Nothing can justify Paris attacks

The attack on the office of a French satirical magazine, Charlie Hebdo, in Paris on Wednesday must be condemned in the strongest terms. At least 12 people, including four cartoonists were killed when gunmen shouting Islamic slogans opened fire inside the office.

The attack, the worst on French soil in over 50 years, seems aimed not just at punishing Charlie Hebdo’s irreverent cartoonists but at intimidating others and silencing the free expression of opinion. There were no holy cows for Charlie Hebdo. No political or religious leader, faith or lifestyle escaped the acerbic critique of its writers or the mocking humour of its cartoonists, who prided themselves on their capacity to poke fun and provoke.

They put freedom of expression above political correctness. Radical Islam was a favourite target of the newspaper. Besides reproducing controversial cartoons of Prophet Mohammed in 2006, it routinely carried caricatures deriding fundamentalism. In 2011, it brought out an edition titled Charia Hebdo and advertised it as ‘guest-edited’ by Prophet. Islamic radicals responded swiftly, firebombing its office. A year later, it carried caricatures of Prophet, some explicitly sexual. 

Charlie Hebdo’s cartoons have often prompted argument on the right to free speech. Such discussions will intensify in the wake of Wednesday’s attack. While Charlie Hebdo’s humour has been provocative, insensitive and even incendiary, nothing justifies violence especially that targeting unarmed civilians. If sensitivities were hurt, the aggrieved could have gone to the courts for justice. Or, those who felt offended by Charlie Hebdo could have used the French democratic institutions to bring their grievances into the public arena and demand that there be a debate on the entire issue. 

Religious extremists will seek to justify the attack as an act in defence of Islam. Nothing is further from the truth. Those who carried out the attack in Paris did more harm to the image of Islam in the eyes of the world than have irreverent cartoonists. If they were acting in defence of the faith, they should be upholding non-violence and drawing attention to Islam’s positive principles, such as egalitarianism and justice. Instead, they acted to feed into some of the worst stereotypes of Islam and Muslims.

A wave of Islamophobia sweeping through Europe over the past decade deepened in the wake of the rise of the Islamic State. The attack in Paris will give momentum to this wave. It will leave Europe’s beleaguered Muslims more vulnerable to stereotyping, taunts, discrimination, arrests and deportation.

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