As people across France and around the world mourn the death of the twelve people killed at the offices of the satirical weekly magazine Charlie Hebdo in Paris on Wednesday, and a massive manhunt continues for those thought responsible for the armed attack, a global conversation has emerged around the issues of religious sensibilities, freedom of expression, and violent extremism.
The most recent reports on Thursday suggest the two men still wanted for the crime—brothers identified by authorities as Cherif Kouachi, 32, and Said Kouachi, 34—may now be surrounded by French law enforcement officers in a town approximately 85 kilometers north-east of Paris.
According to reporting by French outlets Le Figaro and France 3, "the two may have barricaded themselves in a house in the town of Crépy-en-Valois, and are surrounded by special police units." The third individual now considered to have participated in the Wednesday's attack, 18-year-old Hamyd Mourad, surrendered himself to police on Wednesday.
Meanwhile, the suspected role that Charlie Ebdo's irreverent treatment of Islamic figures, including the Prophet Mohammed, may have played in provoking the murder of some of France's most recognized cartoonists has quickly taken over the media landscape and the global conversation about religion, freedom of speech, and violence.
Evidence of anti-Islamic backlash was already evident in France as reports have begun to appear about attacks on mosques in several areas.
Zeid Ra’ad Al Hussein, the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights, released a statement condemning the Charlie Hebdo attack, which he characterized as terrorism, but also called for unity in the face of violence.
“Freedom of expression and opinion are a cornerstone for any democratic society," Al Hussein said, and those who try "to divide communities on grounds of religion, ethnicity or any other reason must not be allowed to succeed. The rule of law also requires that we seek to arrest and punish those directly responsible for carrying out, planning or acting as accomplices to specific crimes and do not attach blame to any wider group."
He continued, "If this attack is allowed to feed discrimination and prejudice, it will be playing straight into the hands of extremists whose clear aim is to divide religions and societies. With xenophobia and anti-migrant sentiments already on the rise in Europe, I am very concerned that this awful, calculated act will be exploited by extremists of all sorts."
The New York Times reports that the attack has come at a "dangerous moment" in Europe, citing the rise of Islamophobic rhetoric and a growing far-right movement which has launched virulent attacks against the continent's immigrant communities, with special ire shown towards those from north Africa and other predominantly Muslim nations in the Middle East. According to the paper:
The attack left some Muslims fearing a backlash. "Some people when they think terrorism, think Muslims," said Arnaud N’Goma, 26, as he took a cigarette break outside the bank where he works.
Samir Elatrassi, 27, concurred, saying that "Islamophobia is going to increase more and more."
"When some people see these kinds of terrorists, they conflate them with other Muslims," he said. "And it’s the extreme right that’s going to benefit from this."
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The dynamic questions surrounding freedom of expression have also come to the fore, with an outpouring of grief for the cartoonists, journalists, and police officer slain coming from those who say they supported the right of those killed to be provocative even as they may have disagreed with the manner of their expression.
Khalid Albaih, a Sudanese cartoonist who lives in exile in Qatar, was among those speaking out. In a column for Al-Jazeera, he wrote, "I condemn the attacks on the cartoonists even though I don't agree with the publication’s editorial slant, which I have often found to be hurtful and racist. Nevertheless, I would continue to stand for their freedom of speech."
And the roots of the current crisis are deep, according to Albaih. He continued:
This situation is a perpetuation of what's happening in the Middle East right now - it's far more complex than the cartoon business. For us to help, to play a constructive role, we should desist from pointing the finger at others, and we must examine what motivates these young people to turn to violence and extremism.
Freedom of speech is a powerful weapon and one I have never fully had - but for those who do have it, I wish they would stop taking it for granted.
Instead, they ought to ask the right questions - the questions that need to be asked - rather than accusatory fuel the stereotypes that have originated in mainstream media.
Hoping to avoid false or counterproductive narratives, however, some made the point that the deadly assault on Charlie Hebdo's office should not be characterized as a so-called "clash of civilizations." As Homa Khaleeli, a journalist for the Guardian, wrote after beginning to hear familiar rhetoric in the aftermath of the attack suggesting that all Muslims should go on the record to condemn such crimes.
While this demand may sound inoffensive, it implies that all Muslims, not just extremists, are implicated or secretly agree with all attacks undertaken by people in the name of religion anywhere in the world, unless we explicitly state otherwise.
It is easy to assume that terrorism works only if demands are met: if a magazine is closed down, if political changes are made. But terrorism also feeds itself by exploiting our society’s fears and fissures.
Outright Islamophobic attacks and the subtler but relentless questioning of the loyalty of Muslims create feelings of alienation that are all too easy for extremist organisations to use for their gain. In the rush to show terrorists they can’t win, solidarity and unity should not be trampled underfoot.
The hashtags #CharlieHebdo and #JeSuisCharlie continue to trend on Twitter: