Combating hatred after Charlie Hebdo attack

By Savi Hensman
January 8, 2015

Twelve people were murdered yesterday (7 January) in an appalling attack on French satirical magazine Charlie Hebdo. This has inflamed religious and ethnic tensions, as the killers are believed to be violent Islamist extremists.

Nine journalists and cartoonists, including editor Stéphane Charbonnier, two police officers, including Ahmed Merabet, a Muslim originally from Tunisia, and maintenance worker Frédéric Boisseau were reportedly killed.

There have been outpourings of sympathy for the victims and their families and condemnations of the killings, including from Muslim organisations. Nevertheless mosques have been attacked and the extreme right given a boost. Targeting Muslims in general may, in turn, deepen alienation, assisting Al-Qaeda and Isil. Fanatics of various kinds would appear to benefit.

The assault by gunmen in Paris has been widely portrayed as an attack on liberty and democratic values by the forces of hatred. Media freedom indeed deserves to be defended but the reality is more complicated.

Charlie Hebdo was a virulently anti-Muslim publication, for instance publishing obscene cartoons of the prophet Muhammad, and had been widely criticised for racism.

Staff may have felt this was unfair since other religions and their followers were also crudely mocked. However this does not take account of imbalances of power and privilege in France and elsewhere in Europe.

Taunting people on account of their faith (unlike reasoned argument against religious beliefs) is unpleasant, rather like trying to upset someone by scurrilous jibes about their parents or partner. However if they are part of a secure majority, the impact is different from that on marginalised minorities.

Muslims in France mainly belong to ethnic communities which face widespread discrimination, and religious prejudice can be a thinly-disguised cover for racism. Islamophobic stereotyping intensifies the marginalisation which many face.

Police harassment and violence by thugs are not uncommon. In 2013 a far-right air force sergeant was reportedly arrested for planning to open fire on a mosque near Lyon, having previously firebombed another mosque.

Charlie Hebdo was generally regarded as being on the left rather than right-wing. But it fed into negativity about, and nastiness towards, a sizeable proportion of people of African descent nationally.

Obviously this is no excuse for the attack: ‘religious’ violence does more than any insult to discredit God, who in any case is hardly so weak that divine honour needs to be protected by human brutality.

In recent years, many journalists worldwide have been imprisoned or killed for standing up to authoritarian governments or brutal armies. If they are to be defended, along with the public right to information, this will occasionally mean putting up with bullying or bigotry stirred up by mass media.

Overall, simplistic interpretations of the Paris killings are likely to play into the hands of those who seek to exploit what happened in ways which increase the risk of further violence.

It has been repeatedly pointed out that the attackers in no way represent Muslims and one of their victims, trying to protect the public and enforce the law, was himself Muslim. People concerned about peace and justice may wish to reinforce this point.

Faith communities may also want to emphasise that nobody deserves to be killed for their views, however distasteful these may be. This includes challenging blasphemy laws, which are blasphemous in their effects by associating God with power-hungry or violently insecure human behaviour.

Reason and truth-seeking and, in some circumstances, the law and non-violent direct action are the only legitimate responses to statements and images aimed at provoking extreme reactions. And human rights do not only apply to people who are likeable and correct.

In the longer term, it is important to try to create a society where all are valued and respected, and it becomes harder for violent extremists of any kind to gain support.

* More from Ekklesia on the Charlie Hebdo aftermath:


© Savitri Hensman is a widely published Christian commentator on politics, welfare, religion and more. An Ekklesia associate, she works in the equalities and care sector.

Although the views expressed in this article do not necessarily represent the views of Ekklesia, the article may reflect Ekklesia's values. If you use Ekklesia's news briefings please consider making a donation to sponsor Ekklesia's work here.