Charlie Hebdo Attack Targets Democracy and the West

SPIEGEL ONLINE International

Charlie Hebdo Attack Targets Democracy and the West

Assaulting Democracy: The Deep Repercussions of the Charlie Hebdo Attack

By SPIEGEL Staff

January 9 2015

Photo Gallery: Comics and Killers Photos

AFP

The terrorists in Wednesday’s attack on Charlie Hebdo in Paris had a much broader target in mind: Western values. Will the attacks bring people together in this time of crisis or will fear of Islam prevail?

“Can we laugh about anything? Will we be able to laugh about anything tomorrow? These questions are worth asking. No limits to humor that is in the service of freedom of speech, because when humor stops, it is very often to make place for censorship or self censorship.”

Cabu (Jan. 13, 1938 to Jan. 7, 2015), — cartoonist at Charlie Hebdo

They knew what they were doing. The two masked men armed with Kalashnikovs ordered cartoonist Corinne Rey, who had just picked up her daughter from day care, to enter the door code. They then made their way to the second floor where, every Wednesday, the day of publication, the editorial staff of Charlie Hebdo gathered at noon to commence their weekly editorial meeting and discuss what they would put in the next issue.

It was a lively session, with around 15 people, including a police officer assigned to provide protection to Stéphane Charbonnier, the satirical magazine’s 47-year-old editor in chief. In the end, neither stood a chance.

“Where is Charb?” the killers called out. “Where is Charb?” They shot him as soon as they found him. “I would rather die standing than live on my knees,” Charb had once been quoted as saying. At the time, al-Qaida had just placed him on its death list in its online magazine Inspire. “Charb Doesn’t Like People” was the name of a regular column he wrote for Charlie Hebdo, but he was in fact a quiet, reserved man who, like everyone here, stood for humanity as he saw it. They were people who fought for the freedom of the press, freedom of expression and, yes, for the right to occasionally trangress taste or to insult. In the end, they paid for it with their lives.

They were people like Cabu, whose real name was Jean Cabut. The 76-year-old with shaggy hair and a rough drawing style had a laugh so hearty it could literally lift him out of his chair. His most famous character was “Grande Duduche,” a perpetual college student hopelessly in love with the daughter of a university dean.

Or Georges Wolinski, 80, who, like Cabu and the entire first generation at Charlie Hebdo, was a figure cast in the spiritual mold of the 1960s — hedonistic, libertarian, anarchic and cheerful — a man who opposed censorship, racism, the war in Algeria, de Gaulle and narrow-minded and dull Catholic France.

Or Bernard Verlhac, 57, who called himself Tignous and once caricatured Front National leader Marine Le Pen featuring a clown nose with a swastika branded on it. He once went out of his way to mock Nicolas Sarkozy as a war president and a man who is positively spastic when it came to power and hyperactive to the point of hysteria.

Or illustrator Philippe Honoré, 73, whose last cartoon was a New Year’s card to Islamic State leader Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi (wishing him “especially good health”) that had been tweeted by the staff just minutes before the attack.

The hail of deadly bullets also struck left-wing economist Bernard Maris, 68, who wrote a regular column for the magazine, psychoanalyst and columnist Elsa Cayat, copy editor Mustapha Ourrad, police officers Franck Brinsolaro and Ahmed Merabet, a building maintenance man as well as local politician Michel Renaud, who had been paying a visit to the magazine.

A Rich Tradition under Fire

Few other countries in the world have a cartoon culture as rich as France, with its insatiable appetite for comics, or Bandes dessinées, as they are called. It’s a culture that expresses an incredible understanding of humor — be its aim contemptuous or educational, exclusionary or inclusive. It was a constant process, one called the freedom of opinion.

The cartoonists at Charlie Hebdo relished in jabbing at their targets and even reaching beyond them. That was all part of the bigger scheme of things. Reacting to the scandal over the Danish Muhammad caricatures in 2005, the editors of Charlie Hebdo initially wanted to run the headline, “Laughter kills,” but they ultimately backed away from it, feeling it was too radical. Instead, in 2012, they ran a caricature of a naked Mohammed, showing his derriere, with his rear parts covered with a star and the caption, “A Star Is Born.”

