Paris Attacks: At times like this the internet can bring us together, but it can also be harmful

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It was with a growing sense of horror that many of us on Friday watched the horrific attacks in France unfold. Following seven co-ordinated attacks by the so-called ‘Islamic State’, 129 have been killed and 350 injured.

The reaction to the tragedy has, for the most part, been inspirational. Facebook profile pictures and major landmarks, including our own cathedral, proudly displayed the tricoloure as a mark of solidarity. How to respond to such an atrocity on the internet, however, will always be problematic.

During a difficult time such as this, it’s important to remember that when you publish something online, you have no idea who will be reading it. This is why it is absolutely right that Jason Manford’s expletive-ridden post was taken down by Facebook. Many of us share Manford’s sense of outrage and disgust, but his words veer uncomfortably close to Islamophobia. We all understandably feel strongly about something as shocking as these attacks, and in such a heightened emotional state, we’re probably not in the best position to judge the effect of what we post on potential readers.

It’s deeply depressing to see that the Islamophobic backlash to the atrocity is already in full swing. Philippe de Villiers, a French conservative politician, blamed the attacks on “permissiveness and mosqueization”, ‘permissiveness’ being known to lead to aggression more or less continuously. We know that something is fundamentally wrong with our world when Muslim leaders and Twitter users, pre-empting the backlash, felt they had to instantly condemn the attacks. Imam Qari Asim MBE summed this up nicely in his statement: “Once again, British Muslims unfortunately find ourselves in a position of having to publicly disassociate ourselves with the actions of a despicable group of individuals who have hijacked our religion of peace for their own political and territorial goals.” I cannot appreciate what it must feel like to be expected to publicly condemn an act of terror, instead of your condemnation being taken for granted.

Across Facebook and Twitter, blame is already being dished out in increasingly tenuous ways. ‘Lax’ border controls following the refugee crisis supposedly allowed the attackers into France, leading to the following post popping up on my Facebook feed: ‘How do we know if refugees are trying to escape terrorism, or bring it with them?’ All of this is based on a Syrian passport found at an attack site, which we’re not even sure belonged to the attacker, and even if it did, the staggering majority of refugees are actually fleeing ISIS.

Some left-wing commentators have been equally unhelpful. WikiLeaks sent a tweet essentially blaming the West, claiming the attack was dwarfed by “250k dead in Syria & Iraq. Both a direct result of US, UK, France feeding Sunni extremists.” One ’Islamic State’ sympathiser was in agreement, tweeting “Oh God, burn Paris as you burned the Muslims in Mali, Africa, Iraq, Syria, and Palestine.” It’s true that Western governments have made some dubious foreign policy decisions, but the death of innocent civilians enjoying Paris’s cultural scene is not a legitimate response to the actions of their governments. It’s true that horrific numbers of people are killed in conflicts across the globe, many in regions that we have helped to destabilise, but this does not lessen the horror of the wholly unexpected murder of 129 people on Friday, hailing from at least 15 countries.

The responses get more complicated when you consider the relatively little media attention given to a similar atrocity in Beirut on Thursday. Journalist Jonathan Cook wrote in a blog post that our selective outrage is the result of “arrogance, and the […] ascription of lesser human qualities to those we see as different from us”; not something we want to hear when we’re still reeling from Friday. Facebook has also been under attack for only activating its ‘safety check’ feature during the Paris attacks and not the Beirut equivalent, and for giving its users the option to change their profile pictures to the Tricolore and not the Lebanon flag.

There are clearly some valid lessons to be learned here, but is now really the best time to be learning them? In the immediate aftermath of the atrocity, would it not be better to stand unified in sympathy and grief for the victims and their families rather than trying to further our own political ends? Is it not possible to see our demonstrations of solidarity with France as signs of international mourning, rather than racist exclusivism? Now, just for a short while, wouldn’t it be better to be unified in our outrage, rather than pushing divisive, and sometimes harmful, political agendas?

Image: Jean Jullien, via Simon K on Flickr

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