17 January 2015

Freedom and its discontents


Harsh V. Pant

Last week, two suspected Islamist militants attacked the Paris office of the satirical magazine, Charlie Hebdo, with high-powered assault rifles, killing 12 people. Among the dead are the editor and cartoonist, Stephane Charbonnier, who was on an hit list appearing in the al Qaida in the Arabian Peninsula's Inspire magazine for "insulting the Prophet Mohammed". The attackers were heard shouting "We have avenged the Prophet Mohammed" and chanting "God is Great" in Arabic. This is the third such attack in a Western country in less than three months.

The two assailants stormed a staff meeting of Charlie Hebdo, conducting the raid with precision and military-grade weapons, and then escape into the streets and out of Paris, making them fugitives in France's worst terror attack in years.The men were well prepared for their mission, and there have been reports that one of the suspects had been convicted of recruiting fighters to battle American forces in Iraq.

Just two months ago, a group of French members of the Islamic State put out a video calling on Muslims to conduct terror attacks on French soil and offering them direct operational support. These calls were answered by the latest Paris attacks. French authorities have connected all the suspects to radical Islam, which is also underlined by the fact that the gunmen praised Allah as they executed victims. France's long-time fears of a homegrown attack are realized as it joins Australia and Canada as Western fronts in the fight against extremist elements in the Middle East.

Al Qaida in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP), Yemen's al Qaida branch, has formally claimed responsibility for the Paris attacks. AQAP posted a video on YouTube, and its official publication arm, Al Malahem, released a statement saying that the attack was in retaliation for Charlie Hebdo's frequent caricatures insulting the Prophet Mohammed. According to the statement, al Qaida leader, Ayman al-Zawahri, had ordered the attack.

At a time when Europe is passing through an economically turbulent period, these attacks will aggravate the situation in the Continent. The eurozone has fallen into deflation for the first time in more than five years, making it a near certainty that the European Central Bank will embark on a full-scale government bond-buying spree, in spite of German opposition. These attacks also add fuel to Europe's right-wing fire. Recent election results have seen a rejuvenation of dangerous far-right parties in European politics. Marine Le Pen, the head of France's National Front, immediately seized the attack as a means of promoting the group's anti-Islam agenda. But, perhaps more dangerously, it comes amid a wave of anti-immigrant incidents across the Continent. Europe continues to struggle with the perceived safety of isolationism and the opportunities, as well as the risks, presented by multiculturalism.

Anti-immigrant sentiment is at an all-time high in Europe, a function of declining economies and lack of employment opportunities even as the European Union's ideal of a borderless Europe continues to expand its scope. The growing resentment has given a boost to parties like the UK Independence Party (UKIP) in Britain and the National Front, as well as lesser-known groups like Patriotic Europeans Against Islamization of the West, which assembled 18,000 marchers in Germany's Dresden, a few days back.

The attack on the French magazine is an old-style, al Qaida jihadi attack against a Western capital designed to grab global attention, and its major aim is to compete with the new style of sovereignty-creating jihadism that has been so successful for Islamic State in Syria and Iraq. Charlie Hebdo is a left-leaning magazine known for its provocative and acerbic commentary on world affairs, routinely taking on the high and mighty, be they celebrities, presidents or popes. This is the second attack on the magazine's headquarters in the last four years. In November 2011, the day after the magazine invited the Prophet Mohammed to be a guest editor, the magazine's offices were firebombed and destroyed in an early-morning attack that left no one dead.

In response to the latest attacks, people stood in silence in public spaces across France holding a vigil with placards reading " Je suis Charlie" [I am Charlie] in solidarity with the victims. The three French media companies have promised to support the future publication of Charlie Hebdo. Radio France, Le Monde and France Télévisions have issued a joint memo following the attacks, saying they would provide the staff and support necessary to make sure the satirical magazine, known for its attacks on radical religion, would continue to live. But there is fear across Europe of the repercussions. Charlie Hebdo released its first edition this week, which quickly sold out at most newsstands, with a cartoon of Mohammed on its cover. Britain has been told that it is almost inevitable that an attack of this kind will happen in the country sooner rather than later.

The European political leadership and civil society have strongly come out in defence of freedom of expression. The French president said that the country's tradition of free speech had been attacked and called on all French people to stand together. Cartoon tributes are circulating on social media, sending out the message of press freedom. In free societies, there should be no prohibitions based on the opinions of a few over whether something is smart or stupid, tasteful or repugnant. Indeed, it is the freedom to cross those lines or openly flaunt them that marks societies as truly open and encourages the kind of intellectual and artistic vibrancy that has driven civilization forward.

Attacks like the one in Paris will further create tensions between the Western and Muslim worlds. This is all the more significant in Europe, where states are experiencing the rise of right-wing nationalism and Muslim communities have long experienced disaffection. Thejihadist objective is to get the states to crack down harder on Muslim communities in order to further their narrative that the West is waging war on Islam. This is ultimately a battle for the soul of Islam between the moderates and the extremists. It is now being played out in Europe and can have potentially devastating consequences for the Continent's social cohesion.

The author is Professor of International Relations, Department of Defence Studies, King's College, London

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