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The Paris Atrocities of January 2015 - and a Message of Hope for the World

Updated on August 22, 2015
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Alun is a freethinking moderate on political and philosophical issues of general interest; some of his views can be found in his articles.

Yours Truly
Yours Truly

Introduction

In Paris on Wednesday 7th January 2015, two gunmen forced their way into the offices of a French satirical magazine 'Charlie Hebdo' and shot dead nine members of staff, including the editor Stephane Charbonnier and seven other journalists. They also killed Charbonnier's police bodyguard, and another man who happened to be visiting at the time. After leaving the building they murdered a policeman in the street, before making their escape in a hijacked car.

Then on Thursday 8th January, in an apparently unrelated incident, a jogger was injured and a policewoman was shot dead by another gunman.

But on Friday 9th January it emerged that these two incidents were in fact, connected, when the perpetrator of the second shootings entered a Jewish kosher supermarket in a district of Paris called Porte de Vincennes, and murdered four of the customers and employees he found there. He took others hostage. Whilst in the Hypercacher supermarket it became clear he had been in phone conversation with the two men responsible for the magazine attack, and that all of these different atrocities had been planned and coordinated.

Three days of violent terror came to a bloody end later that same Friday when the perpetrators of the 'Charlie Hebdo' attack were discovered in a small town north of Paris, called Dammartin-en-Goële. After several hours holed up in a printworks, they came out guns blazing, and were promptly shot by police. The gunman in the kosher supermarket atrocity was killed soon afterwards when police stormed the building.

In total 17 innocent people - journalists and support staff, Jewish civilians and police officers - had been killed, and France reeled from these assaults on civil liberties and a religious community. The gunmen were found to have been radical Islamists who claimed allegiance variously to the terrorist organisations Al Qaeda and ISIS.

The significance for democracy of these attacks and the background to the events of Paris 2015 will be briefly discussed next. But this article is not really about the details or motivations behind the terrorist attrocities. It is about what happened afterwards ...

The grieving mother of one victim of 7th January - the policeman who was murdered in a Parisian street, and a poignant reminder of the indiscriminate nature of terrorism. The policeman was Ahmed Merabet, a Muslim
The grieving mother of one victim of 7th January - the policeman who was murdered in a Parisian street, and a poignant reminder of the indiscriminate nature of terrorism. The policeman was Ahmed Merabet, a Muslim | Source

The Sense of Shock

The events in Paris shocked people throughout France, Europe and all of the free world. In some respects the events were as shocking or more than other atrocities which killed even more people. The attacks on New York and Washington in 2001 were truly evil, but may have been seen at least by those who supported them as political terrorism in response to American involvement in the Middle East. The attacks in London, England in 2005 on the transport system may have been seen in the same way - as political terrorism. Even though the victims of both atrocities were civilian.

But Paris in January 2015 was different. There was no way those attacks could be described as political, motivated by struggles in a far off part of the world. They struck at the fundamental core values of democracy. 'Charlie Hebdo' was an attack on the right to free speech and free expression. The Hypercacher supermarket was an assault on the right to belong to a religious faith.

'Charlie Hebdo'

'Charlie Hebdo' is an irreverent, satirical magazine. It has been described as secularist and left wing. It has regularly poked fun at far right politicians and also at the religion of Islam, but it has also attacked other world religions including Catholism (the dominant faith in France.) Indeed, as far as religion is concerned, the target of most critical articles has been Catholism. And significantly both Judaism and the State of Israel have also been ridiculed in the past.

But of course it is the irreverent attitude towards Islam which has provoked most controversy, and particularly some very derogatory cartoons of the prophet Muhammad. Any printing of images of Muhammad is considered offensive by some Muslims, let alone the grotesque caricatures of satirical cartoons.

In some countries such cartoons are banned, whilst in others including the UK, national papers as well as the BBC have rarely shown such images in the recent past - ostenibly to avoid causing unnecessary offence. That is laudable, but it usually isn't the honest reason.The honest reason is the fear of extremist attacks by those who cannot tolerate any perceived offence to their religion.

'Charlie Hebdo' had not shown any such restraint, and was unsuccessfully sued in 2006 over the publication of cartoons of Muhammad. Then in 2011, militant Islamists firebombed the magazine's headquarters - the worst attack up until the events of 7th January 2015.

