Muslim community leaders in France described Wednesday’s attack on weekly newspaper Charlie Hebdo as “a veritable windfall for extreme-right parties,” condemning the shooting that killed 12 people as “an attack on French Muslims” as well as their non-Muslim compatriots.
Masked gunmen stormed the newspaper's offices, firing automatic weapons and killing 12 people. During the assault they were heard to shout "Allahu Akbar" — Arabic for "God is great" — and the act has been described by French authorities as an act of "terrorism.”
“This is a veritable nightmare for the Muslim community, but a veritable windfall for the extreme-right parties that will exploit this appalling crime,” Houria Bouteldja, spokeswoman for Parti des Indigènes de la République (PIR) — a political party representing the interests of people from many of France’s predominantly Muslim former colonies in Africa and elsewhere.
“The people who committed this crime have committed a crime not only against Charlie Hebdo, but also against the Muslim community,” Bouteldja said. While PIR opposes the newspaper’s caricatures of the Prophet Muhammad, and said the paper has been “obsessed with Islam and Islamism for years,” the party aims to battle what it calls Islamophobic cartoons “on the political plain” and not through violence.
The assault on Charlie Hebdo “enable people to attack Muslims,” said another PIR member and French Muslim community leader, Youssef Boussoumah.
France’s rising far-right party, Front National, quickly condemned the attack Wednesday but also expressed concern that French Muslims pose a national security threat.
“Islam is a difficult religion because it confuses civil and religious law. It doesn’t recognize the French principle of secular government,” Wallerand de Saint-Just, Front National’s National Treasurer and formerly the party’s legal counsel, told Al Jazeera.
De Saint-Just said that he visited the site of the killings in central Paris hours after the attack, and that witnesses told him “the attackers spoke perfect French like French citizens.”
“In France, we have so many potential terrorists,” he said. “Islam has a tendency to create fanatics more than any other religion. The facts on the ground prove this.”
Analysts of French politics said they agreed with Muslim community leaders that Wednesday’s attack would stoke the flames of what some see as mounting hatred against Muslim compatriots.
The incident “can strengthen Islamophobia and make people see all Muslims as the same — as a threat to our civilization and our values,” said Alain Gresh, editor of French political analysis journal Le Monde Diplomatique and a noted commentator on Middle Eastern affairs.
Some have said that radical French Muslims attacked Charlie Hebdo in response to what many see as rising Islamophobia in France. But the perpetrators were likely only using Islam as a pretext to commit acts of violence, said Olivier Roy, a former consultant to the French Foreign Ministry and professor at the European University Institute, which is located in Florence, Italy and focuses on security issues and Islamist armed groups.
“The people who say [the perpetrators] are radicalized by politics or Palestine — that’s not the case. If that were the case, we would have thousands of radicalized” French Muslims, Roy said.
In similar attacks in France — occurrences that Roy said are nothing new in the past two decades, although the magnitude of this assault sets it apart — “what we find is a Columbine phenomenon,” he said, referring to the 1999 incident in which two armed students killed 12 fellow students and a teacher at Columbine High School in Colorado.
We have “young people who open fire in public to kill as many as possible. They are fascinated with violence,” he said, adding that popular video games often feed into the bloodlust.
Islam was just a “pretext. They needed a cause” to kill people and knew an attack on Charlie Hebdo would have an impact, Roy said, noting that the caricature issue is already “years old.” The newspaper was firebombed in 2011 after the publication of a satiric caricature of Muhammad on its cover.
While many French Muslims opposed the Charlie Hebdo cartoons then, there was never a collective popular outcry against them, Roy said.
Likewise French policies perceived to be Islamophobic by groups like the PIR — such as a 2010 law that bans female facial covering know in Arabic as niqab — also did not likely amount to a motive for Wednesday’s attack.
“The French Muslim community is very diverse,” Roy said. “There are very secular ones who supported Charlie Hebdo.”