Charlie Hebdo massacre exposes fault lines in Europe and triggers realignments in political equations
Shreerupa Mitra-Jha | January 24, 2015
As I walked towards the United Nations Office at Geneva (UNOG), a melancholic woman stopped me and asked: “Tu es Charlie (Are you Charlie)?”, referring to ‘Je suis Charlie (I am Charlie)’; the phrase that has caught the imagination of people across the globe. From a person on the street to Islamophobics to Hollywood stars to talk-show hosts to Mark Zuckerberg, all are claiming to be Charlies. While it has become a metaphor for freedom of expression and speech, what it really alludes to is: I am not afraid. Because Europe is afraid and shaken to its core.
On January 7, two terrorists allegedly working on behalf of Al-Qaeda Yemen stormed the premises of the satirical magazine Charlie Hebdo and killed its top journalists and cartoonists. Following the Rabelaisian tradition, Charlie Hebdo celebrated the grotesque and the bawdy, thus subverting and critiquing established structures. The magazine routinely makes fun of top politicians, celebrities and religious leaders, including Prophet Mohammad. The killing was purportedly to avenge a cartoon of the Prophet on the cover of the magazine.
Two days later the same terrorists killed four hostages at a kosher supermarket in a Parisian suburb. Seventeen people, excluding the terrorists were killed in the incidents.
Europol (European Union’s law enforcement agency) chief Rob Wainwright told British parliamentarians on January 13 that around 5,000 Europeans had joined jihadist militant ranks and posed a threat to their country of origin if they returned.
The widening cracks
The Charlie Hebdo massacre has exposed the fault lines in European multiculturalism – it seems blatantly unprepared to handle what has been a half-baked assimilation of a kaleidoscope of ethnicities.
The clash of multiple cultures is being increasingly played out on the streets of Europe with devastating implications for social cohesion. Consider the reactions in some states after January 7.
Germany had a record number of participants – more than 25,000 – in the Pegida rally in the northern town of Dresden. Pegida - Patriotische Europaer Gegen die Islamisierung des Abendlandes (Patriotic Europeans Against the Islamisation of the West) was founded in October 2014 by Lutz Bachmann. It has a 19-point manifesto for protecting Germany’s Judeo-Christian culture and is an umbrella group for the German right-wingers. It is increasingly gaining supporters as the perceived threat from Islam grows, and copycat organisations have spawned across Europe.
Pegida has capitalised well on two related incidents – the first, of course, is the attack on Charlie Hebdo and later an arson attack on a German newspaper, Hamburger Morgenpost, that republished controversial cartoons of the Prophet Mohammad which had originally been printed by Charlie Hebdo in 2006.
Apart from the challenges of combating home-grown terrorists, the job of controlling the rise of Pegida is beginning to unnerve the German authorities as they call out to civilians to boycott such movements. Angela Merkel, the powerful chancellor of Germany, said on January 12, “Islam is a part of Europe. I am the chancellor of all Germans”, and called Pegida supporters xenophobic and racist. She joined a Muslim rally for tolerance two days later.
While sentiments against Islam in Europe are gaining momentum, the tide against such movements is also gaining strength. Thus, according to the BBC, the anti-Pegida rallies last Monday drew 7,000 in Dresden, 30,000 in Leipzig, 20,000 in Munich and 19,000 in Hanover.
Pegida has gained enough salience for UN high commissioner for human rights Zeid Ra’ad Al Hussein to state in a commemoration ceremony for the January 7 incident at UNOG that “neither Islam nor multiculturalism is to be blamed as some right-wingers have pointed out” for the Paris tragedy.
The question of immigration has in recent decades become a matter of intense public debate in Europe. Germany, France and the UK, in particular, have been grappling with issues related to immigration. Immigrant communities, especially where there are large Muslim populations, are being increasingly viewed with distrust. France has the highest ratio of Muslims in Europe, constituting 7.5% of its total population. Germany has four million or 5% of the population of which three million are Turks, and the UK has three million, also constituting 5% of its total population. The UK has been scarred ever since the 7/7 attacks.
The politics of peace
The peace march in Paris held on January 11 had upwards of three million participants with more than 50 foreign leaders. The leaders joined the march for reasons as different as chalk and cheese – least of all for showing solidarity for freedom of speech and expression. As a matter of fact, some of the leaders gathered at Paris vociferously support repressive regimes in their country.