France in the 21st Century

France today has the largest Muslim population in Western Europe, the legacy in part of immigration from former colonies of France in North Africa, from Algeria and Morocco and Tunisia. More than 5 million Muslims currently live in France. Many live in underpriveliged areas and have low incomes and limited job opportunities. Not only does France have a large Muslim population. It also has the largest Jewish population in Europe.

Although integration and tolerance is reputed to be very high in France as compared to some other countries, there is a level of Islamophobic and anti-Semitic sentiment, and growing support for strict immigration controls and for extreme right wing politicians who call for such controls.

Against this volatile backdrop, French political tradition has fully embraced the values of secularism. Religion and state affairs are kept separate. Whilst everyone is free to pursue their own religious beliefs, these not allowed to be imposed on to the rights of others and on political decision making.There are restrictions in the French media to prevent offences such as defamation, but the emphasis of French law is to enshrine freedom of expression and speech. Notably in this regard, the crime of blasphemy was abolished in 1881. As a result, satirical publications are at liberty to criticise and to ridicule anything they like, including religious beliefs and religious figures.

Candlelit demonstration during the night of the first murders
Candlelit demonstration during the night of the first murders | Source
Tributes paid, including a collection of pens and pencils - the journalist's tools, and a heart shaped message from a British Muslim
Tributes paid, including a collection of pens and pencils - the journalist's tools, and a heart shaped message from a British Muslim | Source

What has Happened in the Aftermath of the Atrocities?

The preliminary sections of this article have briefly discussed the nature of the atrocities in Paris as an attack on freedom of expression and religious harmony, and they have also given a background to the elements of French political life and satirical writings of 'Charlie Hebdo' which contributed to this volatile mix.

The rest of this article is different. The crimes generated a ground swell of opinion and a backlash against the terrorists of quite unprecedented scale, at least since 9/11. As a result, a message of hope was derived from the attitudes of the people, the politicians and media in the aftermath of the atrocities. What has happened?

1) On the evening of the 7th January killings, more than 100,000 came on to the streets of Paris and many other cities in France to demonstrate. Some were already carrying improvised 'Je suis Charlie' placards - the slogan which came to represent solidarity with the murdered journalists.

2) And many more thousands came out in cities across the world in support of France. In Tokyo, in Berlin, in Sydney, Buenos Aires and Barcelona, in Stockholm, Montreal and New York, and in countries too numerous to mention.

3) Some Islamists and some Islamic groups defended the terrorism, but the leaders of the Arab world, in the nations of Afghanistan and Algeria, Egypt and Pakistan, Jordan, Lebanon and even Syria, Iran and the Palestinian State, sent messages of condolence and condemnation of the attacks. So did many others, including many spiritual leaders. Some, it must be said, do not exactly allow freedom of speech in their own countries, but all condemned the acts of terrorism.

4) Remarkable images were included on the CBSNews website of protests in support of free speech in Ankara and in Beirut. And most of all in Ramallah in the West Bank, where a young Palestinian boy held a placard saying 'I am Charlie' .

5) A lot of publications in other countries chose to print 'Charlie Hebdo' cartoons. The reason was not to cause offence, but as an act of defiance against the terrorists, and to inform by illustrating the images which had motivated the attacks. The BBC, which previously had issued guidelines against all depictions of Muhammad, showed him on a 'Charlie Hebdo' cover and announced that they were reviewing their guidelines.

6) Remarkably, an Egyptian independent newspaper Al-Masry Al-Youm featured cartoons dedicated to 'Charlie Hebdo', though not of course including depictions of Muhammad. Their website did also carry some cartoons from the French magazine.

Crowds thousands strong thronged the streets of Paris on 11th January 2015
Crowds thousands strong thronged the streets of Paris on 11th January 2015 | Source
The French flag flies in the Place de la République on Sunday 11th January 2015
The French flag flies in the Place de la République on Sunday 11th January 2015 | Source

The Rally on 11th January

On Sunday 11th January, a major gathering was organised in Paris. The author of this artcle could only watch the unfolding events on television in the UK. But with each passing minute, each image, and each interview, it was clear that something special was unfolding:

1) An estimated 1.5 million people attended the rally in Paris, not with political slogans but with messages of liberty and solidarity. It was the largest ever gathering in the history of France - even larger than on Liberation Day in World War Two. About 2 million more demonstrated and marched in other rallies around the nation in cities such as Lyon, Bordeaux and Marseilles.

