The brutal attack on the French satirical magazine Charlie Hebdo is a crude attempt to impede freedom of expression, one of the highest achievements of modern, pluralistic democracy. This is not just an assault on Charlie Hebdo. Illiberal critics have often singled out the media for punishment, threats and even violence. But the murder of 12 innocent people on Jan. 7 was so gruesome that it is likely to shake the confidence of editors and journalists everywhere. Yet that is exactly what we should not allow to happen.
Once the initial shock subsides, a discussion will ensue on how far journalists and cartoonists should go in lampooning religion. We saw this happen in the aftermath of the September 2005 protests and violence sparked by Danish newspaper Jyllands-Posten’s publication of caricatures of Muhammad. There will be voices that urge caution when depicting Islam, perhaps with good cause. This can be discussed, argued about and even shouted over, but it has to be done with words, reasoning and arguments — not weapons and demagoguery. However, this is also a time to underscore the absolute freedom of the media to challenge dogmas, including the right to satirize all religions and religious and political figures. The media in free societies can do this, although it doesn’t necessarily have to.
Beyond its effects on the media and free speech, the Charlie Hebdo attack could not have come at a worse time in Europe. Amid growing anti-immigrant and anti-Islamic sentiment across the continent, Wednesday’s bloodbath is likely to lessen the quality of European democracy. European policymakers, media and people must work to ensure that this assault doesn’t lead to countermeasures and scapegoating of French and European Muslims. Setting in motion a sequence of events that would make the world’s democracies less liberal, less free and less heterogeneous is an ultimate victory for illiberal extremists.
In fact, that is exactly what happened in the U.S. in the aftermath of 9/11. The George W. Bush administration’s reactions to the attack led to torture, the Iraq War, racial and religious profiling and illegal spying on the American public. But none of these measures addressed the causes of extremism. Instead, the United States’ ill-conceived “war on terrorism” helped fuel its expansion and anti-American sentiment around the world.
Doubling down on the protection of our freedoms and civil liberties is the greatest blow we can deliver to extremists — Islamic and otherwise. Our anger and disgust at the murder of Charlie Hebdo editors and cartoonists must be channeled into a rational, constructive, effective response.
This has to happen on different levels. It’s not going to be easy, for example, to counter the shrill voices of Europe’s populist Islamophobes in political parties, the media and beer halls. The bloodshed in Paris plays right into their hands at a time when they are in ascendance. Every European country has at least one of these parties or movements — be it the National Front in France, the Alternative for Germany (AFD) and PEGIDA in Germany, the Danish Peoples Party in Denmark or the Freedom Party in Austria. These groups already stigmatize all Muslims as violent, retrograde and uncivilized, claiming that there is a clash of civilizations, a battle between the Occident and the Orient.
In fact, they began ramping up their demagoguery and hate speech in an attempt to capitalize on the attack within minutes of the bloody events in Paris. National Front leader Marine Le Pen, for example, called Islam a “murderous ideology.” The AFD’s Alexander Gauland contended that the attack justified the anti-Islamic stance of the PEGIDA movement, saying, “All of the people who ignored or maybe even laughed at the concerns of some of us about the dangerous threat of Islam are being punished by this bloody deed.”
Their blinkered visions are an assault on democracy. They are increasingly pushing irrational, anti-Enlightenment thinking as well as prejudice and discrimination into the public sphere, thereby skewing rational discourse with lumpen populism. Such xenophobia and illiberal attitudes have already resulted in violence. Mosques have been burned in France, Sweden and Belgium, among other places. In Germany, for example, refugees, including those fleeing Islamic fundamentalists in Syria, have been bombed and smeared with swastikas. Violent Islamophobes take the prescriptions of the established anti-Islamic parties one lethal step further.
Unlike anti-Semitism, there’s no popular taboo against Islamophobia. Most European societies are only now beginning to recognize Islam and the growing number of Muslims in their midst. After the terrorist bombings in Madrid in 2004 and in London in 2005, many European countries began engaging with their Muslim communities to bridge the gap of ignorance and otherness between their Muslim and non-Muslim communities. In Germany, for example, a German Islam Conference was held with the aim of achieving “a better religious and social integration of the Muslim population and a good cooperation between all people in Germany, regardless of their faith.”
This was not about the relationship between Islam and Christianity but about the relationship between the state and religion. “Islam is a part of Germany and Europe,” Germany’s interior minister at the time, Wolfgang Schäuble, said, opening the conference in 2005. “It is a part of our present and part of our past. Muslims are welcome in Germany. They should use their talents to help better our countries.”
Participants hailed the conference as a resounding success. Unfortunately, it was discontinued in 2013 — mission accomplished, its initiators claimed. Despite positive strides, Islam remains foreign to most non-Muslim Europeans. Leaders across the continent must take cues from initiatives such as the German Islam Conference and continue efforts to engage with and help integrate Muslims into the structures of the societies they call home.
To be sure, the majority of Muslims in Europe are peaceful, law-abiding citizens who share much with their neighbors in Paris, Frankfurt and Oslo — more than they do with Al-Qaeda or the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant. But Europe’s political elites must go one step further by taking on extremists across the spectrum. An action-reaction spiral of violence will undermine the hard-fought achievements of European civilization — the very qualities that attract Muslims from conflict-affected countries to go to Europe seeking safety and better opportunities.