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My wife Elisabeth, like most of the French, has been overwhelmed by Thursday’s bloody attack on Charlie Hebdo, the French satiric weekly. Two terrorists gunned down ten journalists, as well as one policeman and an unarmed guard. “I feel it’s the end of an era in France,” says Elisabeth. “And it’s out fault. We’ve accepted many things that we shouldn’t have. We’ve let people come here who don’t respect us. They’ve taken our kindness for weakness.”
After watching the non-stop bulletins during the evening, she was up at 3 A.M. to follow the news. The government had declared a terrorist alert at the highest level. The two armed killers were still at large.
“Liberty Assassinated” screams today’s front page of the conservative paper Le Figaro.
“War” clarions its editorial. “It’s a war, a real war, carried out not by soldiers but by shadowy assassins, methodical, organized killers whose quite savagery chills the blood.”
France’s estimated 5 million Muslims—the largest Muslim population in Europe– represent about 10% of the French. In recent years, they’ve been increasingly viewed as an encroaching danger, who would ultimately transform France into a Sharia state. A new novel, featured on Charlie Hebdo’s latest cover, described just such a radical Muslim takeover in 2022.
Many–including myself–scoff at such fears. But there has been talk from dark corners of lurking civil war.
The bloody scenario played out in Paris plays right into that nightmare.
A grim-looking French President François Hollande went on television to reassure the country. He and his ministers are attempting to demonstrate they’re really on top of things. They’ve heightened the terrorist alert, called in more police and military. The terrorists won’t get away Hollande declared. He emphasized the need for the country to stay united— “rassemblement” was the keyword.
He made no reference whatsoever to religion–“radical Islam.” Or “jihad”. Just terrorism.
On the other hand, the leader of the far right Front National, Marine Le Pen, a long-time foe of immigration and advocate of “French values,” minces no words.
She did not want to lump French Muslims, who are attached to France and its values together with “those who think they can kill in the name of Islam.” But that distinction, she said, should not be an excuse for not taking action. “The time of denial, of hypocrisy, is no longer possible–the enemy is radical Islam.”
Her party had already been leading Hollande’s Socialists in recent polls. Thursday’s butchery can only boost her popularity.
Indeed, today’s editorial in Le Figaro echoes Le Pen, as well as my wife and, I suspect, a huge number of French: “For too long, in the name of perverted humanism, and a distorted anti-racism, we have acted complacently towards our worst enemy. These ‘lost children of jihad’, these fanatics unleashed on the Internet, but also these various pressure groups, attired in their native garb, keeping to their ethnic groups, who conspire openly against our country and our security. Against those ones we must strike. Without weakness, nor half measures. When the war is here, we have to win it.”
Many mainstream Muslim religious leaders in France have also spoken out condemning the Charlie Hebdo attack.
Around 9 this morning a long-time Saudi friend also called. “This was an act of absolute madness,” he said. “Those people are crazy. I hope that the other countries of the world will finally put pressure on the government in Saudi Arabia and other Gulf states to change the crazy education system in our country. What ISIS says is no different than what is taught in our Saudi Schools–and practiced in our judicial system. It’s the same thing.
“The government says they have modernized, but they’re still working from the same basic ideals, promoting the same Wahabi outlooks. They’ve supposedly been trying to weed the fanatics out, to become more moderate. But it’s just a façade. When it is useful for them in their foreign policy to make use of the radicals, like in Syria, they do it. To change things is going to take generations.”
By chance, we had planned the morning after the attack to take the Eurostar from Paris to London. As we drive through the wet, gray streets, the taxi driver is listening to a call-in show on Europe 1. A Muslim caller, named Mohammed, originally from Morocco, but now French, is in tears. “What has happened has nothing to do with Islam,” he says. “This is not my religion. All the French must unite against this.’
A French man, married to a Moroccan woman, calls to say how he was obliged to pick up his 8-year-old daughter from school this morning after she was stoned by several classmates. A Jewish woman calls in to express the hope that this will not lead to generalized attacks against the Muslim population..
We arrive at the Gare du Nord. The usual entryway is closed. We pull our bags around to the front and have just entered the crowded station when we hear shouts, and a line of police and military move forward ordering everyone to immediately leave the huge station. A suspicious suitcase has been found. Hundreds of passengers are herded back out into the rain. Fifteen minutes later, the threat apparently disposed of, we’re admitted back into the station. As we haul our bags towards the elevator, my wife strikes up a conversation with a French man of Iranian origin. “We have to clean up this country,” he says grimly.
Five olive-skinned Roma women, garbed in long colorful skirts and kerchiefs, enter the station. Small groups of Roma, often including children, regularly loiter around the Gare de Nord, their presence, notoriously linked to purse snatchings and pick pockets. I can feel many of the people around me bristle. Some glare. They’re one of the principle targets of the anti-immigrant sentiment that has been bourgeoning in France and across Europe over the last few years —a sentiment that everyone now fears will be inflamed by the bloody killings at Charlie Hebdo.
The authorities now know the names of the two killers. They are brothers, Said (34) and Cherif Kouachi (32), born in France of parents from North Africa. Cherif, it turns out had already been arrested in 2005 and served time for participating in a ring that was recruiting young French Muslims to go to Iraq to fight the Americans. In fact, according to press reports during his trial, he had claimed that what drove him to take up jihad were the pictures of U.S. troops brutalizing Muslim prisoners at Abu Ghraib.
