The well-planned and murderous attacks in Paris in which 17 people were killed by Kalashnikov-wielding Islamist militants provoked worldwide outrage and revulsion. There was an outpouring of sympathy for and expressions of solidarity with the murdered journalists of Charlie Hebdo, the once obscure and struggling satirical magazine that emerged out of the countercultural upheavals of the late 1960s and that has long delighted in wilful provocation and shattering of taboos.
If the French-Algerian Kouachi brothers and their sponsors wished to silence Charlie Hebdo, which offended many Muslims by publishing cartoons of the Prophet Muhammad, their failure could not have been greater. On 14 January, the magazine published a 16-page special edition, which had a print run of three million, and the paper has been flooded with donations from media groups. If it did not before, the world now knows all about Charlie Hebdo and what it represents.
Left to its own devices or ignored, it might well have gone out of business. As it stands, Charlie Hebdo will be able to go on blaspheming, offending and defending the values of the French republic. One does not have to agree with all of its ultra-left-libertarian editorial decisions to be greatly cheered by this, as well as the courage of its surviving staff.
The attack by the Kouachi brothers’ associate Amedy Coulibaly on a kosher supermarket on 9 January, in which four Jewish men were murdered, was yet another reminder of the vulnerability of Jews, wherever they happen to be in the world. Already the vast majority of Jews have left, or have been forced to leave, North Africa and the Arab Middle East, where millions once lived even as recently as the 1950s (there are small communities remaining in a few countries, such as Iran and Turkey). It is estimated there are 1.1 million Jews in the European Union, mostly in France and Britain. How safe must they feel in the present environment?
The Kouachi brothers said that they did not kill civilians, from which one concludes that as well as the military the terrorists considered the police, journalists and, in the case of Coulibaly, Jews to be legitimate targets in their war against the secular west. Small wonder that more and more Jews are choosing to emigrate from France to Israel because of the way anti-Semitism has poisoned the culture.
How vulnerable is Britain to comparable attacks? As Andrew Hussey, a Paris-based academic and the author of The French Intifada, explains in this week’s magazine, the attacks have to be understood in the context of the peculiarities and specificities of France’s relationship with its Arabs and its former colonies. French colonialism, the Algerian civil war and its long, violent aftermath, the alienation felt by many Muslim youths living in the impoverished banlieue – the zones surrounding cities such as Paris and Lyons – high unemployment, the failures of post-colonial integration: all have contributed to a sense of a nation at war with itself.
Yet, throughout the world, atrocities and the mass murder of civilians are being committed by those who claim to act in the name of Islam, from Boko Haram in Nigeria to the Taliban in Pakistan and Afghanistan. Militant Islamism is one of the great transnational evils and it thrives in states of disorder and where the rule of law has broken down.
Britain has endured attacks – from the London bombings of 7 July 2005 to the brutal murder of Fusilier Lee Rigby in Woolwich, south London, in 2013 – and will do so again. But we should treat with scepticism the alarmist pronouncements of those such as Andrew Parker, the head of MI5, who, in a speech on 8 January, warned that Britain was at risk of an imminent attack from al-Qaeda or one of its affiliates. He used his speech to ask for the security services to be granted enhanced access to surveillance of digital communications, to which David Cameron seems more than happy to accede. The issue of how to balance the competing needs of security and liberty remains as difficult as ever.
British jihadis are as opposed to the values of a free press and the open society as the Kouachi brothers and their like. They wish to destroy our way of life and change our behaviour and we should not let them. The best way to combat their extremism is through vigilance, patience and a benign reassertion of liberal values.
To overreact, to indulge in grandiose declarations about wars between civilisations or to turn Britain into a surveillance state would further encourage the terrorists to believe that they are winning. They are not.