Paris aghast at terrorist attacks

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January 7, 2015, was my third day of work at a new job in Paris.

Going for my lunchbreak, a routine check of my phone showed several missed calls, a couple of anxious voicemails, and numerous Whatsapp and Facebook messages, all alerting me to the fact that something was very wrong.

Less than a week after I had moved, alone, to the French capital, 17 people were killed in a series of mass shootings. The satirical publication Charlie Hebdo was thrust into the spotlight as the principal target, having attracted controversy for its lewd portrayals of the Prophet Muhammad.

For days the city was on edge: every wailing siren caused us to freeze in our tracks. Rumours of copycat attacks spread via social media; my principal concerns were rather for the potential violent retaliatory attacks against the Parisian Muslim community, based at the Grand Mosque, just two blocks from my apartment.

As people chose to stay home during the days immediately following the shootings, the city was strangely subdued. The grey January weather did little to ease the chilly, eerie atmosphere which settled over the usually vibrant French capital.

The turning point came on Sunday, January 11: the marche républicaine. Advertised on Facebook as a means for Parisians to stand united and honour the victims of the savage attacks, an estimated 1.6m Parisians took to the streets to peacefully protest against the threat of extremism.

Standing shoulder to shoulder with French men, women and children as they walked calmly, pencils thrust defiantly into the air, singing La Marseillaise, I witnessed to the unifying effect of the core values of liberté, égalité, fraternité.

Now, just ten months after the events that shocked Paris and stunned the rest of the world as an attack on the freedom of speech, which constitutes a fundamental value of the French Republic, a second spate of violence has occurred.

The Islamic State of Iraq and Syria has claimed responsibility for a murderous spree of co-ordinated attacks across Paris, which have left at least 129 dead and hundreds injured, at the time of writing.

Expressions of support and solidarity for the French capital have flooded social media, with tricolore profile photos on Facebook; and here in Durham the Lumiere organisers even lit installations with the instantly recognisable colours of the French flag – red, white, and blue.

These most recent attacks come at a delicate conjuncture for the international community.

France has shut its borders at a time when the Schengen Agreement – permitting the free crossing of borders within the European Union – has suffered repeated blows in the wake of the migrant crisis.

In these early days after the attack, it is reported that the terrorists were motivated by French involvement in the Middle East, particularly September’s air strikes launched by France against militant Islamic State jihadis in Syria. Rather than limiting France’s involvement in the war against ISIS, it is more likely that military operations will be intensified after these attacks.

Closer to home, the outcome of France’s regional elections next month may reflect a shift in public opinion after the bloodshed. Marine Le Pen’s, National Front, already pegged to win big in certain regions, has a long history of hostility to Muslim immigration, and may potentially benefit from a resurgence in anti-Islamic sentiment.

For every Tweet or status expressing support for the French in their time of crisis, there exists another blaming the European Muslim community for the bloodshed on French soil.

Accusatory finger-pointing on social media, and even in the mainstream media, has no benefit. The panic and fear in the wake of bloodshed in Paris must not divide the French people and add extra strain to the tension that defines race relations in the French capital.

Yes, Al-Qaeda in the Arab Peninsula claimed responsibility for the Charlie Hebdo attacks, and in the immediate aftermath of this week’s events the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS) have claimed responsibility for November’s attacks, which Francois Hollande declared constituted an “act of war.”

But the proportion of the Muslim population that these radical extremists constitute is miniscule.

By further alienating disenfranchised communities, by treating Muslim minorities as culpable by sheer nature of their religion, is to play into the hands of those who seek to indiscriminately harm innocent people.

For years, deprived housing estates in the banlieues – or suburbs – of Paris and other major French cities, have served as a hotbed of radical Islamic extremism. Here, a small number alienated and disaffected young Muslims in areas of high unemployment have been seduced by the religious rewards Jihadism offers them.

The nature of these causes is not uniquely Muslim, it is a characteristic of contemporary society; it is not ‘their’ problem, but ours. We, a diverse, multicultural society, must stand united against threats from a tiny, twisted minority.

My hope and faith in humanity was restored, when I read that overnight, the hashtag ‘#PorteOuverte’ or ‘#OpenDoor’ has been used by Parisians who have opened their doors to accommodate those stranded in the city; that taxi drivers abandoned their fares to ensure each person gets home safe; and that a Tweet declaring any Sikh Gurdwara – temple – would shelter anyone in need, has since been retweeted over 13,000 times.

These actions suggest that though the rumbles of anti-Islamic sentiment can be heard, the revolutionary promise of liberté, égalité, fraternité must not – and will not – be drowned out.

Photograph: thierry ehrmann via Flickr

Palatinate Politics expresses its solidarity with all those affected by the current situation in Paris. 

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