Why France Must be Cautious in How it Responds to the Charlie Hebdo Attacks
By carrying out their heinous act, the gunmen of the massacre at Charlie Hebdo magazine hope to reestablish an “us versus them” narrative crudely pitting Muslims into a further retrenchment of a black-and-white storyline that depict Islam and the West as incompatible paradigms that simply cannot coexist.
These extremists have attempted to gain a certain credibility amongst those who are already angered by western policies. But France must not fall into the extremist trap who want to elicit an indiscriminate state crackdown on all Muslims to prove that France does indeed hate them and their religion, offering an easier ability for retaliation. A hasty and hysterical response by the government against its Muslim minority will only reinforce the idea that the state isn’t interested in apprehending the few violent individuals who pose a threat. Rather, the perceived narrative will be that the government is using this incident to indiscriminately attack Muslims, whom they hate out of pure prejudice. Feeding into such an assumption will only further antagonize the Muslim minority in France who already feel that outlets like Charlie Hebdo are abusing the freedom of speech as a means to disrespect their religion.
Violent extremists have prosecuted this confrontation by killing innocent people, while misappropriating religious scripture in ways that fit their grotesque justifications. An important point often missed as the public is inundated with images from the Paris massacre or similar incidents is that, globally the vast majority of the victims of jihadi violence have been Muslims. According to the U.S. State Department, between 82% and 97% of all victims of terrorism are Muslim. On the same day of the Paris massacre, 38 people died in Yemen at the hands of extremist militants. One of the twelve victims in Paris was a Muslim police officer named Ahmed Merabet, who essentially died in defense of the magazine’s freedom to mock and insult his religion.
The truth is, extremism feeds off of extremism, and is meant to provoke a response which can be used to justify the perpetrator’s own worldview. This is why France and the rest of Europe must work hard to avoid a rash response that could lead to further violence. Right wing politicians and ideologues like Marine Le Pen of the Front National have already started to insert the massacre into their own political narratives. Le Pen, who polled very well near the end of 2014 as France’s next possible president, has tied the Paris attack to immigration, among other issues in her platform. She has also stated that France needs to set up a national referendum on whether to reinstate the death penalty. Her popularity is unlikely to fall after what happened in Paris, while groups like the U.K. Independence Party of Britain, or lesser-known organizations like Germany’s Patriotic Europeans Against Islamization of the West and Sweden’s Democrats Party will also likely benefit from such attacks.
The more western governments indiscriminately target or kill Muslims as part of its “war on terror”, the easier it will be for extremists to hijack Muslims grievances to propagate their own violent ideologies. By having foresight, and being judicious in carrying out a response the French government has a chance to deflate extremist narratives and ideologies by discrediting the extremists’ depictions of the West. A prudent response will also highlight that there is no epic struggle between faiths or civilizations for global supremacy. Rather, the struggle is one where all just and tolerant people work to isolate and defang those who want to destroy hopes of coexistence.
When Anders Behring Breivik killed over 70 people in Norway in 2011 for being “soft on Islam,” the Norwegian authorities didn’t unleash an indiscriminate “war on terror” against Christians or Jews in an attempt at counter-terrorism. Rather, Breivik was tried and convicted in a court of law like the criminal that he is. This is the same logic and example that the rest of the West would be wise to follow. An act of violent intolerance was countered by a sober, sensible policy to treat terrorism as a criminal act, instead of some sort of existential or apocalyptic doomsday reality.