It is now 18 months since two gunmen forced their way into the offices of Charlie Hebdo in Paris and set about murdering the staff of that magazine. The gunmen from al-Qaeda in Yemen called for the editor — “Charb” — by name before murdering him and most of his colleagues. In an interview shortly before his death, taking into account the threat to his life which entailed constant security protection, Stéphane Charbonnier had said, “I prefer to die standing than live on my knees.” Charb did die standing, in the office of the magazine he edited.
In the 18 months since the attack on Charlie Hebdo and the massive demonstrations in solidarity on the streets of Paris, France has suffered a terrible set of further terrorist assaults The ISIS attack (which killed 130 people) last November on the Bataclan Theatre and other sites around Paris and the attack (which killed 84 people) in Nice on July 14 are the deadliest and most prominent. But other acts of terror — including the murder last month in their home of two members of the police, carried out by a man pledging allegiance to ISIS –have gone on and almost become normal.
Yesterday’s murder of an 84-year old priest, Father Jacques Hamel, while he was saying mass is shocking even by the standards of France during this period. Two men claiming allegiance to the Islamic State (ISIS) entered the church and ritually murdered the priest by slitting his throat. A second victim is currently struggling to stay alive. It is hard to see any end in this sight of this horror, but these two atrocities across an 18-month gap are worth considering alongside each other — not least because the reaction to them in France and outside may contain the tiniest glimmer of hope in a very dark time.
One of the striking things about the outrage after the murders at Charlie Hebdo was that it very nearly united France. There were those, including people who had been the victims of Charlie Hebdo‘s satire in the past, who were not able to lionise them. But across mainstream society in France, there was near unanimity around the idea that the magazine and its rude, irreverent and specifically anti-clerical style of satire was uniquely French. No one seemed surprised that so many people around the world had missed the point of the magazine — people across the Muslim world in particular. The publication was recognised as a particularly French publication which as such stood for more than itself. In the days and weeks after January 7, 2015. the sense of the Republic itself having been attacked was especially strong.
An enemy willing to slaughter the most rollicking secularists and the most devout priest, both in their places of work, is an enemy with the entirety of French civilisation and culture in its sights. Left: Father Jacques Hamel, murdered yesterday in Rouen, France by an Islamic jihadist. Right: Stéphane Charbonnier, the editor and publisher of Charlie Hebdo, who was murdered in Paris on January 7, 2015, along with many of his colleagues, by Islamic jihadists.
The attacks did of course also give rise to a flush of virtual solidarity. The “Je Suis Charlie” (‘I am Charlie’) tag prevailed not only in demonstrations but also across Twitter and other social media. In the 18 months since then, the hashtag became repetitively and wearily wheeled out: “Je Suis Paris”, “Je Suis Bruxelles” and so on after every attack. Perhaps some people learned subsequently that solidarity on social media — while having the advantage of making people feel slightly better — has no effect whatsoever on diminishing or ending the terror. Meanwhile, one of the most important acts of actual solidarity was sorely missing.
The Pope’s intervention into the debate after the Charlie Hebdo attack was one of the most regrettable of the whole period. Speaking to journalists on his plane in the week after the attack, Pope Francis signalled to a Vatican official beside him and said, “If my good friend Dr Gasparri says a curse word against my mother, he can expect a punch in the nose.” Pretending to throw a punch, the Pope then said: “It’s normal. You cannot provoke. You cannot insult the faith of others. You cannot make fun of the faith of others.”
Charb and his colleagues — living and dead — would have expected nothing more from the Pope whose church had been such a constant target of their pens. Nevertheless, it was a painful intervention. Not only was the representative of a religion whose founder is known for peace now talking the language of violence, but the remark suggested an irreconcilable divide between the religious and the secular in an age of Islamic violence. Where alliances should have been easy, they looked suddenly fractious and impossible.
The brutal slaughter of Father Jacques Hamel opens up this question from the other end. What “provocation” had Father Hamel provided? If any good can come from an act of such savagery. it would be in the possibility of healing such a rift. Obviously the Pope has condemned the killing of a priest of his own church. But many other anti-clerical figures in France may well pause before the enormity of what the jihadists have once again done. You do not have to be religious to experience revulsion at such an act being done to a man of God in the act of celebrating the Eucharist. The usual debates in French life over the role of the church and its role in the state may be able at least to pause during this period, raising the possibility of a more suitable and lengthy pause in hostilities.
In these two attacks, eighteen months apart — on a magazine office in Paris and a church in Rouen — the nature of the enemy we all face stands clearly before us. An enemy willing to slaughter the most rollicking secularists and the most devout priest, both in their places of work, is an enemy with the entirety of French civilisation and culture in its sights. It is an enemy — extremist Islam — clearly intent not on some kind of tributary offering or suit for peace, but rather an enemy which seeks its opponent’s total and utter destruction. Should this not be the moment for the entirety of one of the greatest cultures on earth to unite as one, turn on this common enemy and destroy it first, in the name of civilisation?
Douglas Murray is an author, news analyst and commentator based in London, England.
Jihadis: Who Are Their Targets?
by Douglas Murray
July 27, 2016 at 6:00 am