Ophelia Lai on Charlie Hebdo and the Islamophobic Backlash
The Charlie Hebdo attack was an atrocity. There is no question about this. It was a vicious affront to freedom of speech, and a harrowing reminder that we must always be on guard against those who seek to deprive us of our freedom. But the Charlie Hebdo attack has done more than to alert us to the threat of radical Islam (as if we needed reminding, while the battle against Islamic State rages on) – it has revealed the ugliness of ethnic hatreds and xenophobia that has been bubbling away in Western society.
Within 24 hours of the Charlie Hebdo attack, several mosques in France came under fire, hit by gunshots and grenades. Others were vandalised by racist and anti-Islam graffiti. The Muslim community in France has every right to fear an Islamophobic backlash.
Those who have leaped at the opportunity to levy trenchant accusations at Islam are committing the utterly vile injustice of blaming an entire religious group for the actions of two psychopaths. Three if we count Amedy Coulibaly, who was responsible for the hostage situation in the Jewish supermarket in eastern Paris, part of a spate of extremist attacks that appear to have been coordinated with the Charlie Hebdo shooters, Said and Cherif Kouachi. If you want to broaden the net and look at extremist Islamic activity on a global level, consider the following. According to a new report released by the Bipartisan Policy Center’s (BPC) Homeland Security Project in the United States, it is estimated that ‘on the low end, an estimated 85,000 men are fighting in jihadist groups around the world; on the high end, 106,000’. The global Muslim population is around 1.6 billion.
The world has been quick to show solidarity with the staff at Charlie Hebdo. More than a million people took part at a unity rally in Paris, and solidarity marches have sprung up across the world, an affirming and moving testament of unflinching commitment to freedom. But what of the many peaceful Muslims who wish to join hands with other members of society, Christian or Jewish or unreligious, to denounce the oppressive forces of radical Islam? What of Lassana Bathily, the Muslim shop assistant at the kosher supermarket who helped customers hide from Coulibaly while risking his own life when he slipped out to pass information to the police? What of Muslim police officer Ahmed Merabet who was killed by the gunmen on the scene of the Charlie Hebdo attack? These stories have received nowhere near the kind of attention that has been placed on the fact that these were terrorist attacks. Differential news coverage feeds into the Manichean view of Western freedom versus Islamic oppression; political strings are being pulled and the worst thing that people can do is buy into this narrative.
In times of crisis and fear, it is understandable that people will be tempted to close ranks with “their own” to protect themselves from an “external” threat, but in doing so forget that the real threat is right here. The more intolerant we become, and the more we institutionalise that intolerance and hatred to target scapegoats, the less different we are from the extremists we so readily decry as champions of oppression. People often justify their criticism of Islam with ‘we cannot tolerate intolerance’. The crucial question is, are we ready to apply that to ourselves?
Featured image credit: Valentina Calà