Paris shooting aftermath - don't fall into trap of terrorists, says scholar Farish Noor

A man holds a placard reading "I am Charlie" on the Old Harbor in Marseille, southern France, on Jan 7, 2015, following an attack by unknown gunmen on the offices of the satirical weekly, Charlie Hebdo. -- PHOTO: AFP
A man holds a placard reading "I am Charlie" on the Old Harbor in Marseille, southern France, on Jan 7, 2015, following an attack by unknown gunmen on the offices of the satirical weekly, Charlie Hebdo. -- PHOTO: AFP

By now the world has been made aware of the tragic killings that took place at the office of the satirical magazine Charlie Hebdo in Paris, France.

The fact that we know about this event and are writing about it means that the terrorists who carried out Wednesday's attack have won Round One in their terror campaign: to publicise their deeds and to strike fear in the hearts of many. We cannot let them to gain any further ground.

Charlie Hebdo, like its counterpart Le Canard enchaîné, is a satirical publication that has lashed out on a range of issues, from racism to political corruption, shady business dealings to abuse of political power.

In the course of its work it has also targeted politicians, celebrities, populist demagogues and religious figures. Ironically, its readership - which has never been as large as the more popular and populist tabloids - is made up of left-leaning better-educated professionals who have traditionally been associated with the more democratic, open-minded, more tolerant sectors of French society. This is a paper which has consistently raised questions about the treatment of minorities and immigrants, and has been a thorn in the side of right-wing nationalists in France.

It is particularly poignant that Charlie Hebdo, known for its staunch and consistent defence of civil liberties for all, was targeted by the very same people whose rights it had campaigned for.

By attacking Charlie Hebdo's office, and killing some of its editorial staff and cartoonists, those responsible seem to be driven by a more nihilistic intention of deliberately sowing even more racism, discord and distrust among the French public.

Despite the condemnation of the attack by European Muslim intellectuals like Professor Tariq Ramadan, and the fact that the French media have highlighted the fact that among those killed was a French-Muslim policeman, this latest incident is bound to be used by right-wing nationalists as an excuse for an even more vocal campaign against minorities and immigrants in the country.

What happens in France in the coming days and weeks will be a test of the country's national resilience, and whether French society can come together at a time of national crisis.

Should the political centre of French society move to the right as a result of this event, that would signal a singular victory for the terrorists who themselves are a minority within a minority in their own community.

Rising anti-minority sentiment would only divide French society further, weakening the voices of moderate democrats and deepening the anxieties of minority groups. Such a development will run against the priced principles of French republicanism: colour-blind assimilation, defence of free speech and the protection of journalists.

This can only lead to a deeper societal rift between the minority and majority communities, and breed an oppositional relationship resulting in a vicious circle of antagonism and retaliation. The net result will be an erosion of the moderate middle ground underpinning the stability of any society.

France's state and security services must deal with this genuine and very serious problem of violent extremism with great sensitivity. Efforts to stem the problem of extremism should include active and meaningful participation of all communities.

Countries in Europe and other parts of the world need to be wary of using excessive state violence to clamp down on the minorities. Don't fall into the trap set by the terrorists.

An even greater victory awaits the terrorists should the whole of France or any other country for that matter be plunged into a state of constant fear. When dealing with the threat of terrorism, states and societies need to be firm. Above all we must never let the terrorists get what they want, which is to create widespread moral panic for all.

stopinion@sph.com.sg

The writer is Associate Professor at the S Rajaratnam School of International Studies, RSIS, Nanyang Technological University NTU, Singapore.