A deadly attack on a French satirical magazine that lampooned Islam seems certain to fuel rising anti-immigration movements around Europe and inflame a “culture war” about the place of religion and ethnic identity in society.
The first reaction in France to Wednesday’s killing of 12 people at the offices of Charlie Hebdo by two masked gunmen who shouted Islamist slogans was an outpouring of support for national unity and freedom of speech.
But that looks likely to be little more than a momentary ceasefire in a country gripped by economic malaise and high unemployment. France has Europe’s largest Muslim population and is in the throes of a virulent debate over national identity and the role of Islam.
“This attack is bound to accentuate rising Islamophobia in France,” said Olivier Roy, a political scientist and Middle East specialist at the European University Institute in Florence.
A book by journalist Eric Zemmour entitled “Le suicide français” (French suicide), arguing that mass Muslim immigration is among factors destroying French secular values, was the best-selling essay of 2014.
The publishing event of the new year is a novel by controversial author Michel Houellebecq that imagines a Muslim president winning power in 2022 and enforcing religious schooling and polygamy in France and banning women from working.
That intellectual ferment has mingled with public anxiety over the radicalisation of hundreds of French Muslims who have gone to join Islamic State fighters in Syria and Iraq and who security officials fear may return to cause carnage in France.
The far-right National Front lost no time in linking the most deadly act of political violence for decades to immigration and calling for a referendum to restore the death penalty, even though a leading French imam, Hassen Chalghoumi, said the right way to counter Charlie Hebdo was not through bloodshed or hate.
Party leader Marine Le Pen, who opinion surveys suggest would top the first round of a poll if a presidential election were held now, said “Islamic fundamentalism” had declared war on France and that demanded strong, effective action.
While she was careful to draw a distinction between Muslim citizens who share French values and “those who kill in the name of Islam”, her father, National Front founder Jean-Marie Le Pen, and her deputy, Florian Philippot, were less cautious.
“Anyone who says Islamist radicalism has nothing to do with immigration is living on another planet,” Philippot told RTL radio.
Imams intoned prayers outside the offices of Charlie Hebdo on Thursday and Islamic leaders urged their faithful to join in national mourning for the victims, whose cartoons of the Prophet Muhammad had drawn the wrath of many Muslims in the past.
In what justice officials said looked like revenge attacks, shots were fired overnight at a mosque in the western city of Le Mans, and a blast destroyed a kebab shop next to a mosque in the central town of Villefranche-sur-Saone.
Economic, cultural boon
Socialist President Francois Hollande urged the French last month to embrace immigration as an economic and cultural boon to the country and not make migrants a scapegoat for economic woes.
His conservative predecessor Nicolas Sarkozy, attempting a political comeback, has demanded much tighter European border controls to curb illegal migration.
Marine Le Pen has attacked visible symbols of Islam in French life such as Muslims praying in the street, hallal food being served in schools and women wearing headscarves.
Many left-wing secularists share those concerns in a country where the separation of church and state took decades of struggle.
A survey last year found French people believe immigrants make up 31% of the population, roughly four times the real number. Although France collects no ethnic or religious statistics, a reliable estimate published by the Pew Research Centre put the Muslim population at about 7.5%.
That is well ahead of 6.0% in the Netherlands, 5.8% in Germany or 4.4% in Britain, yet groups hostile to immigration and Islam, which they often conflate with terrorism and crime, are on the rise in all those countries.
A grassroots movement called Patriotic Europeans Against the Islamisation of the West (Pegida), warns Germany is being overrun by Muslims and has staged weekly rallies of up to 18 000 people in Dresden. Chancellor Angela Merkel and other political leaders have urged Germans to shun the protests, which Merkel said were organised by people “with hate in their hearts”.
Pegida, whose rise mirrors electoral gains by the right-wing Eurosceptic Alternative for Germany (AfD) party, was quick to claim the Paris attack vindicated its views.
“The Islamists, against whom Pegida has been warning over the last 12 weeks, showed in France … that they are not capable of democracy but instead see violence and death as the solution,” the movement wrote on its Facebook page.
“Our political leaders want us to believe the opposite is true,” the group said. “Does a tragedy like this first have to happen in Germany?”
A poll taken in November, well before the Paris attack, found 57% of non-Muslim Germans feel threatened by Islam.
In Britain, the leader of the anti-EU UK Independence Party, Nigel Farage, said the Paris attack was the result of a “fifth column” living in European countries.
“We’ve encouraged people from other cultures to remain within those cultures and not integrate fully within our communities,” Farage told LBC radio.
Prime Minister David Cameron, who has called “multiculturalism” a failure and is seeking to restrict migration from poorer European Union countries, condemned Farage’s comments, saying this was no time to play politics.
Models not preventing violence
Social scientists say neither France’s secular integration model, which confines religion to the private sphere and bars the wearing of religious symbols in schools and government buildings, nor the multicultural British and United States model, which recognises separate ethnic and religious communities, has prevented violence by a fringe of alienated young Muslims.
In the Netherlands, traumatised by the killing of film producer Theo van Gogh by an Islamist gunman 10 years ago, outspoken anti-Islam campaigner Geert Wilders is topping public opinion polls.
Within minutes of the Paris events, Wilders, who has lived under police protection for a decade, repeated calls to close Dutch borders to Muslim immigrants and said in a statement: “The West is at war and should de-Islamise.”
In the Nordic countries, where far-right anti-immigrant parties are gaining ground, Muslim leaders said their communities faced a wave of violence.
Omar Mustafa, chairman of the Islamic Association of Sweden, said many mosques had set up night patrols after recent arson and racist attacks on Muslim communities.
“Times are tough now,” Mustafa told Reuters. “The forces of hate, anti-democratic forces, are trying to set the agenda, both the extremists on the right and those who are religious.” – Reuters