According to Patrick Pelloux, a regular contributor to Charlie Hebdo, the surviving journalists are determined to continue publishing the weekly. They’ve been offered facilities at another French paper.
It’s so terribly ironic, said Pelloux, that fanatics who produce horrific videos of themselves beheading their prisoners, cannot look at a few simple humorous drawings.
When our train arrived at St. Pancras Station in London there were more armed police around than is normally the case. And on the evening news shows, the talk was all about Paris, Charlie Hebdo, and whether the same thing could happen here.
* * *
One of the editorial cartoons provoked by the Charlie Hebdo attack depicts an airplane flying towards two gigantic pencils, evoking the horrific 2001 attack on the twin towers. Indeed, many here view the attack on the French satirical weekly as France’s 9/11.
Which is exactly what the terrorists want.
What would truly be a disaster now would be for France (and Europe) to react to the Charlie Hebdo attack in the same blind, mindless fashion that America’s leaders reacted to 9/11. Nothing would more benefit al-Qaeda and its modern spin-offs.
The U.S. reaction plunged America into horrendously bloody and incredibly expensive conflicts on the other side of the globe with peoples and cultures it knows precious little about. More than twelve years later, America’s drones and Special Forces are scattered over the planet. Though Bin Laden was long ago killed, like a cancerous cell, al-Qaeda—and its even more brutal spin-offs—have spread across the Middle East and Africa. For every jihadi leader killed in Yemen, Somalia, Mali or Iraq, ten more seem to take their place.
Just as disastrous, America’s own vaunted traditions of freedom and liberty have also been victims to the overwrought reaction to 9/11.
Meanwhile, many of the U.S. reactions, like the widespread use of drones and the shame of Guantanamo—have been al-Qaeda’s best recruiting posters.
Indeed, one of the two brothers responsible for the Charlie Hebdo attack claimed back in 2005 when he was arrested for recruiting French jihadis to fight in Iraq against the U.S., that he’d been provoked to action by photos of American soldiers torturing Muslim prisoners at Abu Ghraib.
It’s thus naïve to think that the only motive for the attack on Charlie Hebdo was to exact vengeance for the publication of cartoons mocking Mohammed. As Juan Cole has pointed out, by far the more important goal was to inflame the already volatile sentiments of race and religion in France—as well as the rest of Europe.
The strategy being to strengthen the far right movements of formerly shunned xenophobic leaders like Marine Lepen, who have long campaigned against immigration and warned darkly of the coming Muslim takeover of France and the rest of Europe.
At the same time, by provoking widespread repression and islamophobia, the terrorists hope to convince France’s Muslims that they no longer have a place in the nation. In fact, the great majority of those Muslims, though on the lowest rungs of the economic ladder and often discriminated against, have long shunned radical Islam. Despite everything, they have insisted on identifying themselves as French above all.
It would be a tragedy if that were to change.
Despite the impressive popular demonstrations of solidarity with Charlie Hebdo and France’s democratic traditions, there have also been a rising number of attacks on Muslim targets, and calls from the right for action.
As I have previously written, many now feel that their country is at war with radical Islam. The danger is that, despite the warnings of editorialists and political leaders, in that “war” the distinctions will get blurred—the distinctions between a radical Islamists advocating terror, and Muslims as a whole.
The danger is that, over the coming days, French leaders, reacting to public fear and outrage, and desperate to compete with Marine Le Pen, will push for ever more Draconian measures against immigrants in general, Muslims in particular. Those newly radicalized Muslim youth would provide more recruits for jihad.
But what can the French authorities do? The two brothers responsible for the Charlie Hebdo attacks were already well known to French police. Incredibly, both were also on the no-fly list in the United States. Similarly, Mohammed Merah, another young French Muslim of Algerian decent who shot down seven people near Toulouse in 2013, had also been on the French police’s watch list.
The problem is there are perhaps thousands of young Muslims in this country who have any kind of links with jihad. What’s to be done? Put them all in some kind of preventative detention? Deport them all? French citizens? For what crime?
For years, French leaders have talked about creating more jobs to help assimilate the millions of young unemployed Muslims into French society? Little has been done. France’s economy is a shambles. The unemployment is rate more than 10%, probably 30% in the poorer banlieues.
Meanwhile, France which has a huge budget deficit, now has more than 3500 troops combating radical Islamic groups in the wilds of the Sahel of North Africa, and other contingents in Djibouti, the Central African Republic, and Afghanistan.
Not to mention French fighter planes taking part in sorties against ISIS in Iraq. (That’s an ultimate irony or sorts: In 2003 one of the reasons George W.Bush gave for invading Iraq was that Saddam was linked to al-Qaeda. That turned out to be false. Eleven years later however, largely due to the political devastation wrought by the U.S. and its aftermath, ISIS a more violent group than al-Qaeda itself, controls a huge swathe of the country. )
Bottom line, France today is at a desperate turning point. Its leaders must somehow crack down on the undeniable threat of jihad from French Muslims, without at the same time alienating millions of its Muslim citizens who have nothing to do with radical Islam.
They must continue to emphasize the unity of the nation, resist the mounting calls for Draconian new laws, and the temptation to adopt the islamophobic slogans of the far right. They must also avoid getting mired even deeper into military adventures into distant lands.
If they fail, they play right into the hands of those who carried out the horrific attack on Charlie Hebdo this week.
A much tougher and long–term challenge is for the Islamic world to carry out the kind of modernizing transformation that a few—but nearly not enough–of their leaders have been advocating for years. Who knows how long that could take?