French police officers stand guard outside Paris' main mosque as people enter for Friday prayers. Photo: Eric Feferberg/AFP/Getty Images
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Is the Charlie Hebdo attack really a struggle over European values?

By targeting the French magazine, the attackers were able to deepen already profound rifts in French society and establish an atmosphere ripe for the recruitment of alienated youths.

There is growing realisation that perhaps the tragic attack at the Charlie Hebdo offices on Wednesday was not actually about the cartoons themselves. Instead, Charlie Hebdo represented a strategic target as part of a broader tactic of polarisation.

Information is gradually trickling out that suggests that at least one of the gunmen involved, Cherif Kouachi, had long-standing terrorist links to Iraq as a middle man funnelling funds to extremists and as an aspiring fighter himself. His record of terrorist activity dates back to 2005 – at least one year prior to the Danish cartoons controversy. This suggests that while the cartoons were certainly a motivating factor, they cannot be labelled the impetus for Kouachi’s motivations. He may, as it turns out, fit into the increasingly familiar pattern of a disaffected European Muslim youth, with little religious inclination aside from an interest in a politico-religious narrative of vengeance against the “west”.

What’s more, although it’s not impossible, it seems unlikely that Kouachi waited several years to undertake his revenge on Charlie Hebdo following their publication of offensive images – the last major scandal dates back to 2012 when the magazine published a series of cartoons in the aftermath of the protests over “The Innocence of Muslims” Youtube video.  Rather, it is increasingly probable that Kouachi may, as the Journal of Long War Studies suggests, have received the military training abroad he seemed to aspire to. He may have pledged allegiance to a terrorist group, perhaps al-Qaeda, perhaps Islamic State (formerly Isis). The former has a long history of selecting targets to cause maximum chaos, both structurally, but also symbolically – think of the enduring power of the 9/11 attacks. There, the target was not random. Al-Qaeda purposefully selected the tallest buildings in America’s most iconic city, a financial centre, and a symbol of American prosperity. Similarly, the London Underground was selected on 7/7 for maximum disruption of the city. Perhaps what these men were actually targeting here was a symbol, a European flashpoint which they were aware could reignite heated debates over the place of Muslims in Europe. In so doing, they could deepen already profound rifts in French society and establish an atmosphere ripe for the recruitment of alienated youths, struggling to find their place in a society ever more hostile to their presence.

Why France? After all, the Danes initiated the cartoon controversy. In recent years, France has seen increasing restrictions on religious freedom, denounced by Amnesty International and other bodies monitoring human rights. From the ban on headscarves in schools to face veils in public spaces, alongside countless controversies over everything from prayer rooms to halal food, the cycle of media ire directed at Muslims has become near-incessant. This has not gone unnoticed by extremists, who have used these issues in their output to proclaim France as a land of inequity where Muslims can never truly be at home. They have even used these events in propaganda videos to argue for Muslim emigration to Isis-run territory. We know that France has one of the highest numbers of foreign fighters recruited, which suggests some of this rhetoric is resonating.

Secondly, why Charlie Hebdo? The magazine was, of course, the French focal point of several controversies surrounding incendiary depictions of the Prophet Muhammad. As a consequence of its choice to print images that many other publications considered pointlessly offensive, it was eulogised by anti-Muslim hate-mongers who used the issue to assert a fundamental clash between “Islam and the west”, understood in the sort of monolithic terms which refused to recognise western Muslims or westerns who objected to Charlie Hebdo on grounds of prejudice, not religion. Although these earlier controversies were polarising, there was middle ground for both Muslims who either didn’t object or refused to care about what they saw as an attention-seeking publication and various mainstream voices, including a former Charlie Hebdo employee, Olivier Cyran, who denounced the magazine for aggravating an already toxic atmosphere for French Muslims.

By targeting Charlie Hebdo, the nuance of this discussion has been lost entirely and the attackers have succeeded in their attempt at polarisation. The #JeSuisCharlie and #IamCharlie Twitter hashtags, which required uncritical support of the magazine in lieu of sympathy with the murdered, only entrenched this schism. It is, of course, entirely possibly to have little sympathy with a publication which often crossed the line into racism, while having total empathy and solidarity with the individuals murdered. For many Muslims, these hashtags were an alienating challenge posited as “you’re either with us, or with the terrorists”. Some responded with their own, alternative hastags to underline the desire for solidarity with the dead and their disgust with the actions of the gunmen. Writer and activist Dyab Abou Jahjah initiated #JeSuisAhmed with:

For him, like for many Muslims and critics of Charlie Hebdo, a key principle was to avoid falling into precisely the sorts of binaries it seems this attack was designed to create.

Various outlets have made much of the fact Charlie Hebdo mocked “fanatics” – yes, they did, they mocked the sacred symbols of many groups, but those of Muslims on a particularly frequent basis and in a distinctly racialised tone. Not that this should ever warrant a violent response, but the eulogising of the magazine for some sort of mastery of European satirical tradition is a white wash of its chequered history as well as a capitulation to a simplistic narrative of “you’re either with the racist satirists or you’re with the terrorists”. That narrative serves only the extremes on both sides who want to perpetuate the notion that Muslims have no place in Europe – they now appear to be working to the same end to “make life harder for Muslims” (to quote one British neo-con writer), with al-Qaeda sympathisers and far-right stirrers converging to create the kind of schisms which would validate their narrative.

