Within hours of the attack against Charlie Hebdo, a satirical newspaper in Paris, French and international politicians, pundits, and commentators had begun depicting it as an attack against the country’s “proud history of enlightenment.” Former president Nicolas Sarkozy considered it an attack against “civilization” while a distraught President François Hollande described it as an assault against the republic and its values of “liberty, freedom of expression, creativity, justice, and pluralism.”

However, restricting analysis of the Charlie Hebdo murders to whether it was a strike against enlightenment and civilization glosses over the profound challenges facing contemporary European societies. The horrific attacks in France bring back to the fore the question of what it means to be a citizen in Europe today and how such citizenship intersects with the burning questions of class and multiple cultural identities.

Fueling Europe’s far right movement

Associating enlightenment values such as freedom and liberty with Western liberal democracies while juxtaposing them against a medieval and violent Islam is a ubiquitous popular narrative that is again gaining political currency. In essence, it revives a long-held view of Arabs and Muslims as unable to truly embrace the values of democracy. The spectacular images of millions of Arab citizens taking to the streets demanding freedom and justice in 2011 temporarily disrupted this narrative and refocused attention on the creative energies and diversity of Arab societies. The setbacks faced by these uprisings in Egypt, Libya, Yemen, and other countries, followed by the radicalization and internationalization of the Syrian conflict and the emergence of the extremist group known as the Islamic State, have since revalidated this view.

Maha Yahya
Yahya is director of the Malcolm H. Kerr Carnegie Middle East Center, where her research focuses on citizenship, pluralism, and social justice in the aftermath of the Arab uprisings.
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For France’s National Front and other extreme right parties across Europe, including the UK, multiculturalism is to blame for the Charlie Hebdo deaths. In their view, Islamic and liberal tenets are simply incompatible, making Muslim immigration an imminent threat to French and European societies and values. In reaction to the Charlie Hebdo attack, the National Front’s president, Marine Le Pen, called for an “end to hypocrisy” and a “freeze” on the Schengen visa in order to better control France’s national borders.

Such views are gaining ground in France, as became evident in the last elections, where Le Pen scored impressive results. Attacks against Islamic targets are now on the increase in France while a German anti-Islam rally organized on Monday night by the anti-Muslim group known as Patriotic Europeans Against the Islamization of the West, or PEGIDA, drew its biggest crowds yet. Thankfully, there are also opposite trends, with a counterrally led by Chancellor Angela Merkel and a host of other German politicians condemning the growing Islamophobia.

A European obsession with Islam

With protests both for and against Muslim minorities, Europe’s growing obsession with Islam is moving to the center stage of politics. A recent study by the marketing research organization Ipsos-Mori found that Europeans systematically overestimated the size of the Muslim community in their countries. In France, for example, the average person believes that 31 percent of the population is Muslim while the real figure is closer to 8 percent. At the same time, the public also underestimated the portion of people who consider themselves Christian and overestimated immigration levels. In Italy, the public believed 30 percent of the country’s population to be immigrants while the actual figure is 7 percent; in Belgium, 29 percent of the country’s population was thought to have immigrated when in fact it is only 10 percent.

The public visibility of Muslim communities in France and throughout Europe—through dress, skin color, social markers of poverty and exclusion, or concentration in urban peripheries—has skewed perceptions of these communities and contributed to Islam’s identification with the wider immigration-related and social issues that are reshaping contemporary European politics.

Like elsewhere in Europe, French citizens hailing from the former colonies suffer from considerable inequities. In a recent Pew poll of self-identified Muslims in France, many of whom are of North African descent, close to half made less than the minimum monthly wage. Seventy-three percent had a monthly income less than €1,900 a month, while more than one-third said they were unable to buy necessary food or medical and healthcare for their families in the last year, and 41 percent could not afford necessary clothing.

There is a danger that in the current climate, these Muslim minority groups will be scapegoated. Developments following major terror attacks including 9/11 and the metro bombings in London show decreased tolerance for minorities and increased acceptance for anti-democratic legislation in the aftermath of terrorist attacks. In France, the ministry of interior has reported a rise in random attacks against Muslims across France. In the UK, Prime Minister David Cameron is using the Charlie Hebdo attacks to push for tighter and more intrusive controls on internet use, arguing that there ”should be no means of communication” which we ”cannot read.”

Simplistic references to colonialism

Some have also portrayed the Charlie Hebdo attack as intimately bound up with France’s colonial history, because the two perpetrators—brothers Cherif and Said Kouachi—were of Algerian descent. Algeria’s long struggle for independence from France ended only in 1962, after massive French human rights abuses and hundreds of thousands of deaths in Algeria.

While the structural inequities established in colonial times no doubt have an impact on lives and livelihoods today, and their effects continue to be felt in the Algerian diaspora in France, such arguments tend to ignore a contemporary process of marginalization and radicalization. The Kouachi brothers were French-born citizens who subsequently connected with al-Qaeda in Yemen, and Amedy Coulibaly, who killed a policewoman and several Jewish customers at a kosher supermarket after the Charlie Hebdo attacks, was born south of Paris. For the Kouachi brothers, the U.S. invasion of Iraq in 2003 was a turning point in their lives—one that eventually led to the despicable events of January 7.

Making this simply a question of France’s colonial past coming back to haunt it not only removes focus from contemporary global affairs, but also idealizes these extremists as anticolonial freedom fighters resisting imperialism. It unwittingly glorifies an act of terror and supports the geopolitical recruitment efforts of the so-called Islamic State and al-Qaeda at a critical time where Arab countries are witnessing a surge in Western intervention from Mali to Iraq.

Such arguments also obscure the fact that the main targets of the jihadis are other Muslims, including journalists and activists from Tunisia, Yemen, Iraq, and other countries in the wider Middle East. Two of the people killed in the Charlie Hebdo murders were the Algerian born copy editor Mustapha Ourrad and policemen Ahmed Merabet. On the same day as the Charlie Hebdo attacks, the Islamic State announced the killing of two Tunisian journalists in Libya and a car bomb detonated in Yemen, killing dozens, while the extremist group known as Boko Haram killed up to 2,000 people in Nigeria on a violent rampage of murder and mayhem. In fact, as a recent study indicates, al-Qaeda kills eight times more Muslims than non-Muslims.

A complex background

For Europeans, the familiar adage that international networks are the main driver for domestic terror no longer holds true. Ideological extremism, international conflict, and internal social problems all form part of the answer and this is why it is not accurate to call the Charlie Hebdo attacks France’s 9/11—with what that entails of causes far removed from France itself and the implicit utility of a military reaction.

Understanding and effectively responding to the brutal crimes in Paris calls for a reexamination of the foreign policies and global economic disparities that help fuel the jihadi movement, but it will also require an in-depth examination of the domestic policies that have kept French citizens of specific racial and ethnic backgrounds on the margins of economic and political life. It requires translating pleas for national unity into effective politics. With Islam at the center of debate, it remains to be seen whether this heinous crime will become a turning point toward a more xenophobic and Islamophobic culture or toward a more tolerant and equitable Europe.