept on insisting that the magazine was lampooning Islam so that he could make it “as banal as Catholicism” for the purposes of social commentary and debate. But, as Pope Francis said during his recent trip to Sri Lanka, free speech without limits is dangerous. “You cannot provoke. You cannot insult the faith of others,” the pontiff remarked. The Supreme Leader of Iran, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, while strongly condemning the terror attacks, called on Europeans not to unnecessarily demonise Islam and its Prophet. Hizbollah leader Sheikh Hassan Nasrallah said that “takfiri terrorist groups” had insulted Islam “more than even those who have attacked the messenger of God through books depicting the Prophet or making films depicting the Prophet or drawing cartoons of the Prophet”. The noted Nigerian writer Teju Cole wrote that the Charlie Hebdo cartoonists were not “mere gadflies, not simple martyrs to the right to offend; they were ideologues”. He went on to add that just because their brutal murders are universally condemned “doesn’t mean that one has to condone their [ Charlie Hebdo’s] ideology”.

France has very strict laws against hate speech. Any disparaging comment against the country’s Jewish minority is rarely tolerated. Even Charlie Hebdo fired one of its columnists in 2008 for alleged anti-Jewish slurs. The French comedian Dieudonne M’bala M’bala has been tried several times and convicted for alleged anti-Jewish slurs. The French government banned a demonstration organised to show solidarity with the Palestinians during the latest Israeli military assault on Gaza which killed more than 2,500 people, many of them women and children. The ban was justified on the grounds that it would spread anti-Semitic feelings.

The two brothers, Cherif and Said Kouachi, who claimed responsibility for the attack on Charlie Hebdo were killed after a police manhunt lasting two days. The two had told the media before their deaths that they carried out the attack on instructions from the Al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP). The brothers, according to reports in the French media, were initially radicalised by the American invasion of Iraq in 2003. Amedy Coulibaly, the man responsible for the siege of a Jewish-owned hypermarket, which followed the attack on Charlie Hebdo and in which four people lost their lives, was also killed by the French police. Coulibaly had told the media before he was shot that his allegiance was with the Islamic State (I.S.). All the three individuals involved in the terror attacks were French citizens with family roots in North Africa.

Most of France’s immigrant population is from its former colonies in North and West Africa. Eight per cent of the French population is Muslim and it has been largely ghettoised and lives on the outskirts of big cities. The unemployment rate in France is the highest among the immigrants. Staring at a bleak future in their homeland, a minority has embraced radical versions of Islam and succumbed to the lure of jehad. Initially, many western European governments, including that of France, had done little to stop many young people from flooding the killing fields of West Asia. The radical Islamists and the governments in Europe were, after all, united in their agenda of toppling the few remaining secular governments in the Arab world.

France had taken the lead in toppling Muammar Qaddafi in Libya by joining hands with avowed radical Islamist groups. Today, many of them have pledged allegiance to the I.S. The French government wanted a repeat of the regime-change scenario in Syria. In the first two years of the rebellion against Bashar al-Assad which started in 2012, many European governments did not stop their youth from going to Syria and getting radicalised in the process. The government in Damascus had been warning Western capitals from the outset about the threat the jehadis would pose once they came back home. One such returnee was responsible for the killing of four people at a synagogue in Brussels last year.

Similar terrorist attacks, but on a larger scale, were also happening around the same time in other parts of the world. In Nigeria, Boko Haram raided the town of Baga in Borno State. Initial reports suggested that the group had slaughtered more than 2,000 residents, including women and children. The Nigerian Army has since scaled down the casualty number to over 200. Suicide bombers struck in Yola and other towns in the north-east of Nigeria. On the day the Charlie Hebdo office was attacked, a suicide bomber in the Yemeni capital Sana’a killed 36 young police cadets. Prominent African personalities have complained that the West and the international community have shown scant regard for the victims of terrorism in their continent.

World leaders assembled in Paris along with more than a million residents of Paris to pay homage to the victims of terrorism on European soil. The gesture of solidarity with the victims—“Je suis Charlie” (I am Charlie) emblazoned on banners and walls—has been popularised all over the Western world. One French citizen, however, did carry a banner with the words “Je suis Ahmed”. Ahmed Berabet was one of the French policemen killed during the terror attack. Dieudonne M’bala M’bala was arrested in January for saying on his Facebook page that he felt like “Je suis Charlie Coulibaly”.

The French political and security establishments are comparing the January killing of 17 of their citizens by three gunmen in two separate incidents to America’s 9/11. In the third week of January, the French government instituted a new draconian anti-terrorism law. The military has been deployed for patrolling duties with specific instructions to protect Jewish institutions. The French Prime Minister, Manuel Valls, said that 120,000 police and military personnel would be deployed throughout France. French President Francois Hollande, whose dismal popularity ratings have surged after the Charlie Hebdo incident, said in his address to the nation that the fight against terrorism would be further escalated. He announced that France had dispatched its only aircraft carrier to the Persian Gulf to assist the American-led alliance in the fight against the I.S. President Chirac had kept France out of the American-led war in Iraq. He had visualised the dangers that the war would engender. Before the Iraq war, Al Qaeda was confined to a few isolated pockets. And the I.S., which now controls a huge swathe of territory, never existed. Former President Nicolas Sarkozy has been harping on a “war of civilisations”. The French anyway have a lot of Muslim blood on their hands, starting from Napoleon’s invasion of Egypt and culminating in the brutal Algerian war of independence.

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu was among the leaders who turned up for the march to show solidarity with the victims of terror in Paris. According to reports, the French President did not want him to come. But the death of four French Jewish citizens has come in handy for Netanyahu, as Israel heads for another election. Netanyahu, angering the French authorities, has been asking French Jews to return to Israel, implying that they are unsafe in France. The bodies of the four Jewish victims were taken to Israel for burial. Right-wing politicians and media in the United States are making over-the-top allegations that many cities in Europe have become no-go areas for Christians. Among those making allegations of this sort was Bobby Jindal, the Governor of Louisiana State. Uri Avnery, the veteran Israeli politician and peace campaigner, has said that the only state that has really gained from the terrorist rampage is Israel. At the same time, he discounted stories that the Charlie Hebdo episode was a “false flag” operation orchestrated by the Mossad.

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