Attacks like the one on Charlie Hebdo typically have a predictable response when it comes to questions of Muslims and the West, but things might be different this time.
The last three days have been tough and exhausting for the French government, security forces and even the people themselves as a result of the attacks on Charlie Hebdo.
An armed assault on the country’s most popular satirical, cartoonist magazine led to the death of 12 people, capturing the attention of the whole world. During the manhunt for the gunmen, a policewoman was killed, as well as four hostages who lost their lives at a siege at a Jewish supermarket in Paris.
Many news reports described all of the above as “France’s 9/11,” as the perpetrators are Islamist militants with a connection to both Al-Qaeda and the Islamic State.
Following the attack, protests and vigils took place throughout the country and different parts of the world. On social media, hashtag #JeSuisCharlie trended as one of the most circulated in Twitter’s history.
What about politics? France has a Muslim population of five million people, being the largest in Europe. In the past, attacks of this nature in the West have raised concerns over the relationship between Islam and the Western world.
The outcome, this time, can hardly be predicted amid divisions between political forces in France, and even in different European cities when it comes to dealing with Muslims living in their territories. In terms of foreign relations with Arab and Muslim states, the situation is calm to a great extent.
Several top-level officials of Arab, Muslim-majority countries joined roughly 50 world leaders in a an anti-terrorism rally of roughly 700,000 in Paris on Sunday. Officials came from Palestine, Jordan, Egypt, Bahrain, Tunisia, Algeria and the Arab League.
French politicians across the spectrum all issued strict statements of condemnation, according to French media reports. The primary Islamic organisations in France called on imams to “condemn the violence and the terrorism with maximum firmness.”
On the contrary, the Islamic State (IS), a militant group controlling large parts of Syria and Iraq, and Somalia’s Al-Qaeda affiliate Al-Shabab militants have both praised the attacks in Paris. The Islamic State is currently facing airstrikes from the US-led coalition of forces that seeks to hinder the Islamist militants from gaining new grounds in the two countries. France, in addition to some Arab countries, is a member of the coalition.
Before Sunday’s rally in Paris, EU and US security ministers met at France’s interior ministry to examine the threat of jihadist attacks, A US justice department official told AFP before the meeting that it “will include discussions on addressing terrorist threats, foreign fighters and countering violent extremism.” The government confessed problems in surveillance of the gunmen despite having criminal records and being known as “Muslim radicals.”
A long-standing Paris journalist, speaking on the condition of anonymity, told Ahram Online that “France as a whole is not Islamophobic. Despite efforts by the extreme-right National Front Party to instrumentalise the Charlie Hebdo killings as a way of amplifying its message of hate and exclusion, the French people as a whole will not hold the country’s Muslim population responsible for the actions of a couple of criminally misguided young men.”
The National Front leader and strong, possible candidate for the 2017 presidential race, Marine Le Pen, accused President Francois Hollande and opposition leader Nicolas Sarkozy of taking advantage of the shooting incident to achieve political goals. Le Pen was not invited to attend the rally organised by the two political figures.
Moreover, Le Pen, known for her anti-immigrations orientations, called for the restoration of the death penalty, vowing to push for a national referendum on the matter if she reached presidency in the coming polls. Media outlets quoted her as saying that “it is Islamists who have declared war on France.”
But Le Pen is not the only one who sees Muslims as a threat to Europe.
The same debate is currently taking place in Germany, where roughly four million citizens – most of whom are of Turkish origin – are Muslims in country of 80-million which is home to Europe’s strongest economy. Thousands of Germans have been protesting against Muslims since October, following calls for demonstration by a right-wing group called Patriotic Europeans against the Islamisation of the West (PEGIDA).
Organisers of counter protests said, on Saturday, that around 35,000 protested against the anti-Islam demonstrations in Dresden city. The effect of France’s jihadist attacks on Germany and the rest of Europe is yet to appear. In her new year’s speech, Germany’s Chancellor Angela Merkel called on Germans not to join the PEDIGA protests as they spread “hatred”.
Marc Pierini, a visiting scholar at Carnegie Europe, told Ahram Online that the real issue is one of “radical Islam and jihadist recruitment in France, not outside” as the attack on Charlie Hebdo was conducted by “French-born citizens.” Pierini, a former EU diplomat, asserted that this “is now the focus of the French authorities as well as in other EU countries.”