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Opinion

January 15, 2015

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Murder, motive and belief

France is mourning the death of 17 people after three terrorists attacked the Paris offices of satirical magazine Charlie Hebdo last week and later took hostages at two different locations. The drama finally culminated in the killing of the three attackers two days later.
Whether these attacks were carried out by self-motivated jihadists or by the local ‘prodigal sons’ associated with the Islamic State remains to be determined. This, along with the complacency and failure of intelligence agencies will keep the French government and public engaged in discussions and debates in the coming days.
At present the motive behind the brutal killings is being variously seen as an attack by radical Islamists on western democratic values; a bid to reinforce the jihadist narrative by forcing the states to take harder measures against the Muslim community thereby reinforcing their image as the enemy of Islam; and a coercive tactic to force the west to withdraw from Muslim lands.
It is believed that the attack was in response to the magazine’s historical publication of offensive cartoons depicting the Prophet Muhammad (pbuh). However, the violent event is a symptom of a deeper malady. It is a reflection of an intra-Muslim struggle which provides ideological space to justify such violent acts; on the other hand it signals unintended consequences of western foreign policy that exploits intra-Muslim divisions for strategic gains. Add to this the colonial baggage and you have a lethal mix.
Such violent acts endanger the well-being of Muslims living in Europe where states are facing a rise in right-wing nationalism. Despite condemnation by prominent Muslim leaders, the attack – in public perception – is bound to be linked with the Islamic faith and by extension with the broader question of Muslim integration in foreign societies.
It is not difficult to imagine rising tensions especially in the backdrop of anti-Islam demonstrations in Germany where the

grassroots movement Patriotic Europeans against the Islamisation of the West (PEGIDA) has staged weekly rallies in Dresden in recent months.
The publication of French writer Michel Houellebecq’s ‘Submission’ – a book featuring an imaginative account of Muslim-ruled France and Europe – has also inflamed tensions. It was featured on the cover of Charlie Hebdo the day of the attack.
The killings could generate reprisals against Muslim immigrants who had no part in this brutal act. Years of recession and unemployment are adding to the tensions between ‘natives’ and ‘immigrant Muslims’. Right-wing European politicians such as Dutch Geert Wilders and French Marie Le Pen are happy to stoke anti-immigration sentiment and Islamophobia for political gains. And British Nigel Farage of UKIP has concluded that there was a “fifth column” seeking to “destroy us from within”.
But it is not just the right wingers; the rise of left-wing parties such as the Neo-Nazi Golden Dawn is also a disturbing factor. To make matters worse, intelligence reports show a real threat to European countries from a resurgent Al-Qaeda.
In France – and the western world – the attack has become a symbol of the jihadist effort to ban freedom of expression. Ironically, after the attack the readership of the magazine has increased manifold. The surviving editors and staff have vowed to not only go ahead with the next week issue but to dramatically increase the publication’s production from 50,000 to 1 million copies a week. The attack has also prompted other western publications to republish the offensive cartoons.
The freedom of expression argument tends to obfuscate anti-Enlightenment double-standards of the French government. In 2010 France passed a law banning Muslim women from wearing the veil in public; similarly, in 2004 symbols or clothes displaying religious affiliations in educational institutions were banned by the government.
Such contradictions are visible on the wider canvas of international affairs where western states support the United States and Arab monarchies in undermining democratic movements in Muslim countries such as Egypt and Bahrain.
Seventeen unjustified deaths drew a crowd of two million in Paris led by world leaders to show solidarity. One could not help but think of the un-mourned hundreds of thousands dead since 9/11.
On the brighter side there are those who believe that such terrorist acts can galvanise people together against violence. For instance, in the wake of the Sydney cafe hostage drama last year a social media movement inspired by the Twitter hashtag ‘I'll ride with you’ featured more than 300,000 tweets to support Australian Muslims worried about a blowback.
It will, however, take a great deal more than a social-media movement for European leaders to stem rising social tensions. It will take even greater prudence and political will for them to balance domestic issues of security and economics with their geo-political interests in the Muslim world. Treating the symptom alone will not make Europe safe.
The writer is a post-doctoral researcher at Birmingham University.
Email: [email protected]

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