Was it funny? And who decides what’s funny? They were determined to show that, when it comes to satire, there are no limits. At the time, US President Obama’s spokesman Jay Carney said that the White House didn’t question the magazine’s right to publish the cartoons, only the “judgment behind the decision to publish it.”

The final cartoon Charb published on the day of his death showed a mockingly caricatured jihadist, heavily armed, with the caption: “There still hasn’t been an attack in France. Just wait, we still have until the end of January to send New Year’s greetings.” It was an eerie coincidence. But it also evoked the kind of stubborn spirit readers had come to expect from Charlie Hebdo over the years. It was what they wanted it to be.

Global Shock

The shock over the killings spread quickly across France as people registered that the attacks had in fact been also been aimed at France and democracy as a whole and not just some satirical magazine.

Judging from the outpouring of grief seen in France on Wednesday night, even an attack on the Louvre wouldn’t have struck a deeper nerve. Jan. 7, 2015 has become for the French what 9/11 was to the United States. It was an attack on the country’s proud history of Enlightenment and the French Revolution, but also one against Europe. It goes far beyond the publication itself — at issue are fundamental questions of freedom and humanity. Accordingly, politicians, journalists and everyday people around the world sought to express their solidarity. It happened en masse on social networks, but also in public spaces. Hundreds of thousands of people attended vigils in cities spanning the globe from New York to Sydney on Wednesday, with further demonstrations planned for this weekend. Newspapers dedicated their front pages to the tragedy, although not all dared to publish the cartoons featured in Charlie Hebdo. A number of cartoonists also drew images illustrating the inequality of weapons and pens. The pope prayed for the dead.

From Pakistan to Turkey, Muslim dignitaries took pains to distance themselves, using tough words to condemn the attacks. Tunisia’s Islamist al-Nahda party issued a statement condemning the “cowardly and criminal act.” Egypt’s spiritual leader also sent his condolences, as did Russia and China.

A Turning Point

France is no stranger to terrorism, but Wednesday’s attack marked the worst it had seen since 1961. The country survived the Organization of the Secret Army (OAS), a French dissident paramilitary group that fought against Algeria’s independence during the 1960s. Later, during the 1990s, Algerian Islamists planted bombs in commuter trains. But the attack that took place on Wednesday against Charlie Hebdo was a siege against the very values that France embodies.

“This is a turning point — quantitatively but for that reason also qualitatively,” says Olivier Roy, a respected scholar of Islam at the European University Institute in Florence. “It was an attack designed for the maximum effect,” he says. “They did it to shock the public and, in that sense, they were also successful.”

At the same time, at least for a short period, the attackers united a country that in recent years had appeared to be frightened, beat down and hopeless in a way rarely seen before in its history. The day after the attacks, President Hollande even met with his political nemesis, Nicolas Sarkozy, in Elysée Palace. “This isn’t just about democracy,” the former president said. “It’s about civilization.”

Hollande also invited right-wing populist Marine Le Pen, a woman considered to be an outsider in the French political system who normally wouldn’t get invited to the presidential palace. Meanwhile, leftist Interior Minister Bernard Cazeneuve visited the editorial staff of the conservative daily Le Figaro on the day of the attacks. It may not sound like much, but these are meaningful gestures in today’s politically polarized France.

Anxiety about Islam

This week’s events in France could ultimately pour fuel on the flames of widespread French anxiety about an Islam that many believe is threatening the fabric of the country’s very identity along with fears that other radical Islamists might conduct similar attacks.

Of course, that applies not only to France, but to the entire Western World, including Germany, which has so far been spared attacks comparable in scale. Nevertheless, Germans too harbor a diffuse fear of Islam, which has been manifesting itself of late on the streets of Dresden in the form of protests held by the loose-knit group calling itself Patriotic Europeans Against the Islamization of the West (Pegida). All over the place, it seems, people incapable of differentiating between Muslims and murderous assassins feel affirmed in their views.

