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 is a writer, broadcaster and academic with a focus on current affairs, the Middle East, Islam and France. She currently works as a broadcast journalist for TRT world, a global news network, and was the presenter of documentaries including BBC One's “A Deadly Warning: Srebrenica Revisited”.

She is a Research Associate at the Centre of Islamic Studies (CIS) at SOAS University, where her research focuses on British Muslim integration issues. She also undertakes the centre’s media outreach and research dissemination in relation to its work on British Muslim communities.
Myriam is currently a PhD (DPhil) researcher at Oxford University, focusing on Islamic movements in Morocco. 

She tweets @MFrancoisCerrah

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What has happened to the Liberal Democrats?

As Brexit nears, Vince Cable is struggling – but his is a poisoned inheritance.

During the coalition years, Iain Duncan Smith came up with a plan: if unemployed people went on a demonstration, and the police stopped them for any reason, the officer should pass their names on to the Department for Work and Pensions, which could then freeze their benefits. After all, the minister’s reasoning went, if you had time to protest, you weren’t actively seeking work.

This was just one of the many David Cameron-era Tory proposals that the Liberal Democrats quashed before it ever saw the light of day. Every Lib Dem who worked in the coalition, whether as a minister or a special adviser, has a horror story about a policy they stopped or watered down – and usually the papers to prove it, too.

And so from time to time, Vince Cable’s team needs to respond to a news story by plundering their archives for anti-Tory material. A month or so ago, a former Lib Dem staffer got a phone call from the party’s press operation: could someone answer some questions about their time in government? To which the ex-staffer said: OK, but since you’re calling on a withheld number, you’ll need to get someone to vouch for you.

Perhaps, the former staffer suggested, Phil Reilly, the Lib Dems’ communications chief and a veteran of the party machine, was around? No, came the answer, he has moved on. What about Sam Barratt? Out at a meeting. Was Paul Haydon there? No. Haydon – who worked for the party’s last member of the European parliament, Catherine Bearder, before joining the press office – had moved on, too. After a while, this ex-staffer gave up and put the phone down.

The really troubling thing about this story is that I have heard it three times from three former Liberal Democrat aides. The names change, of course, but the point of the story – that the party machine has been stripped of much of its institutional memory – stays the same. The culprit, according to the staffers who have spoken to me, is Vince Cable. And the exodus is not just from the press office: the party’s chief executive, Tim Gordon, is among the heavyweights to have departed since the 2017 election.

Is this fair? Tim Farron, Cable’s predecessor as party leader, did not share Nick Clegg’s politics, but he recognised that he was inheriting a high-quality backroom team and strove to keep the main players in place. Reilly, who is now at the National Film and Television School, wrote not only Clegg’s concession speech at the general election in 2015, but Farron’s acceptance speech as leader a few months later.

The Liberal Democrats’ curse is that they have to fight for every minute of press and television coverage, so the depletion of their experienced media team is particularly challenging. But their problems go beyond the question of who works at the George Street headquarters in London. As party veterans note, Cable leads a parliamentary group whose continued existence is as uncertain as it was when Paddy Ashdown first became its leader in 1988. The difference is that Ashdown had a gift for identifying issues that the main political parties had neglected. That gave him a greater media profile than his party’s standing warranted.

There is no shortage of liberal and green issues on which Cable could be more vocal: the right to die, for instance, or the legalisation of cannabis. He could even take a leaf from Ashdown’s playbook and set out a bolder approach on income tax than either Theresa May or Jeremy Corbyn. While none of these issues command anything resembling majority support, they are distinctly more popular than the Liberal Democrats. They would also get the party talked about more often. At present, it is being ignored.

These complaints will receive a greater airing if the Lib Dems have a disappointing night at the local elections on 3 May. The party hopes to gain ground in Manchester and retain the Watford mayoralty, but fears it will lose control of the council in Sutton, south-west London. It expects to make little headway overall.

So what else could be done? If you gather three Liberal Democrats in a room, you will hear at least five opinions about what Cable is getting wrong. But the party’s problems neither start nor end with its leader. Cable inherits two difficult legacies: first, thanks to Farron, his party is committed to an all-out war against Brexit. In 2016, that policy successfully gave a shattered party a reason to exist, and some hoped that the Lib Dems could recover ground by wooing disgruntled Remainers. Last year’s general election changed the game, however. The two big parties took their highest share of the vote since 1970, squeezing the Lib Dems to a dozen MPs. That simply doesn’t give the party the numbers to “stop Brexit” – therefore, they feel to many like a wasted vote.

Why not drop the commitment to a second in/out EU referendum? Because one of Farron’s successes was attracting pro-European new members – and thanks to the party’s ultra-democratic constitution, these hardcore Remainers can keep that commitment in place for as long as they wish.

The legacy of coalition is even more difficult to address. In policy terms, the Lib Dems can point to great achievements in government: across every department, there are examples of Duncan Smith-style cruelties that the party prevented.

Yet there is no electoral coalition to be won from voters who are pleased and grateful that hypothetical horrors didn’t come to pass. More than half of voters still regard the Lib Dems’ participation in coalition as a reason not to back the party. That might change as the memories fade, but for now the party’s last spell in government is a significant barrier to gaining the chance to have another one. Even a fresh, young and charismatic leader – with a superb, experienced team – would struggle with such a poisoned inheritance. 

Stephen Bush is special correspondent at the New Statesman and the PSA's Journalist of the Year. His daily briefing, Morning Call, provides a quick and essential guide to domestic and global politics.

This article first appeared in the 27 April 2018 issue of the New Statesman, The Corbyn ultimatum