Faculty Reflect on Charlie Hebdo Attacks, Rise of Islamophobia

Political science faculty members Bahgat Korany and Mustapha Al-Sayyid share their insights on the deadly attacks on Charlie Hebdo satirical magazine in Paris and their implications on Muslim communities in the West. Do you think the Charlie Hebdo and kosher supermarket incidents intensify the concept of Islamophobia? What can be done to counter that? Korany: As the sentiments toward this slaughter are in the French –– and even European –– streets, saying that the massacre at Charlie Hebdo increases Islamophobia is almost an understatement. A mass concept is emerging, perceiving not only Islamists as terrorists, but simplifying Islam and reducing it to violence and terrorism. As a colleague from Marseille, the biggest Muslim city in France, told me: If the enemies of Islam wanted to hurt this religion, they couldn’t have done any better. Al-Sayyid: They definitely strengthen and deepen Islamophobia, particularly that they coincided with demonstrations that took place in several German cities against what was described as the Islamization of Europe, and with the release of the French novel, Soumission (Submission), which predicts that France will be run by a Muslim president in 2022. These incidents only added fuel to the fire and provoked the French people even further. The Charlie Hebdo and kosher supermarket attacks were carried out by French people, which reflects the situation of many young people in France who are poor, didn’t receive a good education and are subject to discrimination. This situation needs to change, and it is important for Europeans to counter the presence and activities of racist groups, who claim they are using their right to freedom of expression. They have been in Europe for a long time, and it is not likely that they will disappear in the future. On the other hand, there are groups in Arab and Islamic countries who take a hostile attitude toward Europe and don’t understand the concept of freedom of expression in the West. It’s a vicious cycle. Anti-immigrant sentiments and ethnic and religious tensions in France and Europe were already on the rise. How do such incidents serve to fuel such sentiments, and how will this influence the dialogue surrounding these issues? Al-Sayyid: The far-right, socially conservative National Front party secured 24 percent of the votes in the last French elections, and its popularity is expected to increase in light of these recent attacks. This means that anti-immigrant sentiments will continue to be propagated by many French people, who feel threatened by foreigners in terms of finding a job, securing a decent standard of living and getting a fair share of the country’s resources. Such entrenched racist sentiments are difficult to deal with, and they thrive in moments of economic and social crisis, as is the case nowadays, with unemployment, poverty and low government budgets dominating in Europe. The key is to accelerate economic development, but this will take time. There is a strong conviction that the threat to freedom of expression in Europe and to the safety of Europeans comes from people of Muslim origin, not only in terms of jobs and income level, but also a threat to the way of life. A veiled woman or a Muslim family with many children are seen as serious threats to the French way of life. On the surface, the predominant rhetoric in France and Europe today is the denunciation of terrorism, but the underlying message is the denunciation of Islam and the activities of radical groups who associate themselves with Islam. Korany: At present, sentiments of fear are rising on both sides. Many Europeans feel that some of their basic values, such as freedom of expression, are under attack, and they have to pay for it with their blood. On the other hand, many of the 6 million French Muslims, and even European Muslims, feel that they have to pay the price for bloody acts that do not represent them in the least. It will take time to reduce this gulf in perception and disarm extremists on both sides. For the moment, European right-wing and racist parties are in the driver’s seat, ready to reap the fruit and gain votes to limit immigration. The fact that a Jewish kosher shop was also attacked and four hostages were killed might “victimize” Israel even more and reduce growing sympathy with the Palestinians, at least for the moment. How can the French government react to prevent the development of a polarizing “us-versus-them” narrative and further violence? Korany: The first immediate task for the French and European governments is to protect mosques, Muslim schools, halal shops and Muslims in the street. The media has to emphasize that at least two Muslims were among the victims, including a Muslim policeman who was initially wounded defending Charlie Hebdo, then “finished” in cold blood by one of the Kouachi brothers on his way back. But there should be long-term policies about why some French citizens, including French-born Muslims, are so alienated from mainstream European basic values. On the whole, why are they poorer and less educated than the national average? Moreover, while respecting free speech, we have to also discourage any “hate literature” and xenophobic tendencies against some religious symbols. Al-Sayyid: European governments have to prevent violation of the law. It is understandable to demonstrate and rally against terrorism and in support of freedom of expression, but aggression against other citizens or foreign migrant workers is a violation of the law. There are about 5 million Muslims living in France, and these are well-established communities who were born and lived in the country for years. The government should make an effort to ensure their safety during such tense times so as not to increase hostility on both sides. The speech by French president François Hollande in which he renounced terrorism and emphasized that the actions of such radical groups do not represent Islam or any religion is a step in the right direction. It needs to be constantly reinforced, but won’t be enough to eradicate racist and anti-Islamic sentiments in France. The Sunday rally by European heads of government in support of Charlie Hebdo and national unity is also a positive step. How might the worldwide Islamic and Arab community react? Al-Sayyid: Denunciation of the attacks –– as was done by leaders of Muslim communities in France and around the world. However, it is also important for Muslim communities in Europe and the United States to adapt to Western values and realize that religion is not exempt from the exercise of freedom of speech. There are books and movies that mock religion, not just Islam, but also Christianity and Jesus Christ. As the Quran says, when Muslims find others mocking their religion, they should avoid their company until they engage in another talk. There is no mention of killing, aggression or even boycotting them altogether –– just avoiding their company until they talk about something else. A proper reading of Islam and its true spirit is overdue. Korany: There is a big responsibility on Arab and Muslim governments and civil society. It is good that countries such as Egypt and Saudi Arabia, and bodies like the Arab League and Al-Azhar, condemned hostage-taking and the slaughtering of innocent people. I would have liked more explicit condemnation of this terrorism by the Organization of Islamic Cooperation. It might also be a good idea for Muslims in France and Europe to be present and active in French and European sympathy demonstrations this weekend. In other words, Muslims themselves have to show, in action, that their religion is not the one this bloody act by misguided Muslims and the European xenophobic right is attempting to show.