The tragedy surrounding the attack against the satirical weekly Charlie Hebdo and its cartoonists is over. It ended in horrific bloodshed and tremendous loss of life and shook France, a modern, progressive democracy to its very foundations. It is now hoped that extremist, anti-Islamic elements will not wreak vengeance on the country’s six-million-strong Muslim community, the largest in Europe.
The time now is for mourning, reflection and a re-examination of the factors that have contributed to the creation of a radicalised Islam that encourages violence and senseless killing in the name of religion. France is wounded, in a state of shock that such an attack could have occurred in the heart of the nation’s capital. But there is also mounting anger and a determination to fight brutality and religious extremism.
Day after day the French have taken to the streets with hundreds of thousands marching in an overwhelming outpouring of grief. They march in dignity and peace, declaring their attachment to the nation’s republican values and to the principle of freedom of expression.
Last Wednesday, as news of the attack on Charlie Hebdo spread, I made my way to the Place de la République. There was an eerie silence in the vast square. I approached the statue of Marianne, the allegory that symbolises the French Republic. The Goddess of Liberty holds high the flame of freedom and espouses Liberty, Equality and Fraternity but she also represents Reason.
In the bitter January cold, ordinary citizens spontaneously came together and with some 40,000 people jamming the gigantic central square, the chanting began….I am Charlie. Photos of the slain cartoonists and journalists were put up on the monument. The crowd held up pens and pencils, small, hastily printed A4 notices. All read: I am Charlie.
There was a startling solemnity and dignity to the rally, which was peaceful, calm marked by sorrow but also determination. No minister added fuel to the fire by declaring that “where there is action there is bound to be reaction”. Yes, there were sporadic attacks on mosques — anti-Muslim graffiti on walls, a grenade thrown into the courtyard of a mosque in Le Mans for instance, random shots fired from a distance, but these were minor, amateurish incidents. Instead, French interior minister Bernard Cazeneuve issued a stern warning against any attacks on Muslims saying all the inhabitants of France, whatever their religion or origin would be protected.
Certainly there are some in India who say that the journalists and cartoonists of Charlie Hebdo “asked for it”. That caricaturists should show “due respect” for the religious feelings of others. But France is a country that has produced writers like Molière and Voltaire, Sartre or Camu who have defined themselves by a mission to challenge received wisdom or State authority. There is a great tradition of scepticism, anti-clericalism and critical thought in this society. There are no sacred cows; everything is open to comment, scrutiny, derision, irony and satire.
Charlie Hebdo belonged to that age-old tradition. Irreverent, funny, provocative, sometimes crude but always hard-hitting, rarely missing its mark, Charlie Hebdo attacked all that smacked of pious smugness, venality, intolerance, superstition or downright stupidity while upholding the principles and values of the Enlightenment — secularism, tolerance, human rights or probity in public life. There was real editorial talent at Charlie Hebdo. You could have a difference of opinion with them, but you had to admire the quality of the drawings, the fine rapier thrusts of their pen, the extraordinary dexterity and brushwork of the drawings.
Charb (Stephane Charbonnier), the Editor-in Chief of Charlie Hebdo who I last met on November 22 when we featured together in a TV current affairs programme was quite sanguine about the threats that loomed over Charlie and its band of musketeers. He cheerily informed me that the threats had not receded. If at all, they had increased. “Are you not afraid”? I asked. “Who isn’t?” he said. “But no one forced me to become a journalist or cartoonist. Did anyone force you to cover the wars in the Balkans? We do this out of conviction.”
Despite the fact that France has been dealt a body blow, the attacks against Charlie Hebdo are unlikely to dent this spirit of rebellion. The French wish to express their support for freedom of expression, even absolute freedom of expression, to reject a narrow, normative or restrictive definition of religion or society.
Most French citizens believe in the idea of tolerance and secularism, equality justice and freedom, which are the cornerstones of the French political project. And yet, there is no doubt that there is growing Islamophobia in this country.
France has failed to successfully integrate its six-million-strong Muslim population, the largest in Europe. Many immigrant families, most of them from North Africa’s Maghreb region of Algeria, Tunisia, Morocco see themselves living in relative deprivation in deprived ghettoes in the capital’s far-flung suburbs. Youngsters living in these areas and with Muslim sounding names find it difficult to get jobs.
An experiment conducted by an NGO was telling. It sent out 1,800 CVs of highly qualified young Muslims from the suburbs to prospective employers. Not one received an interview call. The same letters sent with Christian names and inner city addresses received very positive feedback. The suburbs are home to a large percentage of school drop-outs who take to drug dealing, petty crime or poorly paid jobs. Self-esteem is low and the lure of radical Islam, which gives them a feeling of self-worth, appears inevitable. The suburbs are vast derelict zones of run-down tenement blocks, inferior schools and brutal policing. Many young, semi-literate Muslims who are second or third generation French are radicalised either in prison, on the Internet or by fanatical Imams in local mosques. The Kouachi brothers are typical examples of this intellectual, cultural and economic poverty.
France, like many other European nations is experiencing an unprecedented economic crisis. Anti-immigrant feelings are running high. Leaders like Marine Le Pen from the extreme Right-wing xenophobic National Front party have made huge gains in European and municipal elections. This episode is likely to add not just to growing Islamophobia but also to the anxiety already felt by the Muslim community.
But, as Sunday’s mammoth march shows, genuine republicans in France have decided to fight the forces of division and intolerance, whether those of religious extremism or Right-wing fascism. By bringing millions into the street in the presence of some 50 heads of state and government including Israel’s Benjamin Netanyahu and the Palestinian Authority’s Mahmoud Abbas, France has given a fitting response to the forces of religious extremism and Right-wing xenophobia. This is country that has tremendous moral resilience and a profound belief in the values of the Enlightenment. It is hoped that at this hour of peril those values will prevail.
Vaiju Naravane is a commentator on international affairs, broadcaster and publisher based in Paris
The views expressed by the author are personal