Starting 2015 with a post on terrorism was definitely not on my list, but I figured it would be hypocritical not to. Although the recent attacks on the staff of Charlie Hebdo happened miles away from New York, they touched America deeply. As a French person exposed to American people and media’s perception of the event, I feel a responsibility to tell my side of the story.
The first and most frequent reaction that I noticed among Americans while discussing this tragedy is to question the legitimacy of Charlie Hebdo as a publication. No matter how much discrimination Muslims suffer in the US, the respect of religion ironically remains a golden principle in America. “Between you and me, what’s the deal with Charlie Hebdo?” “Some of its content seems questionable,” “Is it even a real newspaper?” Behind those typical ice-breaking questions, I could hear the real and simpler one loud and clear: “Is Charlie Hebdo anti-Islam?”
My answer would be just as simple: absolutely not.
Let me get this straight, islamophobia is a major problem in Europe and particularly in France, a country that accounts for the largest Muslim population in Western Europe. In 2013, 226 anti-Muslims acts were registered in France. Since the 2015 attacks, islamophobic incidents increased by 110% compared to January 2014. Marine Le Pen’s “Front National” – a far-right party that paints Islam as incompatible with France’s values, demonizes immigration and the place of diversity in society – represents 25% of the French electorate. So yes, France has 99 problems and Islam is (sadly) one.
Now back to Charlie Hebdo, the left-wing satirical magazine that lost much of his editorial staff in the recent terrorist attacks. This historical newspaper is known for its commitment against not just Islamic radicalism, not just Christian and Jewish fundamentalism, but against all forms of obscurantism. Charlie Hebdo expresses this stand through investigative journalism and humor, particularly satirical cartoons. It’s the latter mean of expression – used to caricature the Prophet Muhammad among many other religious, political and social subjects – that sparked off a series of attacks against the publication, which eventually led to the murder of ten of its employees on January 7, 2015.
Islam clearly forbids the depiction of the Prophet, which is why Muhammad cartoons in Western media have always provoked mixed reactions in the worldwide Muslim community and violent protests in fundamentalists circles. It has never been about the actual meaning or intention of the cartoons. There is a big difference between doing something non-Muslim – such as drawing a religious figure – and committing islamophobic acts, like vandalizing a Mosque or discriminating a Muslim job applicant. If Charlie Hebdo’s staff is islamophobic for not following the proscriptions of a religion that isn’t theirs, then wouldn’t that make anyone who drinks alcohol guilty of the same crime?
Many Americans assume that France has very little limits when it comes to criticizing religion because it’s an “atheist” country. To those, I will simply suggest to look up the definitions of Atheism and Secularism…Spoiler alert: they are not the same. Terrorists attacked the people who fought for humanism and defended the very value that allows Muslims, Jewish, Christians and Atheists living in France to be one people: secularism. It’s the death of this ideal that eventually allows Marine Le Pen and friends to infiltrate ignorance and fear of Islam into the society.
But Al Qaida chose not to attack their direct target – islamophobic groups – first. The organization’s ultimate goal is to conquer, but no one can conquer without a war, and any conflict needs two opposite sides, two extremes. Eliminating the voices of moderation can then fairly be interpreted as a Al Qaida’s strategy to facilitate its overall mission. With the Charlie Hebdo tragedy, terrorists didn’t kill the enemies of Islam, they shook the European heritage of the Age of Enlightenment while delivering the most brutal message: even tolerance won’t be tolerated.