I do not recall any incident taking so much international media space and attention after 9/11 as the massacre at the offices of the satirical magazine, Charlie Hebdo, and the hostage crisis at a Jewish supermarket in Paris that killed 17 people. Journalists and political commentators everywhere had an opinion. Comments and opinions were more or less along expected lines, with some defending freedom of expression at all costs, while others criticizing the right to insult entire communities for morbid humour. In the process, the basic point was lost.
Democratic countries have Constitutions, laws enacted by people&’s representatives and a court to enforce them that works independently of the legislature and the executive. It is not the right of the freedom of expression that is at issue here, but whether Charlie Hebdo violated the law of France. Neither is anyone accusing the magazine of violating French laws, nor the French government for not prosecuting the magazine if it did.
Another important question is whether this right to mock beliefs of others in France is enjoyed only by “native” Frenchmen, or whether anyone living in France has the prerogative to do the same against other communities without being victimised. So far no one is claiming that this is not the case. The French people also have the privilege to change this extreme form of freedom of expression, a product of Enlightenment and the French Revolution, by organising themselves and putting pressure on their representatives. Nobody expects them to do that. This is because fanatical belief in Catholicism has slowly, but inexorably, given way to genuine secularism in France after the beheading of the king in 1793. The sizable Muslim population in France, a legacy of colonial domination and exploitation in North Africa, still forms a minority community there.
This brings to focus the ugly truth that France, or any other European country, is a “majoritarian democracy,” a fact no one wants to admit in Europe publicly. In fact, this majoritarian impulse led to the creation of nation-states, a purely European phenomenon. It is also the reason that the European Union (EU) failed to gain any democratic credibility and became a club of bureaucrats functioning on fuzzy compromises of leaders of EU nation-states. In fact, one of the rare occasions when Europe felt united was after the 9/11 attack in the United States, as it was unanimously viewed as an attack on “white” European values and culture. A new phase of Islamophobia got under way.
Europe witnessed a number of terrorist attacks post 9/11, like the shooting of Theo van Gogh in open daylight in Amsterdam, the train bombing in Madrid and the bombing in the London Underground. The attack in Paris, however, was qualitatively different. The whole drama was played out in front of the camera, lasted three days, happened in different parts of France and the cold-blooded execution of a police officer on duty in full view of the bystanders reminded one of horror stories of ISIS executions of foreigners reported regularly in newspapers. It was a mini 9/11 in the perception of Europeans. The copycat attack in Copenhagen a few weeks later only strengthened the perception that a new phase of terrorism has arrived in Europe. The sideshow of targeting Jews is causing panic among Jewish residents there.
The first difference with earlier attacks in Europe post 9/11 is that this one happened after the economic meltdown as a consequence of the credit crisis. Unemployment in many European countries has reached surreal proportions. Youth get very little dole money and are often forced to move in with their parents. For those who have no such choice, the future looks bleak. The centre-right and centre-left parties, whom Tariq Ali lumps together as the “extreme centre,” have lost their plot. Their mantra of globalisation and privatisation sounds increasingly like a broken record and fails to convince the lower middle class anymore. The extreme right has filled this vacuum by claiming that increasing misery and curtailment of social security benefits of the masses are due to the illegal immigrants, meaning the Muslims. They made spectacular gains in the last European Parliament elections. In France and the Netherlands these parties are leading in all polls, while in England the xenophobia includes immigrants from the East European countries as well. In Germany the anti-immigrant party, Alternative for Germany, entered Parliament for the first time and a ragtag group there is organising huge anti-Muslim rallies every Monday in Dresden. The reaction of all these on the Muslims, particularly the second and third generation among them, is understandable.
The second difference is that the Paris attack came in the midst of the ISIS phenomenon that has generated real fear in Europe. Al Qaida was more discreet in their recruitment and operations. Europe also considered fighting the Al Qaida primarily as an American undertaking to ensure her hegemonic ambitions. The theatre of operation has now moved to Syria, which is too close to home for the Europeans. On the other hand, the establishment of a Caliphate there has re-ignited hopes of many Muslims in Europe of regaining their old glory. This has gripped the imagination of not only the Muslim youth in depressed neighbourhoods of Europe, but also the educated ones who feel discriminated in western societies. The best illustration is Jihadi John, the ISIS executioner who grew up in a well-off part of London and graduated in Computer Science at the University of Westminster in that city. There is constant reporting of unsuspecting kids from ordinary neighbourhoods in European towns joining ISIS to fight for preserving and expanding the Caliphate. The total confusion among the thinking Europeans and fear of the unknown among the masses were only exacerbated by the recent massacres in Paris and Copenhagen. Every Muslim has become a potential suspect. Now a new fear is being inculcated among the Europeans with the phantom of thousands of ISIS volunteers being smuggled to Europe in refugee boats to strike terror in the Continent. This is helping the centre-left parties in Europe to use tough language to stop immigration from Africa, thereby blunting some of the criticisms of the highly popular extreme right demagogues.
The third difference is that Europe now has an increasing number of jihadists who have returned after seeing action in the Middle East. They are trained in warfare and capable of mass murder on behalf of a decentralised movement without any clear command and control. The case of the younger brother of the siblings that carried out the killings in the Charlie Hebdo offices is illustrative of this phenomenon. Chérif Kouachi was born in Paris of Algerian parents. His divorced mother put him and his elder brother Saïd in a children&’s home in the idyllic French village of Treignac. Both the brothers had no behavioural problems. Chérif was quite talented in football and aspired to play in the Premier League.
He moved to Paris at the age of 18, but his dream of playing professional football did not materialise. He got into drugs and petty crime, not unlike many French youth of his age under similar circumstances. Then he found solace in his directionless life when he visited a mosque. He was arrested in Paris on the eve of his planned flight to Damascus on 25 January 2005 to buy Kalashnikovs and then move on to fight in Iraq. It was in Fleury-Merogis, “a nightmarish concrete fortress and, with close to 4000 inmates, Europe&’s largest prison,” where he was even more radicalised. He was released in 2006, but arrested again in May 2010 on suspicion of plotting to liberate a convicted terrorist. He was released in May 2013.
I am sure that the authorities in India are studying the life stories of Jihadi John, Chérif and many such “normal” European Muslim youth radicalised by societal prejudices and personal misfortune.
— The writer is former dean and emiritus proffessor of Applied Mathematics at the University of Twente, The Netherlands