Standing together with Charlie

The spontaneous French response to the terrorist attack on the Paris offices of the satirical magazine Charlie Hebdo on Wednesday - which saw crowds gathering to signal their solidarity with the victims, chanting "Je suis Charlie" ("I am Charlie") - showed that those who believe in liberty and fraternity will not be easily cowed.

The heinous attacks highlighted once again how vulnerable the everyday institutions of one society are to the extremist sentiments of another. To the French, the satirical publication has earned its credibility through the impartial choice of targets for its attacks, which spare no person or vocation or status or religion from withering scrutiny. Such publications embody the foundational value of liberty in the public sphere by combining freedom of speech, which lies at the heart of the French national democratic tradition, with an anticlericalism that reaches deeply into the French revolutionary and secular tradition. The licence given to satire as a literary form, and to lampoon as a weapon of social criticism and political change, consolidated the journal's position at the cutting edge of public discourse. The attack on it, which claimed a dozen lives, including those of the top editor and several cartoonists, thus was an attack on the very idea of France.

Those who attacked Charlie Hebdo were motivated by a different conception of the world, one in which religious beliefs possess an autonomy that cannot be negotiated away and one where the line separating the sacred and the profane must be enforced strictly. Here, the magazine's intrusions into Islamic religiosity, particularly in areas surrounding the inviolate person of Prophet Muhammad, raised uncomfortable questions. A fire-bombing of Charlie Hebdo's offices a few years ago did not make it desist. With this outrage, the attackers have made the point that they are participating in a clash of civilisations, and the taking of lives is incidental to that larger war.

They are wrong, and it is to the credit of Islamic leaders in France and elsewhere that they have condemned the killings. Their interventions make the point that the gun is no answer to, and no match for, the pen. Regardless of what anyone made of its contents, the murderous response to Charlie Hebdo was something no religion could sanction. Rather than avenging the Prophet, the terrorists have harmed Muslims in France and everywhere. By and large, French Muslims are not only peaceful Muslims but also proudly French. The attack was an attack on their France as well. The French need to pull together, as Australians did recently. Extremist violence might be difficult to prevent, but it must never be allowed to win.