By Emily Couch
COTLEIGH, Devon, England – Seventeen individuals died during Paris’s horrific three days of terror, 17 people from families who each mourn the loss of a father, son, daughter or relation.
Whatever the circumstances, death is shattering for those left behind.
With this in mind, I want to pose a question: how would you feel if your loved one was lost under that weighty millstone, the symbolism of his or her death?
I have no doubt that the French and international public feel genuine compassion for the victims of all three attacks, but it is clear that the tide of popular feeling is as much to do with the attacks’ broader signification as the individual victims.
Three events, one hash tag
You might have noticed that I have not applied the ‘Charlie Hebdo’ tag in reference to the murders.
This may seem surprising given the vast proliferation of ‘Je Suis Charlie’ (the twitter hash-tag used by 3.4 million users in 24 hours that means ‘I Am Charlie’) signs at the January 11 unity rally in Paris.
I do this as a reminder that the murders of journalists, police and others at the Charlie Hebdo newspaper office are part of a chain of three separate events including the murder of a policewoman and the murder of four Jewish men held hostage at a Kosher supermarket.
While the supermarket gunman, Amedy Coulibaly, pledged allegiance to the Islamic State group, the Charlie Hebdo attackers claimed to be working for Al Qaeda.
A blank canvas
I rehearse these details to highlight the network of allegiances and tensions enmeshing the murders.
What we have seen in the past week is the transformation of these complex events into a blank canvas onto which states and political groups are painting their own interpretations.
The victims have been whitewashed under the international political ramifications of the attacks.
Key figures in the European far right, Nigel Farage, leader of the United Kingdom’s Independence Party and in France, the Front National’s Marine Le Pen, have brazenly capitalized on the events to bolster support for their own parties.
Both pushed their anti-immigration agendas.
In a television interview after the attacks, Farage blamed a ‘fifth column’ – his way of saying the society had Muslim enemies within it – stating this ‘column’ also exists in Britain.
Similarly, Le Pen used the attacks to refresh her old opposition to France’s inclusion in the Schengen Zone, which allows free movement through most of the countries in Europe.
Their ‘I told you so’ attitude is clearly an attempt to justify their xenophobic stances.
In an interview with the French radio station RTL, French Prime Minister Manuel Valls asserted that it is not the moment for playing politics.
Sadly, politics is what the aftermath has become, and not just on a national scale. Russia has used the attacks as a shield to deflect criticism of its own actions in Ukraine.
“The tragedy in Paris shows that Russia does not threaten Europe and its security,” Alexei Pushkov, head of Russia’s Foreign Affairs committee, tweeted in Russian last week.
Komsomolskaya Pravda, one of Russia’s bestselling daily papers, even accused America of orchestrating the attacks in order to punish France for its softening stance towards Russia.
That Russia should use these terrible events as a mere vehicle for its virulently anti-Western rhetoric is a blatant hijacking of the tragedy, demonstrating how the victims have been brushed under the rug of international maneuvering.
Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s presence at the unity rally alongside President Mahmoud Abbas of the Palestinian Authority is yet another strand in the web.
Netanyahu may not have directly brought Palestine into the equation, but his message is clear: Jewish people are under threat, specifically from Muslims, so the Israeli state is a necessary sanctuary which all countries must support.
This becomes particularly significant in light of the French parliament’s non-binding vote for the recognition of Palestine as a state.
Europe and Islam
The heart of the web is, of course, the West’s negotiation of its ambivalent relationship to Islam.
Leaders such as German Chancellor Angela Merkel and British Deputy Prime Minister Nick Clegg have, like thousands of ordinary people, emphasized that the attacks have nothing to do with the peaceful Muslim population.
I laud this attitude, but worry about the latent antipathy toward Islam that exists beneath the apparently sympathetic reaction.
Since the insurgence of ISIS last year, politicians have been urging Muslims to condemn the actions of extremists.
Quite understandably, many Muslims have questioned why they must apologize for terrorism carried out by violent fundamentalists.
Merkel, Clegg, and French President Francois Hollande have all been vocal in their solidarity with the Muslim community – specifically the German, British, and French Muslim communities.
I completely agree with emphasizing that Muslims are as much part of these countries as anyone else, but I fear that politicians are actually attempting to ‘tame’ Islam by subsuming it into Western culture.
Why would we want ordinary Muslims to ‘apologize’ unless we felt that they somehow are related to the attacks?
Charlie Hebdo’s cartoons of the Prophet Mohammed – which the killers claimed to be avenging – might now symbolize freedom of speech, but it is undeniable that they are, in themselves, offensive.
Would the transformation from crude cartoon to ideological symbol have been so rapid had not a tacit agreement with the offensiveness already existed?
I am not proposing definite answers to these questions. I am saying that the events have made Europe face its Islamophobic demons head on. I can only hope that we can exorcise them, rather than allowing them to bubble under the surface of a sympathetic veneer.
Je ne suis pas Charlie (I am not Charlie)
The social media aftermath of the attacks followed the pattern of social media reactions to world events in general.
First we heard the resounding cry – or rather, hashtag – of ‘Je suis Charlie.’
Then, the inevitable negative reaction to the mass movement.
‘Where,’ the Je suis Charlie critics demanded, ‘is the outrage for the massacres in Nigeria by Boko Haram? Where is the 3.7 million strong national rally for the victims? Where are the world leaders?’
The deaths of 2,000 innocent Nigerians is appalling – there is no other word to describe it.
However, I cannot condone the use of the massacre to belittle those who are still grieving for the victims of the Paris attacks – I have seen this all too often on social media recently.
Just because someone writes #jesuischarlie at the end of a tweet does not mean they are callously disregarding the Nigerian massacre.
One week is not a long time in any context, let alone after the deaths of 17 people.
The truth is that we are human and consequently find it difficult to give our whole emotional imagination to more that one event at the same time.
Furthermore, there is the simple fact that France feels ‘closer’ to the Western world than Nigeria. I am in no way suggesting that this attitude is valid, but it is present nonetheless.
France is that country we see constantly in films, just a train ride away from many European countries while Nigeria remains off the popular radar.
Chechen leader Ramzan Kadyrov has posed a similar question: why did the world not give this much attention to similarly horrific events in Chechnya? Again, the answer unfortunately lies in political pragmatism.
Standing with France is simply less controversial – it has not recently warred with Russia – and, as the crucible of European democracy, more symbolic.
The Paris attacks are a brutal awakening: extremist attacks do not only happen ‘over there’ in America, Africa, and the Middle East, but in the very heart of Europe.
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