The debate is raging particularly intensely in France, where Marine Le Pen’s Front National has been winning big with voters for years with its Islamophobic messages. Still fresh on the minds of the French is the March 2012 killing spree waged by 23-year-old Mohamed Merah, who hunted down soldiers, Jewish children and their teacher in Toulouse with a handgun and a scooter, killing seven.

Merah sowed the seeds of fear in the hearts of the French, raising concerns that the country could become the focus of a bloody jihad — one led not by foreign perpetrators but by French citizens who have gone astray. Merah was French, just like the two suspects in the Charlie Hebdo terror attack, the brothers Saïd und Chérif Kouachi, aged 34 and 32.

The attack in Paris was one targeted at the entire world, but it’s also one that hit, with great precision, a country that is experiencing significant uncertainty. There have been few times in postwar French history when public sentiment has been as downtrodden as it is now. After two and a half years of Hollande’s Socialist government, there are no signs that France’s decline is reversing.

The country’s key indicators are a disaster. During the first half of Hollande’s term, the number of unemployed has risen to 3.5 million, with particularly high youth unemployment. Hollande’s government has to answer to accelerated deindustrialization and an economy that is ailing with zero growth.

ANZEIGE

If you add to that the president’s historically low popularity ratings, the picture is a profoundly negative one. The days following this week’s attacks actually provide a moment of opportunity in which the French president could seek out words to ease the pain his compatriots are feeling. It also presents an opportunity for Hollande to stand up for France after the weak performance he has shown so far as president.

Indeed, it may be possible to transform shock over the attacks in rue Nicolas Appert into strength. One of Queen Elizabeth II’s crowning moments came after the London bombings in 2005. In a remarkable speech, the Queen directed some of her remarks right at terrorists: “Those who perpetrate these brutal acts against innocent people should know that they will not change our way of life.”

There’s also a chance France could fall prey to right-wing populists. In a tweet on Thursday, Le Pen reiterated her demand that the country hold a referendum on the death penalty, which is banned in France, a prohibition enshrined in the Charter of Fundamental Rights of the European Union. Le Pen’s standing was soaring in public opinion polls even prior to Wednesday’s attack. Whether support for her will now rise or fall hinges on how the French public ultimately reacts to the murders.

Shows of Solidarity

The street was always the place where France sought to reassure itself and where its citizens engaged in politics. This fateful Wednesday, thousands took to the streets to defend French values. A mass demonstration was held in Paris, but numerous others were also staged in other major cities, in villages and in small towns. Organizers mobilized people using SMS text messages and social networks. In France and across Europe, people gathered under the, “Je suis Charlie” slogan. I am Charlie. The slogan could be seen on digital display boards on highways, someone tweeted a picture of a newborn baby wearing a “Charlie” arm band, others wore buttons bearing the slogan and editorial staffs of entire media organizations, including SPIEGEL, were photographed holding up “Je suis Charlie” signs in solidarity.

It has become the emblem of a country and a Continent that has no intention of allowing itself to cower in the face of terrorism. France is a proud nation that can be defiant and rebellious. And Europe, as the French would say, has character.

On Wednesday, an icy gray day, Paris was in a feverish state. It was the first day of annual winter sales, but the stores were emptier than usual in the afternoon. Special forces patrolled the department stores to protect against the threat of terror. At the bakeries, people exchanged encouraging words, wishing each other “a nice day, despite everything.” Of course, they said, they would be joining the masses later at Place de la République, one of Paris’ most famous squares.

In the center of the large square, a statue of Marianne, a depiction of the Goddess of Liberty, stands guard over a relief featuring the three founding principles of the French Republic — Liberté, Égalité, Fratenité. Someone had slipped a black ribbon of mourning over Fraternité

Soldiers patrolled the capital city together with police and security checks were established at schools and at all major shopping centers and cinemas. “The daily life of the French is going to change dramatically,” said one host of French news channel BFM TV.

The French are outraged by Wednesday’s events, but they have remained calm. The prevailing sentiment is one of mourning and not thirst for revenge. It’s almost as if the French had sensed something like this might happen one day. Now that it has, they want to maintain their composure, without showing any signs of backing down.

