Freedom to Act: The Charlie Hebdo Attack

On the morning of January 7, I stepped out to catch the first rays of the sun glistening off the crested waves of a grey ocean. As I did on the previous two days, I turned on the TV before heading for the balcony of my hotel room and waited for the darkness of the ocean to be quickly replaced by a bright turquoise hue in that early light. However, that moment of glory did not arrive that morning. What I heard on the TV made me feel that the entire world had plunged into darkness.

The pundits were pounding their fists upon the events that had unfolded earlier in the day nearly half way around the globe from my hotel room in Hawai’i. The office of Charlie Hebdo in Paris had been the target of a terrorist attack that had left eleven people dead. Separately, a Muslim police officer of Algerian descent had also become a victim of terrorist rampage. A massive manhunt was under way to locate the assailants who had claimed to be belonging to al-Qaeda in Yemen.

Charlie Hebdo (French for Weekly Charlie), the newspaper known for its anti-establishment cartoons and jokes, was under attack? Why would “terrorists” pick on these cartoonists? What message were they trying to convey? I had seen occasional reproductions of Charlie Hebdo cartoons in US media. The publication is irreverent and stridently non-conformist in tone, is strongly secularist, antireligious and left-wing, and publishes articles that mock the far right, Catholicism, Judaism, Islam, Israel, politics, culture, and various other groups as local and world news unfold.

The talking heads on the TV were quoting the eye witnesses. According to them, the gunmen had left the scene, shouting "We have avenged the Prophet Muhammad. We have killed Charlie Hebdo!" Apparently, Charlie Hebdo had attracted attention for its lampooning of Prophet Muhammad. But did the terrorists really kill Charlie Hebdo?

I remembered the worldwide controversy following the Danish newspaper Jyllands-Posten publication of ‘Muhammad’ cartoons in 2005. Charlie Hebdo was also embroiled in that controversy when it re-published those cartoons. In 2011, it had its own stint at caricaturing Muhammad. Subsequently, the newspaper’s office was firebombed and its website hacked.

Two years before the Paris attack, cartoonist Stéphane "Charb" Charbonnier, the Editor-in-Chief of Charlie Hebdo who was also killed in the siege, had stated, "We have to carry on until Islam has been rendered as banal as Catholicism." In 2013, al-Qaeda in Arabian Peninsula (AQAP) added him to its most wanted list, along with three Jyllands-Posten staff members. The primary suspects, laying the siege in response to the AQAP call, were French citizen brothers born in Paris to Algerian immigrants who were orphaned at a young age. Both were under surveillance until the spring of 2014.

As the world was transfixed on the manhunt over the next two days, a “close friend” of the Charlie Hebdo assailants carried out a sympathetic attack on a kosher supermarket, holding and killing hostages. He acted in the name of Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS) and was released from prison in early 2014. Subsequent investigation revealed that all terrorists were supplied with weapons through Belgian underworld.

It was the deadliest act of terrorism in France since the Vitry-Le-François train bombing of 1961 in which 28 people were killed at the height of Algerian War of Independence. The events of Paris demonstrated that in spite of technological advancements, the enforcement of safety and security of the public comes down to having adequate human resources.

On January 11, while I was en route to home, the streets of Paris and elsewhere in France were teeming with millions of people marching in solidarity. By then “Je Suis Charlie” (French for I am Charlie) slogan became an endorsement of freedom of speech and press around the world.

Interestingly, the Paris march raised controversies too. Reporters Without Borders criticized the presence of some of the world leaders whom it identified as “representatives of regimes that are predators of press freedom.” Many pointed out the hypocrisy of the Western media for not covering an attack in Northern Nigeria by the extremist group Boko Haram around the same time. The incident had left nearly 2,000 people dead (unconfirmed) and towns in smolder.

The Muslim world surprisingly showed less unity in its response, compared to that in the aftermath of the Jyllands-Posten controversy. Perhaps, the loss of life prompted some countries and organizations to condemn the attack. Clearly, the Charlie Hebdo massacre provided the ammunitions to special interest groups. It has become a recruiting poster for the terrorists throughout the world. The three days when Paris went into lockdown showed that the terrorists could have a strong grip on the psyche of the masses whenever they chose. The massacre also strengthened the anti-Muslim bias of right-wing organizations of Europe. Even some of the Evangelical priests in the US exploited the sentiments of people to denounce Islam.

The Paris tragedy has also sparked debates on free speech around the globe. In France, there’s a growing debate over why some speech is protected and some isn’t. Defending Holocaust is enshrined in French laws while many would like be in the spirits of Voltaire and Rousseau to fight for “freedom.” The Arab World rocked by the attacks is seeing unprecedented debate on free speech, according to the Middle East Research Media Institute. Some repressive Governments, like China, have seized this opportunity to espouse putting “limits to free speech.”

Even in the US, where freedom of speech is guaranteed by the Constitution, a recent panel hosted by the University of North Dakota in response to the Charlie Hebdo attack concluded that free speech is a complicated subject without easy answers.

And how would the Paris newspaper like to posture itself vis-à-vis freedom of speech? "We do not attack religion, but we do when it gets involved in politics," said Gerard Biard, the new editor of Charlie Hebdo.



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