NE word that springs to mind concerning the events surrounding the brutal massacre at the offices of the French satirical magazine Charlie Hebdo in Paris last week is intolerance. Those extremists who perpetrated the cold-blooded killings of magazine staff and police officers that led to a frightening series of events that resulted in the deaths of a total of 21 people had become so radicalised that they were not prepared to tolerate anyone whose view differed from theirs.
France has the largest percentage of Muslims of any other country in Europe and their presence in the country has not always been tolerated well by French people, consciously or otherwise treating them as second-class citizens. There has been a lot of controversy in recent years about former French President Nicolas Sarkozy’s ban on the wearing of Muslim headscarves that cover the face, such as the niqab, mainly because of their potential security risk, as they conceal a person’s identity. That law came into being in 2010 and was upheld last year by the European Court of Human Rights after an appeal by a French woman that it violated her right to freedom of religion and expression.
France is an avowedly-secular society and, while it promotes freedom of religious expression, it also values the right of those who want to poke fun at religions and their leaders through the use of satire, which is very much part and parcel of the country’s quirky sense of humour. Over the years, magazines such as Charlie Hebdo have mercilessly lampooned so-called sacred cows of all types across society and people can take it or leave it, but not everyone obviously, judging by what happened in Paris last week.
The young men, Muslims of Algerian descent, who took offence at the depiction by the magazine of the Prophet Muhammad in cartoons decided that they were not going to tolerate it and exacted bloody revenge by deliberately targeting key figures in Charlie Hebdo and summarily executing them. They, themselves, knew that their own bloody demise in a subsequent siege would make martyrs of them in the eyes of the extremely radical of followers of Islam whose mission they espoused – to try to force everybody in the world to live by their strict laws which are at variance with those of diverse and inclusive modern societies.
Even though French society strives to live by its centuries-old revolutionary ideals of liberty, equality and fraternity, there has been an increase in recent years of the popularity of the National Front party, which is not at all tolerant of immigrants and whose leader Marine Le Pen commented that they had been predicting an attack like last week’s for a long time. Immigrants tend to be poorer and more marginalised and, despite the country’s openness, many in France regard them as burden on society.
This, in turn, can breed dissent among those who come from poorer countries with different cultures striving to make a life for themselves in a new place. Marginalising them will only breed the type of radical dissent that characterised the gunmen and their reprehensible actions in Paris, so more needs to be done to integrate them rather than risk causing further alienation,
Tolerance is a two-way street. There has to be give and take. Anyone coming to a country to make a new life should, first and foremost, respect and live by the laws of that land, which the vast majority of France’s Muslim community do.
However, the violent campaigns of sinister Islamist groups, such as Al-Qaeda, ISIS and Boko Haram, across the Middle East and Africa are garnering pockets of support throughout Europe and young men who have gone to places such as Libya, Iraq and Syria to fight for their jihadist causes are coming back to their home countries radicalised and are a potential threat to national security; even here is Ireland, we would be foolish to dismiss the possibility of incidents such as happened in France last week.
While European leaders put on a fine show of solidarity with the French people at a big rally in Paris last Sunday, unfortunately the sad reality remains that, as long as there are people who are not prepared to live and let live, intolerance will continue to divide people and some will always be prepared to go to extremes to force their views on others or punish anyone who disagrees with them. Greater inclusivity is the best hope of a solution.