2) And as on previous days other nations also showed support. In my country - the UK - national monuments and buildings in London such as Tower Bridge and the London Eye, were lit up in the three colours of the French flag - the Tricolore - as was the National gallery and the fountains in Trafalgar Square where a large rally was held.

3) The leaders of 41 nations walked together in Paris, arms linked. Included among them were Benjamin Netanyahu, the Prime Minister of Israel and Mahmoud Abbas, President of the Palestinian authority. Also present were families of the victims, and surviving journalists from 'Charlie Hebdo'.

4) The presidents of Mali and Niger were also present. Mali and Niger are among the poorest countries in the world. Both are overwhelmingly Muslim, and Mali has been the target in recent years of Al Qaeda sponsored attacks. However, despite immense obstacles both countries have been determined for many years to be both secular and democratic in their politics, and tolerant in their faiths.

5) Flags of all nations in Europe, Africa, Asia and the Americas were carried by the people in the crowd, many of which may surprise. The flags of Ukraine and Brazil, Turkey, Italy, and the Republic of the Congo were waved. Also present was the flag of Afghanistan, the Syrian revolutionary forces and the flag of the Berber people of North Africa. Israeli and Palestinian flags flew next to each other.

6) A police marksman on guard on top of one of the buildings was regularly cheered by the people in the street, and in return regularly waved back. And police vans were cheered as they passed through the crowd - support which is not always granted to the security services in France. The police of course were also victims that week.

7) As well as placards, people carried pens and pencils - a symbol of the power of the pen against weapons of violence. A Muslim woman was interviewed holding such a pen - she was no fan of that magazine, but was condemnatory of violence against the journalists and defiant in support of French unity. There were indeed too many incidents worthy of mention, both at the Parisian rally and around the world - as an amateur writer who can only write in my spare time, it would probably have taken me several weeks to detail them all.

A Jew is interviewed on camera on Sunday 11th January 2015. The man with the arm around his shoulder is his Muslim friend
A Jew is interviewed on camera on Sunday 11th January 2015. The man with the arm around his shoulder is his Muslim friend | Source

Judaism and Islam

The problems between the religions of Judaism and Islam are ancient and well documented. In the Middle East those problems may sometimes seem irreconcilable, but Jews and Muslims can live in harmony elsewhere.

Such harmony is rarely exhibited as overtly as in the days which passed between Wednesday 7th and Sunday 11th January 2015, and whilst I have condemned Islamic terrorism, I have also been at pains in this article to try to point out the warmth which was shown between members of the two faiths:

1) On Wednesday a Muslim policeman of Tunisian origin was one of those shot dead near the offices of 'Charlie Hebdo'. Muslims were victims too. And on Friday, several of the customers at the Jewish kosher supermarket were hidden from the gunman by one of the supermarket employees. That employee was Lassana Bathily, a Muslim originally from Mali. He is now being regarded as a hero throughout France.

2) On Sunday as the politicians marched, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and Palestinian president Mahmoud Abbasboth walked within metres of each other.

3) Television coverage of the rallies on Sunday showed a Jewish man clutching a white rose. It had been given to him by a Muslim man. And two friends from the same French town were shown - their arms around each other. One man was Jewish and one was Muslim, and each held a placard declaring their support for the other.

These were just a few of the stories - stories which showed how both Jews and Muslims had been blighted by the week's events. And how both could live together.

World leaders led by François Hollande of France walk with linked arms. Most notably, on the left is the Israeli prime minister. On the right is the Palestinian president
World leaders led by François Hollande of France walk with linked arms. Most notably, on the left is the Israeli prime minister. On the right is the Palestinian president | Source

The Successes and Failures of the Terrorists

What are the aims of acts of terrorism, and were those aims achieved by that week's events? The obvious primary role of terrorism is to strike terror into people. The clue is in the name. To that extent the gunmen may have succeeded, because people in France and elsewhere in the free world were undoubtedly shocked and indeed terrified by these attacks.