If these men turn out to be adepts of the cult that is Isis – the last tweet on Charlie Hebdo’s account was a cartoon of the Isis leader Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi – then rather than usurping the tragedy as a means to berate Muslims for the alleged incompatibility of their faith with “European mores”, much more has to be done to ensure this greater alienation (the same variety which breeds identification with counter-cultural groups) isn’t deepened. We must ensure slogans of solidarity become more than just narrow and questionable support for the targeted publication and instead provide resistance to all those voices which seek to divide France, to entrench camps and harden the already worrying divides. Mosques and Muslims in France have already begun to experience a violent backlash, including a grenade attack, and it really is time to counter the hate behind these murders by rallying together behind a common solidarity – a solidarity rooted in the acceptance of difference, in respect for others, and a commitment to defeating those hell-bent on destroying the common fabric of our society.

Myriam Francois-Cerrah is a freelance journalist and broadcaster (France, Middle East and North Africa, Islam) and a DPhil candidate in Middle Eastern studies at Oxford University.

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Air pollution: 5 steps to vanquishing an invisible killer

A new report looks at the economics of air pollution. 

110, 150, 520... These chilling statistics are the number of deaths attributable to particulate air pollution for the cities of Southampton, Nottingham and Birmingham in 2010 respectively. Or how about 40,000 - that is the total number of UK deaths per year that are attributable the combined effects of particulate matter (PM2.5) and Nitrogen Oxides (NOx).

This situation sucks, to say the very least. But while there are no dramatic images to stir up action, these deaths are preventable and we know their cause. Road traffic is the worst culprit. Traffic is responsible for 80 per cent of NOx on high pollution roads, with diesel engines contributing the bulk of the problem.

Now a new report by ResPublica has compiled a list of ways that city councils around the UK can help. The report argues that: “The onus is on cities to create plans that can meet the health and economic challenge within a short time-frame, and identify what they need from national government to do so.”

This is a diplomatic way of saying that current government action on the subject does not go far enough – and that cities must help prod them into gear. That includes poking holes in the government’s proposed plans for new “Clean Air Zones”.

Here are just five of the ways the report suggests letting the light in and the pollution out:

1. Clean up the draft Clean Air Zones framework

Last October, the government set out its draft plans for new Clean Air Zones in the UK’s five most polluted cities, Birmingham, Derby, Leeds, Nottingham and Southampton (excluding London - where other plans are afoot). These zones will charge “polluting” vehicles to enter and can be implemented with varying levels of intensity, with three options that include cars and one that does not.

But the report argues that there is still too much potential for polluters to play dirty with the rules. Car-charging zones must be mandatory for all cities that breach the current EU standards, the report argues (not just the suggested five). Otherwise national operators who own fleets of vehicles could simply relocate outdated buses or taxis to places where they don’t have to pay.  

Different vehicles should fall under the same rules, the report added. Otherwise, taking your car rather than the bus could suddenly seem like the cost-saving option.

2. Vouchers to vouch-safe the project’s success

The government is exploring a scrappage scheme for diesel cars, to help get the worst and oldest polluting vehicles off the road. But as the report points out, blanket scrappage could simply put a whole load of new fossil-fuel cars on the road.

Instead, ResPublica suggests using the revenue from the Clean Air Zone charges, plus hiked vehicle registration fees, to create “Pollution Reduction Vouchers”.

Low-income households with older cars, that would be liable to charging, could then use the vouchers to help secure alternative transport, buy a new and compliant car, or retrofit their existing vehicle with new technology.

3. Extend Vehicle Excise Duty

Vehicle Excise Duty is currently only tiered by how much CO2 pollution a car creates for the first year. After that it becomes a flat rate for all cars under £40,000. The report suggests changing this so that the most polluting vehicles for CO2, NOx and PM2.5 continue to pay higher rates throughout their life span.

For ClientEarth CEO James Thornton, changes to vehicle excise duty are key to moving people onto cleaner modes of transport: “We need a network of clean air zones to keep the most polluting diesel vehicles from the most polluted parts of our towns and cities and incentives such as a targeted scrappage scheme and changes to vehicle excise duty to move people onto cleaner modes of transport.”

4. Repurposed car parks

You would think city bosses would want less cars in the centre of town. But while less cars is good news for oxygen-breathers, it is bad news for city budgets reliant on parking charges. But using car parks to tap into new revenue from property development and joint ventures could help cities reverse this thinking.

5. Prioritise public awareness

Charge zones can be understandably unpopular. In 2008, a referendum in Manchester defeated the idea of congestion charging. So a big effort is needed to raise public awareness of the health crisis our roads have caused. Metro mayors should outline pollution plans in their manifestos, the report suggests. And cities can take advantage of their existing assets. For example in London there are plans to use electronics in the Underground to update travellers on the air pollution levels.

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Change is already in the air. Southampton has used money from the Local Sustainable Travel Fund to run a successful messaging campaign. And in 2011 Nottingham City Council became the first city to implement a Workplace Parking levy – a scheme which has raised £35.3m to help extend its tram system, upgrade the station and purchase electric buses.

But many more “air necessities” are needed before we can forget about pollution’s worry and its strife.  

 

India Bourke is an environment writer and editorial assistant at the New Statesman.