Will France fall into the trap of pitting 'Islamism' vs. 'Nativism?'
The brutal attack that took place in Paris Wednesday on the headquarters of the satirical weekly newspaper _ Charlie Hebdo_, leaving at least 12 dead and more than 20 injured, could lead to dreadful consequences.
Beyond grief for the victims and those close to them, many are speculating as to what the political reactions to this attack will be. In a speech delivered on site just a few hours after the attack, the French President François Hollande called for "national unity" in the face of a "tragedy that affects everyone." It is clear, however, that the attack runs the risk of fanning the flames of an already tense situation not only in France but also across Europe.
Reports strongly suggest that the attack is linked to a form of militant Islamism. If this were to be confirmed, the result could be a strong boost for rampant anti-Islamic rhetoric across Europe.
If forced to match the French far right's anti-Islamic program, the already struggling Hollande government could be pushed into making some unwise decisions. If, for example, it were to turn out that the attack could be linked with the perpetrators receiving support or military training from Islamist organisations operating from abroad, how is the French president, and public opinion, going to react?
To take stock of the risks, it might be worthwhile to examine the greater context in which the attack took place. Doing so in no way justifies or even exculpates the perpetrators of the attacks. Such acts are to be condemned without reservation. It is also important, however, not to lose sight of the issues and events that have shaped them.
Monday in Dresden, Germany, more than 18,000 people attended a rally organized by Patriotic Europeans Against the Islamisation of the West. Similar anti-Islam events took place in Stuttgart, Muenster and Hamburg.
A few days earlier, Sweden witnessed three reported arson attacks against a mosque within a week. In that country, the primary response was an anti-racism rally in front of the parliament, while Sweden's culture minister called for the government to intervene to counter Islamophobia.
In France, the most recent Charlie Hebdo magazine cover before the attack featured a cartoon of the controversial novelist Michel Houellebecq, whose latest book imagines a dystopic future in which an Islamist president takes power in France. The issue was released the day of the attack.
One key detail of that novel that commentators have noted is the symbolism of the election in the plot. This sees the imaginary French "Muslim Brotherhood" win a run-off election against a less-than-imaginary Front National, led by Marine Le Pen, leaving the country with no choice but to pick an extreme. The center has fallen by the wayside. As the author himself later explained in an interview on the Paris Review, this element reflected his fears that French politics might be in the process of degenerating into a struggle between 'Islamists' and 'nativists'.
The imagined scenario would indeed be a nightmare. But is this binary opposition the best way of viewing the problem?
The greatest risk now is to fall into the trap of framing the attack in terms of a struggle between Islam and the West.
On one hand, framing the attack that way is precisely what the terrorists want, it is the way they perceive the world, and it is a framework within which their actions make sense. On the other hand, it is a virtually certain way of losing sight of what is at stake in the struggle against terrorism, the values of openness, pluralism and tolerance that the terrorists so manifestly despise.
The only way to answer is the attack on Charlie Hebdo to stand by the values that the French Republic supposedly embodies, treat these gunmen for what they are: dangerous criminals who need to be brought before the justice system for what they have done.