I am Charlie. I’ll never back down

If there is one thing that will never be taken away from Charlie Hebdo, it is its courage. The courage to stand up for freedom of expression in the face of many pressures and dangers.

Seeing the images of a Paris street locked down by police, and sirens wailing, in the aftermath of the devastating attack that has targeted the most emblematic French satirical newspaper and killed several of its journalists and cartoonists, the overpowering feeling is that of horror. A media platform has been targeted with the intention of it being destroyed.

This is a particularly free-thinking, provocative example, one that very much symbolises what in France is called the “1968 generation”, a current of thought that sought to shake up the country, or at least the old family, patriarchal and religious traditions of Gaullist France.

Many of Charlie Hebdo‘s cartoonists, such as Cabu and Wolinsky, who were killed in Wednesday’s terrible assault, are familiar names to most French people.

They liked pushing the limits of what is generally deemed acceptable in public discourse, they weren’t shy about vulgarity, and could be accused of bad taste. But through their relentless creativity they offered up a mirror to many of France’s woes and traits, with always a generous laugh to be had.

For France, as for the outside world, the dreadful violence that has come down on Charlie Hebdo can only be seen as an attack on independent journalism, on the freedom to inform and to comment, whether through writing, drawing or pictures.

This has happened not in a far-flung war zone, nor in an autocratic country where liberty of the press is crushed, but indeed in the heart of a European capital.

One of the assailants was caught on video shouting “Allah” as some shots rang out. In another clip, the attackers are heard shouting: “We have killed Charlie Hebdo. We have avenged the Prophet Muhammad.” Over the years, Charlie Hebdo had published numerous cartoons ridiculing the Prophet. In November 2011, a firebomb attack gutted the headquarters of this weekly publication after it had run a special edition making fun of sharia law.

Because of the courage shown by Charlie Hebdo in producing its many provocative editions, with covers poking fun at religions – in particular, it must be said, at Islam – and because of the many intimidations it had suffered from in the past, what happened on Wednesday can only be seen as an attempt to terrorise, and to silence free thought.

One wonders how such a traumatic attack might in the future weigh on decisions made by Paris newsroom editors: will lives be put at risk if something deemed unacceptable by fanatics is published? For France, and Europe at large, this carnage will have a huge fallout. At a time when dogmatism and intolerance of all kinds seem to thrive, many values – those of pluralism, diversity, rule of law, and the freedom to exercise one’s essential rights – will be put to the test.

The outcry in France is of course huge. There are calls for street demonstrations in defence of democratic values and the republic. But populist movements, in particular Front National, headed by Marine Le Pen, will attempt to make use of this tragedy to fuel more resentment against Islam and immigrant populations. This is, after all, a politician who described Muslim public prayers in France as “occupation”.

France has the largest Muslim population in Europe. Voices from the community are coming out in utter distress, distancing themselves and their religion from the horrifying attack against Charlie Hebdo. The imam of the Drancy mosque, in one of Paris’s northern suburbs, declared: “These are criminals, barbarians. They have sold their souls to hell. This is not freedom.”

The killings bring France face to face with many issues that represent important challenges to its secular republican model – a model that bans headscarves and other overt religious attributes in state schools, and that has made the burqa illegal on French streets.

The relationship between French people and the Islamic world at large is fraught with many painful historical episodes – not least the Algerian war. But it is a contrasted landscape where a minority of extremists, whether they are from the far right or from the Salafi world, must not be confused with the quiet, peaceful mainstream. There are also many success stories of integration to point to – for example, the highly popular second generation immigrants who rank among the stars of French cinema.

It is all the more painful that the attack took place just a few days after François Hollande delivered a speech heralding the many benefits brought to France by immigration. It is also striking that the killings occurred at a time when in several European countries, most spectacularly in Germany, slogans such as the fight against the “Islamisation of the West” have become a rallying cry for angry crowds. Such ideas are not absent in France and they will, alas, continue to feed a lot of the least appealing aspects of domestic politics.

Radical Islam has been growing among some of France’s young Muslim communities, many of whom are concentrated in ghetto-type suburbs where unemployment runs high. Jihadi networks and online indoctrination have led hundreds of young French people to join the ranks of Isis.

These are not issues confined to France. But today, more painfully than ever before, France is at the forefront of how the woes of the Middle East can resonate and seep poison at the heart of democratic Western societies. – © Guardian News & Media 2015

Natalie Nougayrède is a columnist, leader writer and foreign affairs commentator for the Guardian. She was previously executive editor and managing editor of Le Monde.

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