A New Dimension

This is, after all, an old battle that has been waged for years now between the friends and foes of freedom. In 2004, Theo van Gogh was stabbed to death by Mohammed Bouyeri, a Dutch-Moroccan Islamist, on an open street in Amsterdam. The Dutch filmmaker had repeatedly attacked Islam, at times in tasteless ways, prior to his slaying. Ten years later, the attackers, dressed in black, wore bulletproof vests and carried Kalashnikovs. Although they’ve become more professional, the intention remains the same. France has chalked up many successes in the battle against terror, even preventing attacks on its soil. The French police and secret services have been repeatedly criticized for their at times brutal approach, but they have also been relatively effective.

But there’s an altogether new dimension now, with more French youth answering the call to jihad in Syria and Iraq than in any other Western country. The authorities have been pushed to their limits. On Thursday, French Prime Minister Manuel Valls said, “Our services have dismantled many groups and foiled plans for attacks. That is proof that we are acting. Hundreds of people are followed, dozens have been questioned, dozens have been jailed. That shows the difficulties facing our services: the number of individuals who pose a threat.”

The Suspects

On Wednesday night, just eight kilometers north of the Place de la République, where the mourners had converged, few lights were on and only silhouettes could be seen behind the curtains in the darkness of rue Basly, the street where suspected killer Chérif Kouachi resided in the suburb of Gennevilliers. Until last Wednesday, Kouachi had resided on the fourth floor of this brick building with cacti in the windows behind a violet-colored door in Apartment 143.

As a youth, Kouachi smoked pot and drank alcohol. In 2005, he tried to go to Iraq because he wanted to join up with al-Qaida. He and his brother Saïd were born in Paris and grew up in a children’s home in Rennes. Their parents, who were of Algerian origin, died when they were young. Chérif trained to be a fitness instructor and moved to Paris, where he made a living delivering pizzas. At the time, he described himself as an “occasional Muslim.” Then he became acquainted with the Farid Beyettou a janitor and fanatic self-styled preacher, who recruited Chérif for the jihad.

A video filmed in the summer of 2004 by a neighborhood group shows Chérif as a young man wearing tennis shoes, light blue jeans and closely shorn hair, with a clean-shaven face. He can be seen rapping, doing his best to act cool like kids of that age do, and greeting his friend with a high-five.

‘It’s Good to Die a Martyr’

Police arrested Chérif in 2005 as he prepared to travel to Damascus on his way to Iraq, where he wanted to kill Americans. During his trial in 2008, he said he had been radicalized by the images of Abu Ghraib. His lawyer described him as a “loser” who had no idea what he wanted to do with his life. The judge sentenced Chérif Kouachi to three years in prison, with half of the time to be served on probation. At the time, French TV station FR 3 interviewed Chérif as part of a documentary film. In it, he said, “Farid (Benyettou) told me that the scriptures offered proof of the goodness of suicide attacks. It is written in the scriptures that it’s good to die a martyr.”

After his release, he worked as a fish vendor at a branch of the Leclerc supermarket chain. Anti-terror authorities found themselves back on Cheríf’s trail again in 2010. They arrested him because they believed he was planning to help a convicted terrorist escape from prison. Police also took notice of his brother Saïd at the time. French authorities registered the two for monitoring by intelligence agencies across Europe. Cheríf starting in 2010 and Saïd since 2011. Sources in German security circles told SPIEGEL that one of the two spent time in 2011 in Oman and has ties to al-Qaida on the Arab Peninsula.

The New York Times also reported that Saïd spent several months in 2011 at an al-Qaida training camp in Yemen. At the time, US-born hate preacher Anwar al-Awlaki had been successfully recruiting fighters from the West. Both Saïd and Cheríf had reportedly been placed on the US government’s no-fly list.

Police found Saïd’s ID card in the car used to flee the crime scene on Wednesday.

People on the street in Gennevilliers, including many youth, said they couldn’t fathom that Chérif, a friendly young man they described as “harmless” and “normal,” could have been involved in the murder of 12 people.

