Tuesday,18 June, 2019
Current issue | Issue 1230, (22 - 28 January 2015)
Tuesday,18 June, 2019
Issue 1230, (22 - 28 January 2015)

Ahram Weekly

After Charlie Hebdo

In the wake of the Charlie Hebdo killings, there are signs of increasing Islamophobia in Europe, writes David Tresilian in Paris

After Charlie Hebdo
After Charlie Hebdo
Al-Ahram Weekly

As further details of the Charlie Hebdo and kosher supermarket killings emerged this week, authorities in France and across Europe are mulling what more can be done to combat Islamist extremism.

The moves come after a giant march in Paris on the Sunday following the killing of 17 people. The march saw some million and a half people joined by world leaders to express solidarity with the victims of the attacks and in defence of freedom of expression.

The attacks have given rise to intense soul-searching in France about the reasons for the radicalisation of some members of its young Muslim population. People are asking why these young men carried out such extreme acts of violence, and what can be done to prevent future attacks.

The soul-searching has been exacerbated by the affiliation of Cherif and Said Kouachi and Amedy Coulibaly, who carried out the attacks, with international Islamist terror movements, including Al-Qaida or the Islamic State (IS), and their receiving training and weapons from such groups.

According to reports in media press, the three men had links with national and international extremit organisations, in at least one case training with them abroad.

The attacks in France have also been echoed on the European level by an operation that took place in Belgium last week when two members of an alleged Islamist terrorist cell in the east of the country were killed by police in a shoot-out in which a third member was wounded.

According to the authorities, the men, recently returned from Syria, were planning “major attacks” in Belgium, notably on policemen. In 2005 a group of young British-born Muslims blew themselves up on the London public transport system, causing the deaths of 52 people. The attack spread concern that Europe could face a continent-wide problem of Islamist terrorism.

Speaking to the media last week, French Prime Minister Manuel Valls said there are no plans for new legislation in France to give the authorities additional powers to combat Islamist terrorism, since existing provisions are sufficient.

However, it was announced that thousands of extra police and soldiers will be guarding particularly Jewish institutions across the country and that security as a whole will be strengthened.

Surveillance of the Internet will be stepped up to improve intelligence gathering and new measures will be introduced to combat the spread of extremist ideas in prisons, he said.

Residents of Paris and other French cities were already experiencing the effects of the increased security last week, as more armed police and soldiers appeared on the streets, outside public buildings and at transport stations. Museums and department stores also introduced more obvious security measures.

While individuals spoken to by the Weekly condemned the attacks on Charlie Hebdo and the kosher supermarket, some expressed fears that they could lead to a growth in Islamophobia in France and even attacks on Muslims.

Some also criticised publication of the cartoons by Charlie Hebdo and what they felt to be the double standards of the French authorities in dealing with what they saw as attacks against Islam.

Such fears may now be being borne out, and there are reports in France of mosques and other institutions being attacked and women of Muslim appearance being verbally assaulted.

According to a report in the French newspaper Le Monde last week, 54 Islamophobic acts have been recorded in France since the Charlie Hebdo attacks. This does not include those in Paris and the city’s suburbs.

Quoting Abdallah Zekri, president of the Observatoire contre l’islamophobie of the Conseil francais du culte musulman, a national Muslim organisation, the newspaper said the acts included attacks on Muslim businesses, projectiles thrown at buildings, and an explosion at a kebab store in southern France.

There have been increased reports of insults being shouted at people thought to be of Muslim appearance and of increased “ethnic profiling”, in which people of Muslim appearance face harassment or are stopped and searched by members of the security forces more often than those thought to be of other religions.

Some people who spoke to the Weekly said that the revulsion at the Charlie Hebdo attacks has drawn attention away from the concerns of some French Muslims that their religion is not defended by the state with what they consider the proper degree of firmness.

Charlie Hebdo’s right to freedom of expression has been contrasted by some writers on French social media with what they feel is a lack of protection afforded by the state to Muslims.

France’s Muslim population, largely of North African or West African origin and reflecting the ethnic composition of its former colonies, suffers disproportionately from exclusion. Young people of North African or African descent are more likely than their white peers to be unemployed or live in the grim housing estates that ring many French cities.

Perceived social and economic exclusion has not been helped by a perception that France as a whole sees such young people as a problem, accusing them of lacking the will to integrate into the wider society.

Satirical cartoons about the Muslim religion of the sort published by Charlie Hebdo, together with dismissive comments made about Islam and Muslims by certain French public figures, have added to an explosive mix of perceived discrimination.

French newspapers carried reports last week that some French young people of North African or African descent in the country’s schools and colleges refused to observe one minute’s silence in memory of those who died during a nationwide commemoration, suggesting that religious, ethnic and socio-economic divides in France may be as pronounced as ever despite calls for national unity.

Meanwhile, Charlie Hebdo itself appeared as usual last week, with people queuing from early in the morning to buy a copy of the magazine, which usually sells fewer than 40,000 copies but last week had a reported print run of some seven million.

The issue’s front page showed a cartoon of the Prophet Mohamed holding up a sign reading “Je suis Charlie” (I am Charlie), the slogan of the earlier march. The cartoon’s caption read: “Tout est pardonné” (All is forgiven).

Inside, it featured its usual mix of satirical cartoons and articles, along with a strongly worded defence of secularism, the separation of religion from public life, by the magazine’s editor, Gerard Biard.

“Yes, the Israeli-Palestinian conflict is a reality,” Biard wrote. “Yes, international geopolitics is a succession of manoeuvres and dirty tricks, yes the socio-economic situation of the so-called ‘population of Muslim origin’ in France is profoundly unjust, yes, racism and all forms of discrimination must be fought tirelessly.”

But none of this could be done without secularism, he wrote.

“Only secularism can do this because secularism alone insists on universal rights and the exercise of equality, liberty, fraternity and sisterhood. Only secularism allows freedom of conscience … and only secularism allows religious believers and others to live in peace together.”(See p.13)

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