The attacks which occurred in Paris last month have raised a number of questions and controversies. The events brought the place of Islam and freedom of speech and the press to the forefront of societal debate. Is Islam compatible with western liberal values? Is Islam a religion of peace? What are the limits on freedom of speech, if any?
In a typical media frenzy, the French and international press were quick to turn to polemics. Firstly, the same day as the shooting in Paris, Boko Haram was reported to have massacred as many as 2000 civilians. The bloodbath received little immediate coverage, as journalists privileged the Charlie Hebdo and Kosher grocery store attacks. Accusations were levelled at Western media for considering the loss of French lives as more regrettable and newsworthy. This type of argument is pure politically-correct opportunism—a way to pat yourself on the back by making others look bad. The issue is not one of equivalency or drawing parallels. Events such as the atrocities committed in Nigeria are despicable and inhuman, but also commonplace in a region that has been afflicted by sectarian violence for years. An attack against civilians on French soil by French nationals, on the other hand, is not comparable and did not have the same political and symbolic weight.
French society as whole also reacted somewhat hypocritically. Charlie Hebdo was an unpopular satirical newspaper with a declining readership, whose only saving grace was its unwavering dedication to impertinence and daringness in the name of freedom of speech and of the press. The columnists and caricaturists at Charlie were regularly taken to court for defamation and libel, yet few people spoke out in their defence. Even after their offices were set ablaze in 2011, a section of the French intelligentsia were quick to point out that when you play with fire (no pun intended) you get what is coming to you. Charlie was derided for its insolence and poor taste. With such a backdrop, the popular mobilization that followed the attacks seems out of place. After all, Charlie Hebdo was anti-establishment and anti-conformity. A republican unity rally, the largest in modern French history, couples with the Notre-Dame Cathedral ringing its bells in honour of the dead left caricaturists Luz and Willem, two of the survivors, gawking. “We puke on all these people who, all of a sudden, say they are our friends” replied Willem, when questioned about the display of political unity, highlighting the irony of it all.
Politicians and activists from all sides of the political spectrum were quick to capitalize on the terror attacks. “This unanimity is useful to [President] Hollande to bring together the nation. It is useful for Marine Le Pen to ask for capital punishment,” added Willem. Such insinuations of political opportunism have been felt more keenly on the traditional and extreme French right, hardly ever stalwart defenders of freedom of speech. French satirical newspapers like Charlie Hebdo or Le Canard enchaîné don’t discriminate between left and right, yet they have a natural propensity to berate the scandal-prone conservative elite, inspiring a sense of siege mentality to those that come under yoke of their pens and pencils. The irony is all more palpable when one watches Nicolas Sarkozy’s pitiful attempt to break protocol during the republican march and make his way to the front row amongst world leaders, just to be seen by the cameras. What a beautiful display of national unity and sober contemplation.
Such political manoeuvring is in poor taste and poorer in execution, but it is undeniable that the Paris killings will profoundly reshape a French society, which has been struggling to define its own national identity for years. Issues such immigration and integration remain touchy subjects in France, and the apparently unstoppable rise of the Front National has only polarized the debate further, as the once-moderate right now seeks to steal the electorate of the far-right by appealing to xenophobic sentiment.
Indeed, among the victims of the attacks are the vast majority of moderate French Muslims who have seen their mosques and places of worship attacked over the past weeks, have been harassed in the streets, or stared at with suspicion, fear, and vehemence. Let us never forget that insanity, bigotry, and violence do not have a religion.