At midday on Thursday, Chérif’s neighbor was standing in front of the suspect’s violet-colored door — Eric Badday, an older man with horn-rimmed glasses who was born in Tunisia but has lived for more than 40 years in France. As he tried to proceed, he got bombarded with questions by TV crews that had crowded in to the building. All he wanted to do was take out his trash.

Kouachi was the perfect neighbor, says Eric Badday, shaking his head and still clutching his bag of garbage. “He was honest and decent and was never loud or aggressive.” In contrast to himself, Badday said, the young man frequented the mosque, but he neither wore a beard nor dressed conspicuously. “Jeans and a T-shirt, just like me,” Badday says. When you think about it, Badday continues, Kouachi was almost conspicuously inconspicuous. In hindsight.

Kouachi’s wife, on the other hand, was an anomaly, even in a building where many Arabs live, Badday says. She was little more than a black shadow in a hooded abaya cloak and never showed her face. “When I got on the elevator, she would step out.” He says he never saw Kouachi’s brother Saïd, the second suspect, here in the building. He only learned of his existence from the television.

‘No Murderers Lived Here’

The sandwich seller down the street says that Chérif “was a good customer. I never noticed anything strange about him.” He has a hard time believing that Kouachi once wanted to fight in Iraq and that he may have been in Syria. He demands to see the police photo once again and shakes his head. “This has always been a quiet street,” he says. “No murderers lived here.” Then he adds: “Until now.”

In the best known video of the attack, one sees shabby, 1970s-era office buildings lining a narrow street with sidewalks on both sides, separated from the road by metal posts. At the corner of one building stands a black car, a small Citroën 3, its doors open.

The image wobbles, you can hear shots being fired, salvos. They come loud and fast, one after the other. “An automatic weapon,” says a man’s gasping, emotionless voice. “Pssst. Be quiet,” another whispers. The image rotates and becomes unfocused. “Don’t move, just don’t move.” The film continues as people hunch down behind chimneys. Occasionally, the camera pans across faces, pale and with wide, fearful eyes.

They are journalists from the news agency Premières Lignes, whose offices are in the same building as those of Charlie Hebdo. They fled to the roof to escape the shooting. One of them, who had been smoking a cigarette on the street in front of the door, saw two men in black with heavy, automatic weapons as they called out: “Where are the offices of Charlie Hebdo?” The assailants had trouble finding their way inside the building at first.

At 11:30 a.m., Laurent Richard, an editor at Premières Lignes, parks his scooter around the corner in the Rue Saint-Sabin. He tries to head through a small street to the big white building at Rue Nicolas Appert 6-10.

The agitated waiter of a small restaurant tells him of two heavily armed men who disappeared into number 10. He hears his colleagues who, from the roof, indicate to him that he shouldn’t go inside. He turns around and waits a couple of minutes. And then he goes in.

“It was unimaginable. A slaughter,” Richard says. In the foyer, two firemen are trying to resuscitate a receptionist. In the editorial offices on the second floor, he sees dead bodies and wounded people. He tries to help first responders find those who had survived and to help the wounded. The terrorists, he is told, called out the journalists by name before they opened fire.

He can’t say anymore exactly how long the shooting lasted and those who fled to the roof have a hard time remembering for sure as well. But they were watching as the men left the building with their weapons.

A nearby resident films from his balcony as the assailants execute a policeman with a close-range gunshot. The car in the video is now parked in the middle of the street. The men yell in French: “We have avenged the Prophet” and “We have killed Charlie Hebdo!” They jump into their car and drive away. Witnesses say that the attackers never seemed particularly agitated. Rather, they seemed to know exactly what they were doing.

Haunting Scenes

The perpetrators flee toward Porte de Pantin across the Place de la République to the north of Paris. They change cars in the Rue de Meaux in the 19th Arrondissement, threaten a driver and run into a pedestrian. In the car left behind, investigators find 10 Molotov cocktails and jihad flags. Had the pair planned additional acts of violence?

