By Ana Fumurescu
Just one week into 2015 the world was rattled by multiple terrorist attacks. Although it was Paris that endured bloodshed, it was the sanctity of freedom of expression that bore the red target on its back. In an impressive show of solidarity, millions of people took to the streets across France to proclaim that they would not live in fear, and dozens of world leaders expressed their support for the victimized country. The media has been ablaze with commentary on the atrocious events and has lauded the French for their fraternité in the face of tragedy. But what will happen once the high emotions of the moment begin to dwindle while the underlying tensions persist (likely with increased vigor)?
It is by now no secret that Europe is facing growing challenges of Islamism and Islamophobia. With Muslims making up approximately 7.5% of France’s population (the largest national percentage in Europe,) French society feels these chronic and exacerbating problems even more acutely than its fellow European nations. In addition, the lack of discussion regarding religion in France makes it even more difficult to get a grasp on related tensions and to try to neutralize them. This is one issue. Although the French devotion to a staunch separation of church and state is commendable, it should not lead to a general avoidance of the topic of religion. Moving forward, therefore, one step that could be taken—not only in France, but in Europe and the United States in general—would be to foster greater discussion of a topic so many voice strong opinions about without bothering to be properly informed. As Maajid Nawaz of the Wall Street Journal states, “we must fight smart, with improved integration, with messages of pluralism and the compatibility of Islam and human rights in our education programs, and with the promotion of positive role models.”
Nawaz also pleads that “unhelpful responses” to Islamist extremism be avoided at all cost. To this end, far-right populist parties add fuel to the fire. Their supporters must therefore be lured to the center by reasoning and a bare-bones appraisal of the facts. As a young French Jew claimed in a recent interview with a BBC correspondent, two main concerns following the events of January 7th are that the attacks will help the cause of Marine Le Pen’s far-right Front National and that they might encourage the adoption of a French Patriot Act. The first concern is especially pressing, as the increased popularity of the Front National would only aggravate the stigmatization of French Muslims and therefore foster further tensions between Muslim and non-Muslim communities in France.
While fear is an easy campaign tool—and will undoubtedly be used by opportunistic politicians—it will fail to be effective as long as citizens across the world take it as their foremost responsibility to be informed and to not be swept up in cheap sensationalism. Radical Muslims viciously killed 17 French citizens in a blatant attack on freedom of expression, but a French Muslim also lost his life trying to protect his fellow countrymen from the nonsensical brutality of the terrorists. Moving forward, all those who proclaim rationality, understanding, and freedom of expression must refrain from painting entire groups of people with a broad brush and must not give in to sensationalism. Finally, they must show outrage for violations of freedom and safety at all times and for all human life, whether those abuses manifest themselves in the heart of Paris or in the (seemingly) remote Middle East. While the attacks of January 7th should never have happened, the lives lost will only have been lost in vain if we, as members of a modern global community, fail to move forward with a renewed devotion to freedom and peace. After all, we are all Charlie.