Benjamin Netanyahu, the Israeli prime minister and one of the participants at the Paris rally, called on the French Jews to return to Israel. According to some reports, apprehending this very situation, Elysees Palace had specifically asked Netanyahu not to participate, but he decided to go ahead in any case.
The Palestinian president, Mahmoud Abbas, was also present at the rally. The French-Israeli relations are considerably strained after a French parliamentary vote recognising Palestine as a state. In 2014, France has been the biggest source of new immigrants to Israel.
Turkish president Recep Tayyip Erdogan strongly criticised Netanyahu for “daring” to attend the anti-terror solidarity march, accusing him of leading “state terrorism” against Palestinians.
The lone slain woman in the Charlie Hebdo killings, Elsa Cayat, was a Jew. Her cousin, Beatrice Cayat, told a TV channel that the matter was unfairly being described only as an attack against the freedom of speech while the issue of Jews being targeted was sidelined – her sister was killed only because she was a Jew. Beatrice Cayat said that the younger Cayat had been receiving threats for a while that called her a “dirty Jew” who should stop working for Charlie Hebdo.
While Francois Hollande, the French president, has called for an immediate stop to these “anti-Semitic attacks”, Jews in Europe are clamouring for more security. Belgium’s umbrella group of Jewish French-speaking communities called CCOJB (Le Comité de coordination des organisations juives de Belgique) urged the Belgian government and other European Union member-states to beef up security around Jewish institutions.
Jewish security professionals from across Europe gathered in Brussels to drill for a scenario in which a car bomb explodes outside a synagogue three days after the Charlie Hebdo incident. The European Jewish Congress (EJC) also called for mechanisms to ensure uniform policies to prevent and fight anti-Semitic violence. Four people killed in the kosher supermarket were sent to Israel for burial.
A prominent French leader who was excluded from the peace march was Marine Le Pen, the leader of the far-right National Front (FN) party. She said that the government had not formally invited her to the Sunday march in Paris to which the Socialist Party official who was in charge of organising the rally, François Lamy, said that “as a party that has been dividing the French people for years and stigmatises the French according to their ethnic background or religion, the FN had no place there.” FN, which thrives on the hostility against France’s Muslim population, joined a march of about 1,000 people in southern French town of Beaucaire, which has an FN mayor.
Jean-Marie, father of Marie Le Pen who formerly headed FN, told the Huffington Post’s French edition: “I am not Charlie Hebdo, I am Charlie Martel,” referring to Charles Martel, who defeated the invading army of Emir Abdul Rahman in 732.
Though Hollande’s approval ratings have gone up after the January 7 and 9 massacres according to the most recent polling from the French pollster OpinionWay, he is perceived as someone who does not take a strong stance on homeland security. Nicolas Sarkozy, former president and the leader of the right-of-centre party Union for a Popular Movement (UMP), who stood a short distance away from Hollande at the peace march, stands to gain electorally given his tough talking in security circles and statements against criminals. His career, dogged by corruption charges, has a chance of revival.
Sarkozy told the Financial Times, “Immigration is not linked to terrorism but it certainly complicates things. We can’t go on like that. Immigration, which we have so much difficulty in limiting, which then fuels ghettoisation, which then allows individuals such as the Charlie Hebdo terrorists to sneak in....” Sarkozy has been trying to lure Le Pen’s votes.
Turkish prime minister Ahmet Davutoglu, according to the AFP, hailed the unprecedented rally against terror in Paris as a strong message to the world, but added he would expect a similar reaction to attacks on Muslims and “Islamophobia”. He said that the attackers had not grown up in Muslim countries but “in Paris” and it was this environment that should be examined; referring to ghettoisation of Muslims in major French cities where unemployment is up to 40 percent. Davutoglu has called on “Muslim Turks” to hold their heads high if they face any radical and Islamophobic reaction in the aftermath of the Paris attacks. The Turkish prime minister is particularly intolerant of cartoonists and has sued many for portraying him ‘dishonourably’ in their works. Turkey has more reporters in jail than even Iran and China.
The crux of the matter negotiates not only freedom and its limits, it is more importantly about negotiating fear in the European psyche and how actors choose to deal with their demons. Liberal societies in western Europe are facing a dilemma on how best to confront violence in the name of religion without the burden of victimising communities while battling growing resentment between communities. It is a task that will put to test the skills of seasoned and liberal politicians like Merkel and Hollande.
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