That night, haunting scenes are visited upon Reims, a city 90 minutes by car northeast of Paris. Anti-terror police units comb through the suburb of Croix-Rouge — heavily armed and trailed by a horde of improvident journalists who broadcast the apparently aimless search live. The next day, it is announced that several people have been arrested, including Chérif’s wife and brother-in-law.

At midday on Thursday, the suspects are spotted again in northern France, this time in Villers-Cotterêts, a town halfway between Paris and Reims, where they hold up a gas station, stealing fuel and food. They are said to be traveling in a gray compact on their odyssey through France, together with Kalashnikovs and a rocket launcher.

On Friday morning, the two brothers take cover in a factory building in Dammartin-en-Goële near Paris’ Charles de Gaulle airport after a wild, high-speed chase. They have taken a hostage.

Midday on Friday, a second hostage situation takes shape at Porte de Vincennes in Paris, where a heavily armed man storms a Jewish supermarket and kills at least two people. The man is reported to have connections to the Kouachi brothers and shot a policewoman in the suburb of Montrouge on Thursday.

Thousands of soldiers and police in battlegear take to the streets and the Paris ring road is closed to traffic. Service is suspended on Metro lines and schools are evacuated. Paris is a city in a state of emergency. On Friday afternoon at 5:20 p.m., special forces storm the factory building near Charles de Gaulle and the supermarket at Pote de Vincennes. The two brothers and their accomplice, Amedy Colibaly, as well as another hostage-taker are killed during the deployment. The country is shaken and fears of further attacks are unabated.

Alienation

France has long been plagued by a growing fear of Islam, a worry which has spread through both society and the political classes like a poison. Today, there is an entire class of young Muslims who were born as French citizens but who never found their way into the labor market due to the country’s chronic economic troubles. With limited educations and nothing to do, the ghetto-like feel of the banlieues, or suburbs, surrounding Paris and other large French cities led many of them to a feeling of alienation from, or even hostility to, the Repubic.

The radicalization of French youth is hardly a recent phenomenon. For 15 years, the anthropologist Dounia Bouzar has been studying the issue. She has observed that a growing number of young French have found refuge in religion because, as Bouzar says, “reality no longer offers them a future.”

They used to be primarily young men and women from the suburbs who grow up in broken families or orphanages, like the gunman Merah, for example. But the profile has changed. Now, even children from the middle classes are attracted to an absurdly radical form of Islam.

Those who are now doing the killing, Bouzar is convinced, are the little brothers of those who tried hard to succeed, but who were unable to. They used to believe in the Republic and its values and thought that, if only they did well enough in school, they would find a job. But unfortunately things didn’t turn out that way: Because they had the wrong names and lived in the wrong part of town. “That engenders hate,” says Bouzar.

In her books, Bouzar has repeatedly addressed the state’s disastrous approach to Muslims and the resulting failure of integration. “Policymakers failed because they were unable to differentiate between a ‘normally religious’ Muslim and a radical,” she says. That made things more difficult for moderate Muslims; they were, she says, excluded, whether they followed the rules laid down by the Republic or not. But the really radical ones, the fundamentalists, Bouzar says, were left alone.

These days, Bouzar is an advisor to the Interior Ministry. With more than 1,000 young men and women, many of them minors, having gone to war in Syria and Iraq, French politicians have finally recognized that they have a problem. Bouzar doesn’t believe it is a problem specific to France. Everywhere in Europe, she says, Muslims are given the impression that they don’t belong. But in France, where the idea of equality is constantly proclaimed, the disappointment is more intense, she believes. “The difference between theory and practice is starker here,” Bouzar says. The French ideal of equality may provide a rationale for the fact that people of different cultures live together and tolerate one another. But it doesn’t create equal treatment, much less equal opportunity.

A Debate over National Identity

Just a few years ago, she says, it was unthinkable on both the left and right side of the political spectrum to openly question the success of integration in France. Since then, though, much has changed. During the presidency of Nicolas Sarkozy, for example, statistics on place of origin were gathered for the first time. There was even a ministry for immigration and integration for a short time. It was established by Sarkozy in 2007 following his election victory as a more or less subtle concession to voters he had poached from the Front National. Two years later, in October 2009, he launched a debate over “national identity.” The French, he said, should “as openly as possible” ponder what it means to be French.

