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Je suis dialogue, tolerance and coexistence

A week has elapsed since Paris experienced cowardly attacks by terrorists massacring people for their opinions

Yossi Mekelberg

Published: Updated:

A week has elapsed since Paris experienced cowardly attacks by terrorists massacring people for their opinions, their religion or because they happened to be police officers fulfilling their duty of maintaining law and order. It is still too early to make sense of these shocking events that were beamed into our living rooms and rocked French society and beyond. It will probably remain incomprehensible why a few young radical Muslims would be consumed by so much anger and hatred towards their defenceless fellow country men and women to a point of shooting and killing them in cold blood. Not surprisingly, this senseless attack on a French magazine Charlie Hebdo and a kosher supermarket in Paris sent shock waves rippling not only in France, but also around the world. It was met with a mixture of acute pain, trauma and restrained, though deep, anger. These tragic events always invite knee jerk reactions, but the opposite is required. Without a period of genuine reflection within Europe about coexistence in diverse societies, the continent will rapidly slide into a very dangerous period of internal strife. There is a sense of edging closer to the abyss of ideological, religious and ethnic conflict, including considerable violence. This will ultimately play into the hands of the likes of the very extremists who committed the atrocities last week and those who have always vehemently opposed multi-cultural existence in Europe.

Atrocious events

Atrocious events like the one in Paris naturally invite an abundance of indisputable truisms about coexistence in a democratic society. Maybe some of these truisms need to be repeated until they have embedded themselves in the minds of everyone. One of these is, that murdering people for expressing their opinions, even contentious ones, cannot be justified or excused. This type of action undermines the core of any democratic society. Individuals or groups who pursue this violent course of action should feel the full weight of the law in addition to social rejection. This is not to endorse journalism, including cartoons, who are insensitive, let alone offensive, to others’ feelings and beliefs. To the contrary, I never found this type of public debate entertaining or enlightening. Many times I have found them to be in bad taste, suggesting poor judgement. Humour which is derogatory and offensive to others has never appealed to me. However, the strength of an open society is to dispute this not through the barrel of a gun, but through legitimate non-violent criticism. Modern media and technology provide a plethora of platforms to do so. Charlie Hebdo has been offensive not only to Muslims, but also to Jews and Christians throughout its existence, however, this gave no one the right to harm those who worked for it. Nevertheless, at this time as Europe struggles to build peaceful coexistence within very diverse societies, I deeply believe that we all bear responsibility for one another’s sensitivities. This should not be done through legally curtailing freedom of speech or due to fear. Free press has an essential role to play in any society in highlighting its ills and suggesting how to resolve them. Nevertheless, mockery of values that are sacred to others is more likely to alienate rather than engage in cross-community constructive dialogue.

The immortal notion of the French Revolution - Liberté, Égalité, Fraternité - ought to be revived around the continent for the benefit of everyone

Yossi Mekelberg

Another truism is that despite the fact that the deplorable terrorist attacks were carried out by people who profess to be Muslims, their actions should not reflect on all Muslims in France or elsewhere. Leaders of the Muslim community in France rightly and courageously condemned the terrorists for their abhorrent acts. This, however, should not imply that the leaders or members of minorities bear a special responsibility to condemn criminal acts by people with whom they happen to share a religion or ethnicity. It became a sort of social expectation of minorities, which implies guilt by association. It ignores that these terrorist acts were carried out by very few people, potentially abetted by few more and possibly supported by a miniscule number of people who happen to be Muslims. Pointing fingers at the Muslim community is morally and factually wrong. Furthermore, this type of blame game is unhelpful in inducing social cohesion, and consequently in reducing friction and violence. As a matter of fact, many Muslims are facing dreadful manifestations of Islamophobia which does not make them feel like an integral part of European societies and some as a result are becoming easier prey for fundamental Islamists.

Deplorable anti-Semitic angle

Until Friday these terrorists seemed to target those who in their eyes insulted Islam and anyone else in the way of executing their twisted plan. At this point, when Jews were preparing to welcome their holy day of the week, the Shabbat, one of the terrorists added a deplorable anti-Semitic angle to these unfortunate days in the history of the Fifth Republic, by attacking a kosher supermarket. This left four Jewish customers dead and many in the Jewish community in France in a state of despair and contemplating leaving the country all together. In recent years the Jewish community has increasingly faced fatal attacks and intimidation by radical Muslims. This leads me to one final truism. Anti-Semitism, as any other form of racism, cannot be justified or excused. Attacks on one of the symbols of any Jewish community is an attack on the community as a whole. In a country which was the first to grant Jews emancipation, Jews increasingly feel unsafe. The terrorists in their twisted minds want to drive a wedge between Muslims and Jews. Those who propagate this message should meet a brick wall of rejection. Still in this tragic scene, it is worth remembering that a Muslim employee in the attacked supermarket hid a group of customers in the basement, risking his life to rescue theirs. This brave act by Lassana Bathily, should be noticed and remembered too.

Expressions of solidarity with the French people culminated on Sunday in a massive march in Paris, led by the families of the victims of last week’s terrorist attack. The rally was attended by people from all communities and religions, and by leaders from around the world. One would like to believe that this gathering might be the beginning of a meaningful search for a much needed European cross-communal and religious dialogue. A dialogue which would address the necessity for a peaceful and beneficial coexistence for all in a diverse environment. Events last week presented us with more questions than answers. Some of these questions are very profound, and call for examination of the state of humanity and whether violence and hatred can ever be eradicated from our lives. In times like this one should be very humble in offering solutions. Yet that is not to say that one should refrain from suggesting at least some initial thoughts while accepting that there are no magic answers. The answer is definitely not in giving the security forces unlimited force, or in vilifying immigrants and minorities. This type of reaction will only hand victory to the terrorists who committed these heinous crimes. Only national dialogues based on tolerance and openness to people’s needs, aspirations and even fears may start a process of healing and moving forward towards building diverse, though cohesive, societies in Europe. The alternative to this vision would empower those who thrive on friction and hatred. The immortal notion of the French Revolution Liberté, Égalité, Fraternité, ought to be revived around the continent for the benefit of everyone. This might prevent the ugly divisions, xenophobia, violence and racial hatred its people have endured in recent years.

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Yossi Mekelberg is an Associate Fellow at the Middle East and North Africa Program at the Royal Institute of International Affairs, Chatham House, where he is involved with projects and advisory work on conflict resolution, including Track II negotiations. He is also the Director of the International Relations and Social Sciences Program at Regent’s University in London, where he has taught since 1996. Previously, he was teaching at King’s College London and Tel Aviv University. Mekelberg’s fields of interest are international relations theory, international politics of the Middle East, human rights, and international relations and revolutions. He is a member of the London Committee of Human Rights Watch, serving on the Advocacy and Outreach committee. Mekelberg is a regular contributor to the international media on a wide range of international issues and you can find him on Twitter @YMekelberg.

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