The Idea of…


The deadly shooting at the office of a satirical magazine in Paris, followed by hostage situations, and finally, the killing of more innocents and the gunmen themselves, has shocked the entire world. It makes a powerful statement on the stature of Europe and the value of European lives that the killing of 12 innocents in Paris has hogged the headlines for the past three days, but the deaths of more innocents in Yemen and the horrible massacre in Northern Nigeria, by the Boko Haram, were not given much column space or television time.

The hashtag #JeSuisCharlie, meaning ‘I am Charlie,’ went viral around the world on Twitter. It was meant to show solidarity with the publication, Charlie Hebdo, the target of the gunmen in Paris. Known in France for its satirical views and cartoons, it pushed the limits of Freedom of Speech, often needling Islam and French Muslims in particular over their religious practices and world-view. The day it was attacked, Charlie Hebdo was to have carried a ‘report’ on the possible (fake) election of a Muslim French President, who would impose the Sharia in France in 2022, a bait to the far-right that revels in labeling the future of Europe as ‘Eurabia’ in reference to its increasing Muslim population. There was widespread condemnation, and worldwide people congregated to protest the attack on a ‘Fundamental Freedom’ of modern civilisation. The four cartoonists were commemorated in cartoons throughout the world, including some that were blatantly anti-Islamic and downright abusive. Scotland Yard, the headquarters of the British Police, stood in silence to honour their fallen counterparts.

The attackers, allegedly two Muslim brothers, born and brought up in Paris and children of Algerian immigrants, were later shot dead in a shootout with the police outside Paris on Friday night. They claimed to have ‘avenged the Prophet (SAW)’ a retort against Charlie Hebdo for publishing anti-Islam cartoons. In the process, they killed eight journalists, a visitor to the office, a cleaner, and two policemen, one of whom was shot in the head, executioner-style, in the middle of a street, while he lay crying in pain from his wounds. His name: Ahmed.

Once the name of the fallen policeman was released, Muslims in France, immediately paid tribute to him, with the hashtag #JeSuisAhmed, or ‘I am Ahmed.’ One Tweet went to the effect of saying ‘I am Ahmed. I did not approve of what you wrote, but I died defending your right to say it.’ A remark that drew comparison with Voltaire’s famous line ‘I do not agree with what you say, but I will defend to my death your right to say it.’ The reactions from the Government of France and the French people were muted – the anti-Islam tirade would not stop. Even Muslim blood would not be enough to stop it.

France has the largest number of Muslims in Europe, over 6 million, according to most estimates, the largest community of Muslims in any European nation – around 7 to 8 per cent. Most are descendants of immigrants from the French Maghreb who came to France in the 1960s and the 1970s, surviving on menial jobs. They settled in distant suburbs, in large, featureless, faceless apartment complexes outside cities, where they remained aloof and separate from most of France. Their children, born and brought up in near-poverty, were to grow as second-class citizens, most of them condemned to life and work similar to their parents. There are few heroes amongst them – Zinedine Zidane being one. But the level of integration is limited, unlike in the United States, were background has little to do with opportunity, and the United Kingdom, where education and strong roots, have seen many successful second-generation doctors, businessmen and entrepreneurs.

The results are for all to see – French Muslims perhaps form the largest group of ‘European Jihadis’ as Muslim youth go searching for identity and a Muslim Utopia. They have orchestrated attacks against Jews in France, as also many low-level, local attacks against the police or the paramilitary, which were not headline-grabbing. They remain fringe elements in society, easily lampooned and needled, and victims of racist bias. Will that change? Unlikely.

The gunmen, their anger and revolt justified, their methods not, killed more than just the cartoonists. They killed a policeman on the street, a Muslim, a son-of-immigrant policeman, in the city where he lived and worked. With him, in the eyes of all of France, they killed the idea of immigrant integration – of belonging to France and in France. They killed the idea that Muslims could ever be wholly a part of France.