The search for a national identity quickly became an open forum for xenophobes of all stripes. What was said in town hall meetings, in the Internet or on talk shows sounded like anything but an internalized catalogue of French values. The consensus seemed more to center on a fear of an inundation of foreigners — or, to be more precise, of Islamization. In one program on the issue, a village mayor complained of immigrants on live Television, saying “France pays them so that they can lie around on their lazy skins.”

On the evening of the attack, four men and two women are sitting on school benches drawn together in the neon-lit room of a youth and cultural center located 17 kilometers north of the Place de la République, in one of the most notorious banlieues surrounding Paris. They are between 28 and 36 years old, three of them are unemployed, four are Muslims and, in contrast to their parents, all of them grew up in France. They have gathered here because they want to talk about the attack — one which shocked and unsettled them just as it did all of their countrymen. But they also want to talk about what it might mean for them as the children of immigrants in the banlieues. Paris is so close, but it is worlds away here in Sarcelles, a collection of identical housing projects that has the dubious honor of being the source of the French term “sarcellite,” a word used to describe a hopeless existence on the fringes of society.

“I am horrified,” says 36-year-old Farouk Zaoui, a member of the Sarcelle municipal council. One of 16 children, his parents emigrated from Algeria. “Freedom of expression is a fundamental right in this country,” he continues, adding that it must remain so. The others nod in agreement. “Charlie Hebdo provokes everybody, not just Muslims but also Christians and Jews,” says Laetitia Ritucci-Gauthier, 34, a French-Italian woman who works at an insurance company. For her tastes, she says, the magazine sometimes goes a bit too far, but that’s just the way it is.

“Whether you like it or not,” Fatima Idhammou, 28, interjects, “caricaturists are people and my religion tells me that I must respect other people.” Idhammou is Muslim; her parents are from Morocco and she grew up in Sarcelle. She is currently looking for a job even as she keeps busy as the vice president of the youth and cultural center. She and her friends meet here to exercise or to attend English courses. Sometimes she takes advantage of services on offer to help with writing application letters. “This attack is difficult to comprehend,” Idhammou says. “I can only describe the societal climate within which it took place.” It is, she says, one that is increasingly hostile, poisoned and Islamophobic.

Justifying Racism?

Zaoui stares down at the table they are seated around. His father, he says, used to work in a factory where all Muslim employees were referred to as Mohammed. His father is named Amar.

What would have to happen for young French citizens like the six gathered here this evening to feel completely at home in France? You would have to completely replace all politicians in the country, they say laughing. Then silence falls. In the final analysis, says Fatima Idhammou, it has to do with work — the chance of finding a good job that makes a good life possible. And respect. “That has become more difficult in recent years if you are Muslim,” says Farouk Zaoui. “But without work, there is no stability.”

In recent years, Muslims in France have been increasingly stigmatized, says Zaoui. “People point their fingers at us, and are now doing so again. We are supposed to apologize for a crime committed by terrorists.” He is a French citizen of the Muslim faith — and faith, he says, is a private matter, particularly in secularist France. “These days, an Islamophobic theory is being developed as a way to justify racism,” another says.

French intellectuals are also taking part in this debate about French identity, and sometimes the tones they strike are shrill indeed. The philosopher Alain Finkielkraut, for example, himself the son of immigrants, has repeatedly warned of the problems associated with immigration, a position he once voiced in an interview with SPIEGEL. He presents his arguments, however, as a concern for France’s cultural heritage.

Another prominent case is that of broadcast journalist Eric Zemmour, who approaches the debate over the role of France’s Muslim population with a crude mixture of clichés and indignation. Zemmour is a best-selling author in France — akin to the populist Islamophobe Thilo Sarrazin in Germany — and an apostle of those who do battle against what they see as the dictatorship of political correctness. In doing so, they transgress all boundaries of decency on the way to reactionary impropriety. Zemmour complains of a “lobby” of gays and other minorities, of Muslims and feminists, of foreigners and other domestic enemies. Their goal, he argues, is to destroy freedom of thought. Just like ancient Rome, the France of today is threatened by “barbarians.” A “cult of intermixing” is dominant, he says, and it is one that is propelling the country toward the abyss.

