France's defiant show of tolerance papers over some real cracks

France put on a defiant show of unity and tolerance in the wake of the Charlie Hebdo attacks, particularly with Sunday's giant march. But, as Nahlah Ayed writes, the "prickly conversation" over the place of Muslims in European society is still politically charged.

The 'conversation' about the place of Muslims in Europe is still politically charged

World leaders, including (from left) Israel's Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, Mali's President Ibrahim Boubacar Keita, France's President Francois Hollande, Germany's Chancellor Angela Merkel, EU President Donald Tusk, and Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas march during a rally in Paris, France, Sunday. (Associated Press)

There is little if anything these days that would normally compel world leaders to link arms and march in a line together in the street.

The attacks in France did.

You might argue some of these leaders had less than altruistic reasons for being there Sunday, that some were even hypocrites. But there is no denying the power of the sight of them walking together — Muslim, Jewish, Christian — along with millions of French citizens.

Paris, as the French president said, was briefly the capital of the world.

It was also, briefly, the capital of pluralism and diversity, of tolerance and unity. The millions who gathered Sunday were, for anyone in Europe or beyond scanning the horizon for something positive after a horrific week, an enormous example from which to draw strength.

But it is now Monday. And, as they have every Monday since October, thousands of marchers will be on the streets in Dresden, Germany, wearing black arm bands in mourning and marching with new conviction that their fears about what they see as the growing Islamization of Europe have been emphatically justified.

It didn’t take long after the brazen Charlie Hebdo murders Wednesday before the German movement responsible for those marches — a group called PEGIDA, German for Patriotic Europeans Against Islamization of the West — pointed a finger towards the attacks in Paris and said they were precisely what PEGIDA had been warning against.

There is much speculation that the attacks in France — and the spectre of future ones — will be a boost to anti-immigrant groups like PEGIDA, Britain's UKIP and France’s National Front, which, tellingly, held its own gathering yesterday, placing the blame for the attacks on European governments that won’t curb immigration or push integration.

But the attacks — and the conversations they have started — will also test that unity France put on display.

France's far-right leader of the Front National, Marine Le Pen, also marched with the crowd on Sunday. But her message has not been one of tolerance. (Associated Press)

Already, there have been several attacks against French Muslim mosques and businesses since Wednesday’s murders — attacks that have terrified a community that has long felt marginalized in France, and resentful that many of its members are perennially poor and its youth suffering exceptionally high unemployment. 

Reflecting this internecine tension, it was apparently difficult in some Paris schools to observe the national minute of silence held across the country on Thursday, with some Muslim students questioning why there weren’t similar moments observed, for example, for victims of violence in places like Gaza and Syria.

In light of all that, the show of unity seemed necessary and Hollande called on all citizens to attend. But in some places, the war of words has already started.

Muslims here (and elsewhere) are irate that the attacks are being exploited to advance Europe’s anti-Islam camp, that the Kouachi brothers were first and foremost identified as Muslim, as opposed to French (born in Paris), or perhaps, simply, murderous criminals.

Last week the French prime minister declared war “against jihadism, against radical Islam.”

But the question for some is, who will define that war, and who will identify the real enemy? More importantly, who will be responsible for demarcating the difference between the religion, and the extremists who claim to kill in its name?

A prickly conversation

With ISIS's murderous army on the rise in Syria and Iraq, and a recent spate of homegrown ISIS-inspired attacks in the West, it’s a prickly conversation underway worldwide.

Publisher Rupert Murdoch, for example, tweeted that all Muslims must be held responsible for the Paris attacks, for not having weeded out the “jihadist cancer” in their midst.

PEGIDA, on its Facebook page, said "Islamists … are not capable of democracy, but instead see violence and death as the solution.”

French citizens, some of them Muslims, take to the streets in the wake of the Charlie Hebdo killings. The 'I am Ahmed' sign refers to the French, Muslim policeman who was killed in the attacks. (Associated Press)

Such language fuels the notion of a “clash of civilizations” to which groups like al-Qaeda and ISIS also subscribe, even though there is so much to counter that narrative.

In the Paris case: there was, after all, a Muslim police officer—Ahmed Merabet—among the Charlie Hebdo victims, gunned down in the street by a fellow French Muslim.

Merabet’s brother tearfully waded into the debate. He said his brother was “very proud of the name Ahmed Merabet, proud to represent the police and of defending the values of the republic — liberty, equality, fraternity.”

“One must not confuse extremists with Muslims,” he added. “Mad people have neither colour or religion.”

It’s a powerful argument, perhaps explaining why Muslim, Jewish and Christian leaders could stand together yesterday, to denounce the attacks.

But on France’s unity, there can be no illusions. France is divided, a seasoned journalist told me. It has always been divided, he said, only now there is blood.


Nahlah Ayed

Host of CBC Ideas

Nahlah Ayed is the host of the nightly CBC Radio program Ideas. A veteran of foreign reportage, she's spent nearly a decade covering major world events from London, and another decade covering upheaval across the Middle East. Ayed was previously a parliamentary reporter for The Canadian Press.