The attack on the Charlie Hebdo office was one of the deadliest attacks against civilians in France since 1980 and the most serious waged against a newspaper since the war in Algeria.
Twelve people were killed by men armed with Kalashnikovs at the headquarters of this satirical weekly in Paris. Could this attack have been motivated by the editorial slant of the newspaper that has been subject to threats? Could this attack have been perpetrated by foreign groups to “punish” France for its commitment in Mali or Chad?
Police in France have identified and released the photographs of two brothers suspected to be involved in the attack while early speculation focused on the premise that Muslim extremists were behind the dreadful act, especially given the magazine’s long history of satirising Islam and other religions. The two brothers have been identified as 32-year-old Said Kouachi and 34-year-old Cherif Kouachi.
This attack must be condemned with the utmost firmness and its perpetrators arrested and convicted. Nothing can justify such an act; whatever the reasons, whoever the perpetrators. But we also have to understand the context, as this aggression could arouse dangerous reactions within French society.
Where it all began
Charlie Hebdo was founded in February 1969. It was then politically positioned on the extreme left with anarchist tendencies and a taste for provocation. In November 1970, following the death of General de Gaulle, it published a cover with the headline: “Tragic prom in Colombey [de Gaulle’s city of origin], one dead”, which resulted in it being banned by the Ministry of Interior.
But since 2000, under its new editor Philippe Val, Charlie Hebdo shifted direction, taking a stand against the Palestinians and supporting the Israeli aggression against Lebanon in 2006... This came during the second Intifada.
The newspaper started to launch Islamophobic campaigns. In 2006, it republished the cartoons of the Prophet Muhammad that were previously published in Denmark. A number of intellectuals then pointed out that while in France we cannot accept censorship; sometimes it can be irresponsible to publish drawings fuelling sectarian tensions in the country.
At the same time, the newspaper started to launch Islamophobic campaigns. In 2006, it republished the cartoons of the Prophet Muhammad that were previously published in Denmark.
A number of intellectuals then pointed out that while in France we cannot accept censorship, sometimes it can be irresponsible to publish drawings fuelling sectarian tensions in the country.
In March 2006, Val signed “The Twelve’s Manifesto: Together Against the New Totalitarianism” published in the weekly magazine L’Express, by Bernard-Henri Levy, Caroline Fourest, and Antoine Sfeir.
“After having overcome Fascism, Nazism and Stalinism, the world now faces a new global threat of a totalitarian nature: Islamism. We – writers, journalists and intellectuals – call for resistance against religious totalitarianism and to promote freedom, equal opportunity and secular values for all.”
But these positions divided the team and several members resigned. While claiming to stand for press freedom, Charlie Hebdo dismissed one of its star cartoonists, Sine, due to false accusations of anti-Semitism.
It then came as no surprise that, when elected, President Nicolas Sarkozy promoted Philippe Val to executive editor of France-Inter (a public radio station).
Nevertheless, press freedom cannot be compromised and the situation currently rocking Paris is all the more condemnable showing that this could have serious consequences on the internal situation in France. It may encourage a wave of Islamophobia that overwhelms the country – as well as other European countries – and could designate Muslims as the “internal enemy”.
However, perhaps it is about time to engage in a substantive debate on the “war against terrorism” revived by the West and the “international community”, in the aftermath of the expansion of ISIL.
Assessing the outcomes of such a campaign (more violent actions around the world, finding justifications for attacks on freedom, new anti-terrorism legislation, worsening sectarian tensions, more support for Middle East dictatorships and so on), isn’t it about time to change our methods?
Remember, the wave of the Arab Spring uprisings in 2011 and 2012 resulted in a loss of credit for al-Qaeda, as they paved a path for political and democratic change in Arab countries.
Alain Gresh is deputy director of Le Monde Diplomatique and a specialist on the Middle East.
This article was written in French by Alain Gresh and translated into English by Ali Saad.