Such comments provide the ambient noise surrounding the national debates over the burqa and headscarf that have raged in recent years. They have been informed to a significant degree by France’s understanding of itself as a great, indivisible republic — and it has become commonly accepted that the country takes the separation of church and state extremely seriously. Indeed, many have taken to expanding the holy French trinity of freedom, equality and brotherhood with the word laïcité, or secularism. But the degree to which secularism has penetrated the French identity is not entirely clear.

The Birth of Fear Mongering

The law pertaining to the separation of church and state comes from 1905 and has been continually expanded, as in 2004 when the wearing of visible religious symbols in schools was banned. Fully 494 of 577 parliamentarians voted in favor of the law. But the law, which forbids the wearing of headscarves, crosses, turbans and kippas, also triggered the populist exploitation of Islam.

The philosopher Raphaël Liogier says that this law — later expanded to include the wearing of the burqa in public — was a first step in the direction of fear mongering. The parliament’s moves helped create a feeling that the country was being besieged by Islam, he says. Liogier speaks of the “destructive myth of Islamization” — one, he says, which is rooted in France’s narcissistic agony at no longer being the center of the world.

But secularism is also, particularly for the French left, a deeply felt element of the state’s ideology. It is proof of the victory over Catholic conservatism following the French Revolution — a tradition that Charlie Hebdo always stood for.

“It should be as normal to criticize Islam as it is to criticize Jews or Catholics,” Charlie Hebdo publisher Charb told SPIEGEL ONLINE two years ago. When asked if he was afraid of attacks, he said: “I have neither a wife nor children, not even a dog. But I’m not going to hide.”

What united all of the cartoonists was their mockery of religion and the fight against ideology. Charlie Hebdo has never been a political magazine first and foremost. It seeks to make people laugh, and to make them more tolerant by doing so.

‘An Act of War’

Caricatures, as presented in France by Charlie Hebdo and the country’s other satirical weekly, Le Canard Enchainé, are part of the intellectual debate and often go well beyond the op-ed pages. They are often more radical — and often more accessible to readers.

Cabu, Wolinski and all the others were part of their readers’ lives — a fact that has become even more apparent through the moving responses to the attack. They gave voice to both desires and anger and they represented the best side of French culture: argumentative, vivacious, diabolic and warm hearted.

Former Charlie Hebdo Editor-in-Chief Philippe Val spoke on the radio on the afternoon following the attack. How is he doing, the host wanted to know. “I am doing poorly,” he answered with a quiet, puzzled voice. “Very poorly. I have lost all of my friends today.” Then he launched into a tearful speech that didn’t just express his own shock, grief and bewilderment. He spoke as though he was speaking for the entire country. It was the speech that the president couldn’t hold.

“They were such spirited people,” Val said, “who wanted to make us laugh. They were the best among us. They wanted to defend freedom and now they have been murdered in an unbearable slaughter. We cannot allow silence. Terror cannot be allowed to be victorious over joie de vivre and the freedom of expression. We cannot allow that. What took place is an act of war.”

He didn’t try to stop his tears. “Many Muslims are certainly also devastated today. Maybe we in the media were no longer at the cusp. We didn’t talk enough about the rise of Islamists in France; we didn’t sound the alarm soon enough. It is so terrible. There will be a before and an after. Our country will never again be the same.”

Then he quoted the French philosopher Elisabeth Badinter. During the caricature trial against Charlie Hebdo in 2007, she said that if the magazine lost, “a vast silence will fall over us.”

Reported by Georg Diez, Ullrich Fichtner, Hubert Gude, Julia Amalia Heyer, Romain Leick, Mathieu von Rohr, Britta Sandberg, Fidelius Schmid, Samiha Shafy and Jonathan Stock

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