There is growing realization that perhaps the tragic attack at the Charlie Hebdo offices on Wednesday was not actually about the cartoons themselves. Instead, Charlie Hebdo represented a strategic target as part of a broader tactic of polarization.
Information is gradually trickling out that suggests that at least one of the gunmen involved, Cherif Kouachi, had long-standing terrorist links to Iraq as a middle man funnelling funds to extremists and as an aspiring fighter himself. His record of terrorist activity dates back to 2005—at least one year prior to the Danish cartoons controversy. This suggests that while the cartoons were certainly a motivating factor, they cannot be labelled the impetus for Kouachi’s motivations. He may, as it turns out, fit into the increasingly familiar pattern of a disaffected European Muslim youth, with little religious inclination aside from an interest in a politico-religious narrative of vengeance against the “west”.
What’s more, although it’s not impossible, it seems unlikely that Kouachi waited several years to undertake his revenge on Charlie Hebdo following their publication of offensive images—the last major scandal dates back to 2012 when the magazine published a series of cartoons in the aftermath of the protests over “The Innocence of Muslims” Youtube video. Rather, it is increasingly probable that Kouachi may, as the Journal of Long War Studies suggests, have received the military training abroad he seemed to aspire to. He may have pledged allegiance to a terrorist group, perhaps al-Qaeda, perhaps Islamic State (formerly ISIS). The former has a long history of selecting targets to cause maximum chaos, both structurally, but also symbolically—think of the enduring power of the 9/11 attacks. There, the target was not random. Al-Qaeda purposefully selected the tallest buildings in America’s most iconic city, a financial center, and a symbol of American prosperity. Similarly, the London Underground was selected on 7/7 for maximum disruption of the city. Perhaps what these men were actually targeting here was a symbol, a European flashpoint which they were aware could reignite heated debates over the place of Muslims in Europe. In so doing, they could deepen already profound rifts in French society and establish an atmosphere ripe for the recruitment of alienated youths, struggling to find their place in a society ever more hostile to their presence.
Why France? After all, the Danes initiated the cartoon controversy. In recent years, France has seen increasing restrictions on religious freedom, denounced by Amnesty International and other bodies monitoring human rights. From the ban on headscarves in schools to face veils in public spaces, alongside countless controversies over everything from prayer rooms to halal food, the cycle of media ire directed at Muslims has become near-incessant. This has not gone unnoticed by extremists, who have used these issues in their output to proclaim France as a land of inequity where Muslims can never truly be at home. They have even used these events in propaganda videos to argue for Muslim emigration to ISIS-run territory. We know that France has one of the highest numbers of foreign fighters recruited, which suggests some of this rhetoric is resonating.
Secondly, why Charlie Hebdo? The magazine was, of course, the French focal point of several controversies surrounding incendiary depictions of the Prophet Muhammad. As a consequence of its choice to print images that many other publications considered pointlessly offensive, it was eulogized by anti-Muslim hate-mongers who used the issue to assert a fundamental clash between “Islam and the west”, understood in the sort of monolithic terms which refused to recognise western Muslims or westerns who objected to Charlie Hebdo on grounds of prejudice, not religion. Although these earlier controversies were polarising, there was middle ground for both Muslims who either didn’t object or refused to care about what they saw as an attention-seeking publication and various mainstream voices, including a former Charlie Hebdo employee, Olivier Cyran, who denounced the magazine for aggravating an already toxic atmosphere for French Muslims.
By targeting Charlie Hebdo, the nuance of this discussion has been lost entirely and the attackers have succeeded in their attempt at polarization. The #JeSuisCharlie and #IamCharlie Twitter hashtags, which required uncritical support of the magazine in lieu of sympathy with the murdered, only entrenched this schism. It is, of course, entirely possibly to have little sympathy with a publication which often crossed the line into racism, while having total empathy and solidarity with the individuals murdered. For many Muslims, these hashtags were an alienating challenge posited as “you’re either with us, or with the terrorists”. Some responded with their own, alternative hastags to underline the desire for solidarity with the dead and their disgust with the actions of the gunmen. Writer and activist Dyab Abou Jahjah initiated #JeSuisAhmed with:
I am not Charlie, I am Ahmed the dead cop. Charlie ridiculed my faith and culture and I died defending his right to do so. #JesuisAhmed— Dyab Abou Jahjah (@Aboujahjah) January 8, 2015
For him, like for many Muslims and critics of Charlie Hebdo, a key principle was to avoid falling into precisely the sorts of binaries it seems this attack was designed to create.
Various outlets have made much of the fact Charlie Hebdo mocked “fanatics”—yes, they did, they mocked the sacred symbols of many groups, but those of Muslims on a particularly frequent basis and in a distinctly racialized tone. Not that this should ever warrant a violent response, but the eulogizing of the magazine for some sort of mastery of European satirical tradition is a white wash of its chequered history as well as a capitulation to a simplistic narrative of “you're either with the racist satirists or you're with the terrorists”. That narrative serves only the extremes on both sides who want to perpetuate the notion that Muslims have no place in Europe—they now appear to be working to the same end to “make life harder for Muslims” (to quote one British neo-con writer), with al-Qaeda sympathisers and far-right stirrers converging to create the kind of schisms which would validate their narrative.
If these men turn out to be adepts of the cult that is ISIS—the last tweet on Charlie Hebdo’s account was a cartoon of the ISIS leader Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi—then rather than usurping the tragedy as a means to berate Muslims for the alleged incompatibility of their faith with "European mores," much more has to be done to ensure this greater alienation (the same variety which breeds identification with counter-cultural groups) isn’t deepened. We must ensure slogans of solidarity become more than just narrow and questionable support for the targeted publication and instead provide resistance to all those voices which seek to divide France, to entrench camps and harden the already worrying divides. Mosques and Muslims in France have already begun to experience a violent backlash, including a grenade attack, and it really is time to counter the hate behind these murders by rallying together behind a common solidarity—a solidarity rooted in the acceptance of difference, in respect for others, and a commitment to defeating those hell-bent on destroying the common fabric of our society.