But the raison d'etre for inducing terror is to achieve change. In this instance it was to force people to adopt alien values into our culture and to restrict our basic freedoms of expression - by far the most fundamental of which is free speech. To that end, the terrorists undoubtedly failed, because it seems greater expressions of Judeo-Islamic friendship were shown than ever before, and greater calls for the right to freedom of expression were made than ever before. In my country, commentators including politicians argued more vociferously than ever that at least one cartoon featured in 'Charlie Hebdo' should be published in all national papers and shown on the BBC; not perhaps the most grotesque, and not to cause offence, but to demonstrate a collective unwillingness to submit to terrorism. Supremacy in democracies of basic liberties over the intolerances of groups within society was asserted categorically.

And 'Charlie Hebdo' - the satirical magazine which was virtually unknown outside of France - achieved global publicity and support, including from many who might have found their articles grossly offensive, but who defended their right to publish them. Following their killing spree, one of the gunmen had yelled 'We have killed 'Charlie Hebdo!' . Well - 60,000 copies was the magazine's normal weekly print run. In the week following the atrocities, it was decided that 3,000,000 copies of the next edition would be published.

The Author's Thoughts on 'Charlie Hebdo', Islam and Religion

I have never read 'Charlie Hebdo'. I have an open mind on its philosophy but from what I have heard of it I suspect I would not like it, because I see no reason to cause offence unnecessarily. However, I also believe that there is no human right to be more cherished than the rights to free speech and expression.

The only restrictions on free speech should concern national security issues, incitement to violence, and defamation. Causing offence should not result in a restriction on free speech.

I am neither Jewish nor Muslim, nor indeed of any other religion. But I have absolutely no problem whatsoever with people practising their faith, as long as there is no attempt to impose that faith on others.

Sharing

I have never before asked for my articles to be shared in other media, but if you feel this article merits a wider audience, then please do share - I ask because the message of Paris on the 11th January 1015 should be heard across the world.

The Author's Thoughts on the Events of the Week

The murders in Paris on Wednesday 7th, Thursday 8th and on Friday 9th January represented the bloodiest attack on French soil since 1961, and the most traumatic shock experienced by that nation in many years.

Absolutely remarkably, by the end of the day on Sunday 11th January, a week of great trauma and shock had become a celebration of solidarity and togetherness, with people singing and cheering politicians and policemen, Muslims hugging Jews and people from all over the world expressing solidarity for basic democratic values. An almost carnival-like atmosphere took over.

Could it make a long term difference? Depressingly, perhaps not. The world goes on and people often have short memories. Courage may fail, and politicians will return to concentrating on attacking opposition parties rather than the trueist threats to our way of life. Jews and Muslims will fight in the Middle East. And apologists will once again find excuses for abominable acts. Edmund Burke once said:

'The Only Thing Necessary for the Triumph of Evil is that Good Men Do Nothing'

The 'good men' and women who demonstrated in defence of the freedom of the press and the basic rights of people in France, need to continue to do something instead of nothing and have to stick to the values and philosophies which came to the fore in the aftermath of the atrocities. If they don't, then the atrocities will surely be repeated.

Finally, in view of the desire of the terrorists to suppress freedom of expression, it was fitting that the march route on Sunday 11th January passed along the Boulevard Voltaire. One of the most powerful quotes attributed to Voltaire on the subject of free speech has never carried as much weight as it did during this week:

'I do not agree with what you have to say, but I'll defend to the death your right to say it.'

Rubbing out a terrorist with a drawing. A nice touch from cartoonist Gary Varvel
Rubbing out a terrorist with a drawing. A nice touch from cartoonist Gary Varvel | Source

Copyright

Please feel free to quote limited text from this article on condition that an active link back to this page is included

This article has been published on Wednesday 14th of January 2015.

One week ago terrorists killed people just because they were Jewish. And other terrorists attempted to stifle free speech, and the freedom to publish a cartoon.

By the end of the week, Jews and Muslims were embracing each other in the streets of Paris. And today 'Charlie Hebdo' is once again being published with its largest print run ever. On the front cover is a cartoon of a weeping Muhammad.

I wonder what will next week bring?

© 2015 Greensleeves Hubs

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