As vigils are held worldwide for the murdered Charlie Hebdo journalists killed by Al-Qaeda gunmen last week, people are still in shock over how such a tragedy could have taken place in one of the most powerful democracies in the world.
While some decry Charlie Hebdo as a racist, Islamophobic magazine, others are portraying the journalists as martyrs who defended our right to freedom of expression until the bitter end. Here are eight things we need to look at further.
1. This isn’t just about ‘freedom of speech’.
The media over the past week has unflinchingly depicted the murders as being a result of the ongoing battle between freedom of speech and supposedly unenlightened Muslim reactionaries. This narrative is convenient, particularly for Europe’s growing far-right parties, but also for governing bodies seeking to encroach on personal freedom in the form of draconian (and often, racist) anti-terror laws.
It also distracts away from other tensions bubbling under the surface of European society at large.
2. Cultural racism and Islamophobia are alive at the heart of French society…
Since 9/11 and the Iraq and Afghanistan wars, Islamophobia has been on the increase across Europe, and France is no exception. According to a survey done by Ipsos, 74% of French people believed Islam was ‘incompatible’ with French society. It is no surprise then that Marine Le Pen, head of France’s far-right party Front National, was awarded with 17.6% of the vote when standing as a presidential candidate in 2012.
The mistreatment of both African and Asian ethnic minorities by the elite is embedded even within the structure of its capital: the ghettos outside of Paris- the banlieues – are infamous for being hotbeds of crime, poverty and police brutality, kept well away from the glamour and wealth at the city’s centre.
3. …which it disguises behind ‘secularism’…
This cultural racism is also prevalent in its so-called ‘egalitarian’ institutions: though France’s ‘secular values’ hold religion to be a private matter, France became the first European state to ban the burqa. At the same time, it holds state-sponsored ceremonies exclusively in Catholic spaces, such as Notre Dame.
4. …with a dark history of colonial brutality.
This is also not forgetting France’s history as a brutal colonial force, most notably in Algeria. The Paris Massacre of 1961, swept under the carpet for decades, serves to undermine the country’s reputation as a squeaky-clean liberal democracy.
5. Some monsters are home grown.
In light of the above, as well as the reports on the numbers of European Muslims joining the ranks of ISIS, the massacre wasn’t an isolated event but symptomatic of a growing global trend. Jihadist groups, such as ISIS and Al-Qaeda, exploit the anger, frustration and alienation of people pushed to the margins of society.
The massacre calls for some introspection as to whether the oppressive nature of our current system produces the sense of alienation and displacement which makes certain members of the Muslim community receptive to Jihadist recruitment.
6. The murdered Charlie Hebdo cartoonists believed in a fairer society…
The four cartoonists at the core of Charlie Hebdo were hardly nestled close to the bosom of the French far-right.
Georges Wolinski had previously published cartoons in Libération, a French centre-left newspaper founded by Jean-Paul Sartre in 1973. Bernard Verlhac (Tignous) authored A Bunch of Rich People, in which he mocked the hideous monstrosity of the ruling elite. Jean Cabut was associated with the anarchist movement and critical of the French establishment. Stéphane Charbonnier – Charb- the editor of Charlie Hebdo, had worked for the communist paper l’Humanite with his fellow Charlie Hebdo journalists, as well as other left-leaning publications.
7. …but didn’t always attack the least oppressed.
The Charlie Hebdo cartoonists were nearly all white, middle-class, well educated men. They had privileges in society that weren’t on par with the Muslims living in squalor in France’s slums. While Charlie Hebdo satirized a wide range of topics, it rather narrowly focused on Islam, which appeared to some as a relentless, obsessive mockery of those on the bottom rungs of society.
8. The massacre was bad for everyone.
While the families of the dead grieve for their loved ones, the Muslim community also braces itself against violent backlash. Just a day after the massacre, grenades were thrown at a mosque in what was the first of a number of revenge attacks against mosques. If ‘sharpening the contradictions’ between Muslims and French society was the motivation behind the massacre, then it has certainly succeeded.