A letter to Charlie

Posted on 26. January 2015

by Maël Baseilhac

Mael BaseilhacFear for the Muslims of France

Dear Charlie,

As someone currently living and working in a Muslim country, my first reaction to the latest extremist attacks on free speech in France on Wednesday 7 January was fear. Strangely enough, it wasn’t fear for my security as a Frenchman or for the French population as a whole. I was rather overwhelmed by a feeling of fear and despair for the Muslim population of France.

Don’t get me wrong; I was devastated by the attacks on the editors, cartoonists and writers at Charlie Hebdo. The cruelty, the savagery and cowardice of this act made me burst into tears. However, once the emotion started to dissipate, my first thoughts on the events were driven by the apprehension of the dramatic consequences such an iniquitous act would have on feelings of national unity and the growing nauseating attempts of nationalist European parties to divide populations over political-motivated immigration and religious debates.

The Pandora box is now open

The immediate public-spirited reaction of the French population to the terror attacks at Charlie Hebdo was grandiose. The spontaneous and sudden outburst of indignation mobilised over 3.5 million on 11 January in the streets of France under the famous motto “Je suis Charlie”.

However, only three days after the spontaneous Republican gatherings around the core values not only of the French nation but of the European Union as a whole, political recuperation and demagogic manoeuvring took over. French far-right party leader Marine Le Pen publicly linked radical Islamism to immigration. For instance, Mrs. Le Pen demanded the immediate suspension of the Schengen Agreement and a revision of the code of nationality. And in order to find a voice among the numerous political responses to these tragic events, nationalist political branches are caught up in an escalation of uninhibited extremist proposals stigmatising Muslim immigration.

This tragic trend unfortunately goes far beyond the borders of my country and Europe’s populist parties try to take advantage from the Paris terrorist attacks. The killing at Charlie Hebdo took place in an already very hostile environment towards immigrants, and Muslims in particular.

In fact, European anti-immigrant parties did not even wait to find out the identity of the attackers before pointing the finger at migrants, refugees and Islam. In a statement, Dutch far-right politician Geert Wilders of the Party for Freedom wanted to “close our borders, reinstate border controls […] and stop immigration from Islamic countries”. Mr. Wilders is not an exception; Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orban directly referred to the foreign origins of the families of the three terrorists and argued on a national Hungarian TV channel that economic immigration was to blame and that it only generated “trouble and threat” for the European people. The Deputy Speaker of Italy’s Parliament, Roberto Calderoli, linked the attacks to the Italian operation to save migrants in the Mediterranean, Mare Nostrum. As for PEGIDA, the Patriotic Europeans Against the Islamisation of the West, the German notorious extremist movement grew stronger after the attacks in France and multiplied protests and demonstrations have sprung up throughout the country.

In France, islamophobic aggressions are soaring

The media take pride in portraying the multiple demonstrations in France following the killings at Charlie Hebdo and the hostage-taking at the supermarket. The whole nation uniting under the banner of “Je suis Charlie”, against barbarity and radicalism, was a very powerful response to the symbolic attack on the satirical newspaper and the fundamental freedom of expression.

However, how many articles show the reality of the numerous anti-Muslim attacks that followed the terror attacks?

According to a study published in the French news magazine Le Point, over 50 anti-Muslim acts have been listed in the four days after the killings at Charlie Hebdo. The French Council of the Muslim Cult declared it was appalled by such dramatic figures, which do not even take into account the region of Paris. In fact, these terrible acts are in total contradiction to the universal feature of the Sunday protest and the condemnation by the Muslim community of the terror attacks.

What do these reactions say about our society?

French society is ill and our government knows that. On 20 January, Prime Minister Manuel Valls publicly referred to the French suburbs as “ghettos” to underline the severity of the situation in the outskirts of major cities. He used the term of “territorial, social and ethnic Apartheid” to emphasise the major rupture in French unity. These words are extremely harsh and yet meaningful when heard from such an important figure in the government. It reveals how leaders perceive society and how they intend to address what is portrayed as a prolonged social crisis in France. Restoring dialogue and unity around the fundamental Republican values will undoubtedly be one of the major challenges facing European societies.

Moral and cultural rearmament

In the wake of the terror attacks, many politicians made public commitments in favour of stronger military control, closer monitoring of French citizens returning from Syria, greater surveillance of online propaganda etc. Some even spoke of a French Patriot Act. Arguably, the first reactions to such terrible attacks are always security-driven.

However, among French intellectuals the attacks at Charlie Hebdo resonate more as a cultural 9/11 than a declaration of war. In fact, the series of terrorist attacks in France over the past years reveal to the world the deeply dysfunctional French system. Thus, it is utterly utopic to think that a solely militarily response will be sufficient to heal the wounds of our society. Instead, I am in favour of what Gilles Kepel called a “moral rearmament”. And to achieve this objective, education and cultural development are the two main pillars.

How can we explain that in several primary classrooms, pupils have disregarded the minute of silence? Have showed support to the terrorists and argued that the cartoonists deserved what happened to them?

There is a blatant identity crisis plaguing parts of the population because French society has not succeeded in gathering parts of its population around the core values of the French Republic. On the contrary, political calculations have exacerbated the gap and played on divisions and fear for political gain. This trend, as we have demonstrated previously, is unfortunately not a French specificity.

The rise of populist parties throughout Europe and the attacks against the cartoonists at Charlie Hebdo share the same roots. It’s about time European leaders face their responsibilities and refrain from pointing the finger at the usual scapegoats. To quote Jonathan Laurence, “Governments should continue to pursue policies that root Muslims’ place at home in their democratic contexts to ensure that the lure of foreign utopias remains less attractive than the opportunities at home in France and the rest of Western Europe”.

Charlie my friend, your outburst of indignation was salutary. Thank you for it. Now beware of the many threats, the fear and the ignorance that will insidiously spread ahead of you. Always remember, think for yourself.