People take part in a unity rally at the Place de la Nation (Nation square) in Paris on Sunday, in tribute to the victims of attacks by violent Muslim extremists. (AFP Photo/Loic Venance)

Johannes Nugroho: Put the Charlie Hebdo Attack in Perspective


JANUARY 12, 2015

The fatal attack on the Charlie Hebdo weekly newspaper headquarters in Paris, which left 12 dead, has elicited condemnations from many leaders of countries around the world. They overwhelmingly depicted the attack as an assault on free speech. However, amid the stalwart words in defense of freedom, we must not lose sight of what the incident was all about.

Suffice it to say, it was a blatant act of violence, designed to instill fear and to attract attention at the same time. But to say that free speech was the core issue is misleading. If there was any freedom of expression under attack, it was that of the victims, who were targeted because of their satirical works.

So-called freedom of speech, as it is practiced in the Western world, has limitations and is often subject to political moods. In France, where Charlie Hebdo has mockingly portrayed the Catholic Church and Islam so freely, it is criminal to deny the Holocaust against Jewish people during the Second World War.

Effective as of 1990, the law better known as the Gayssot Act makes it illegal to dispute the existence, size or extent of crimes against humanity as defined by the London Charter of 1945. The charter was especially drawn up in preparation for the Nuremberg trials to prosecute the war criminals from Nazi Germany.

The rigidity of the Gayssot Act rules out further discourse on a historical event effectively, which can be seen as an infringement on the tenets of free speech. In fact, the French Constitutional Court confirmed this when it ruled that the French government’s extension of the act to include the Armenian Genocide in 2012 was in violation of free speech.

The act was successfully used to indict Roger Garaudy, a controversial French philosopher who converted to Islam, for his book "The Founding Myths of Modern Israel," in which he questioned the veracity of the Holocaust. It is possible, given the anti-Semitism of most Muslim jihadis in Europe, that the indictment of a new famous convert to Islam such as Garaudy was seen as further evidence of Western hypocrisy and favoritism of the Jewish people over Muslims.

To be fair, the French government has made the effort to be impartial in enforcing its anti-discrimination laws. Actress Brigitte Bardot has been convicted of hate speech against Muslims for at least five times.

Nevertheless, the Charlie Hebdo massacre and the subsequent siege at a Paris kosher grocery shop are signs that multiculturalism in its current form is in need of a policy shakeup. The attackers in the former incident were second-generation French naturalized citizens.

Evidently, growing up in France and being exposed to their country’s dominant culture failed to convince them of the benefits of living in peaceful co-existence with the rest of France. An analysis by Robert S. Leiken for the National Interest magazine calls the perpetrators “European Holy Warriors” who are “part of a larger European movement that is internally generated.”

In light of this, a different approach to immigration in the Western world is called for. The question remains what sort of response is appropriate to both defeat the terrorist threat and at the same time prevent it from growing larger.

A recent editorial by the American global intelligence company Stratfor argues that the Charlie Hebdo assault is part of the jihadis’ strategy to generate further anti-Muslim policies and actions in France and Europe. They hope the increasing anti-Islam expressions will only exacerbate the discontent felt by Muslim immigrants and their families, making them easier targets for recruitment for jihad.

While the incident will probably jack up support for right-wing political parties like the National Front in France and UK Independence Party in the United Kingdom, moderate governments across Europe should endeavor to come up with solutions effective at denying possible proliferation of the jihadis.

There is early evidence that this is currently not being pursued. Among the three jihadi fighters killed by the French police in a raid, two were the brothers responsible for the attack on the Charlie Hebdo headquarters. It is regrettable that the French police did not choose another method of apprehending the gunmen without killing them.

The way Indonesian authorities handled the Bali bombers should have given the French a clue what not to do with jihadis. The death sentence carried out against the perpetrators only conferred martyrdom on them.

Thousands of sympathizers attended their funerals. It would have made more sense to incarcerate them for life, but without the privileges that all of them had, such as being available for interviews, the use of mobile phones and so on.

It is not entirely implausible that the deaths of the French jihadis will be seen in a similar light by their sympathizers. The martyrdom of these men, accidental or deliberate, could have been avoided, for the greater strategic picture in the efforts to extinguish terror.

It is time Western governments dealt with the issues of extremism with more tangible methods. For a start, they should not indulge in grandstanding by trying to be seen defending abstract concepts like free speech, something that no one can in truth practice with absolute objectivity. Such lip service can only validate the idea held by many jihadis that the Christian West acts with an insufferable superiority complex towards Islam.

Johannes Nugroho, a writer from Surabaya, can be contacted at