Art And Freedom After The Paris Attack

Image: Reuters/Christian Hartmann

The following piece is written by Ben Dagan. Ben studies International Security at Sciences Po, Paris School of International Affairs, where he specializes in war, transatlantic affairs and the Middle East. His current research focuses on Salafism in Germany from a security perspective. He can be found on Twitter @ben_dagan.

On the same day that a pair of masked armed gunmen attacked the Paris offices of Charlie Hebdo, tens of thousands of people gathered all over France to reject the point-blank assault on press freedom and to demonstrate their solidarity with the satirical weekly’s surviving staffers.

The wave of support being voiced in social as well as traditional media beyond France is growing. The building resolve shows that what was under attack was more than just a French paper, but basic freedoms recognized throughout Europe as essential to its future as an open and free society. Standing behind these basic freedoms and extending the support to all those using their creativity to fight violent ideologues and their followers is the most effective counter measure against such acts of terrorism. Charlie Hebdo’s satirical illustrations are now in contest with the mobile-phone images and footage showing the merciless actions of the attackers. Yet as France has shown before in its decades of struggle with armed Islamic terrorism, this ideological combat will be aligned with hard domestic security measures to prevent future loss of life.

A sense of insecurity drags on long after an attack and is sometimes even reinforced by public safety measures themselves. Hours after the shootings occurred, the French government reacted by reinforcing security for potential targets like synagogues. Additionally, public buildings like universities enhanced their protective efforts. An e-mail at Sciences Po in Paris states that the administration was asked to limit gatherings at the university, especially those accessible to outsiders and that visitors will be subject to ID checks amongst other measures. Such procedures, while aimed at decreasing the probability of another attack, cause a disruption in the daily lives of citizens and their way of life. This is a time for French and European authorities to acknowledge that a free society must bravely hold fast to its values in times of great peril.

So far it appears the attackers were two well-trained French Islamist brothers targeting the paper for its satirical Muhammed comics that have brought the ire of radicals in the past. On Friday, much of France was focused on television images of heavily armed police and security forces who had cornered the pair outside Paris. A raid then brought this violent episode to an end after both terror suspects were killed.

Remember that the target of Wednesday’s attack is much bigger than just the artists at work lampooning the powerful and the ideological or religious extremists. The point of such acts of terrorism is usually not only the immediate victims of the attack, but the effect it seeks to achieve within broader society. The shooters wanted Parisians, if not all Europeans, to feel a level of insecurity and vulnerability in their daily lives that would persist long after this violence. They wanted to exact the ultimate toll on those that would use drawings to denigrate their most sacred images as well as debilitate the society that permitted those works to flourish. They wanted to force those in France seeking safety to sacrifice freedom for security.

In the face of past threats, hacks and fire bombs, protection for Charlie Hebdo was increased while it continued to publish satirical comics about the Prophet of Islam. The paper was challenging Islamic extremists in a way they could not counter with their own propaganda. The abhorrent act of violence on January 7th was the ultimate proof that they had no better answer to pens and pages than bullets and balaclavas. One of their latest comics showing an Islamist militant who wants to decapitate the Prophet Muhammad and saying he’s an infidel would not only amuse some, but stripped the militia of its ideological legitimisation and revealed its brutal policy of targeting anyone standing in their way. This form of satire is a trademark, and it is satire that is dealt openly and without prejudice.

Public gatherings, Thursday’s moment of silence at noon in Paris and a pledge to print 1 million copies of Charlie Hebdo next week show that the French public is resolute. For the near future, it remains to be seen what the long-term effects on French society will be. While fears of further terrorist attacks have been increasing, there are other dangers beyond more violence. Among them is a fearful shift in Europe towards xenophobic political movements providing a base for Islamist agitators trying to attract more alienated citizens. In all likelihood, Charlie Hebdo’s illustrators will be there to drag extremist figures of any creed or party through the mud in defense of free speech and artistic freedoms. If for some tragic reason they are not, France, and Europe, must hope that there will be many more to come forward willing to pick up their pens to challenge those who seek to combat civic freedom with terror.

Image: Reuters/Christian Hartmann