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Je Suis Sri Lanka Charlie – Looking beyond the emotions of the Paris attacks

A man holds a placard which reads "I am Charlie" to pay tribute during a gathering at the Place de la Republique in Paris

A Sri Lankan’s view on the long term impacts of the 7th January attacks on Charlie Hebdo and the role of the media and governments in minimizing them, to ensure safety for the free media. It’s not about Islam.

It is sad some believe that guns and a dozen bodies could silence journalism and the wider freedom of expression. The gruesome attack on Charlie Hebdo will only embolden global citizens to speak out and express themselves, to display solidarity. The Internet has expanded the horizons of media and journalism to such an extent, that nothing can stop us. Sri Lanka might not be the most open to the satirical journalism of Charlie Hebdo, but we do condemn such acts of extreme violence having undergone a 25 year civil war.  But I am not writing a sombre epiphany. Instead, I intend to explore how the handling of this attack by global citizens, media and governments would lead to more such attacks.

The suspects involved in the attacks were cornered and shot dead by the French forces. The Al Qaeda has accepted the responsibility for the attack and since the suspects are dead we may never know what role it actually played in the attack. To me it seems the Al Qaeda is quite keen on taking responsibility, as it tries to achieve the status of highest ranking Satan having been overshadowed by Islamic State (IS). The end result is not just the world looking ever more united in trying to destroy Al Qaeda, but the skyrocketing of global animosities against the Muslim communities.

In the aftermath of the Charlie Hebdo attacks, now dubbed the French 9/11, Muslim religious and state leaders were quick to condemn and pass their deepest condolences to the French people. The reflection here is that the attacks have done more damage to the Muslim population than to anyone else. Whatever the fundamental extremist of Islam may believe, Muslim states and communities around the world are very deeply embedded within the international system and hence are affected by any animosity created. Animosity in France has already led to a ban on the burqa and one could wonder what next. There have been a number of attacks on Muslim communities, mosques and businesses over the past few days in France, which would only lead to the increasing of tensions, fear, disenchantment and extremism among the Islamic youth in the region. Thus Al Qaeda would gain more fighters for standalone attacks and IS would gain more foreign fighters. The rise of far right parties in Western Europe will continue as they utilize the animosities and channel it towards the hatred of migrants. These parties can further their electoral support by spreading Islamaphobia among natives and even calling for abstaining from consumption of products originating from Islamic countries. This would be a severe blow to countries like Indonesia, Turkey and Tunisia which have major export earnings from Europe.

Looking at the UNFPA’s (UN Population Fund) 2014 report on the status of the world population titled Power of 1.8 billion, one can see that the largest proportion of the youth in the impressionable age of 16-24 years live in countries whose main religion is Islam or has significant Islamic populations. The impressionable age is dangerous because the Internet allows for radical groups to draw them into fundamentalism and use rhetoric and vivid imagery of hatred to compel them to resort to violence as a means of serving God Almighty. Any economic backlashes through product boycotts on currently developing and relatively secular and stable Islamic countries like Turkey would be disastrous. Boycotts would reduce export earnings and cause the closure of manufacturing plants and thus unemployment. This will be felt by the lower middle class and working class households, where youth will be more inclined towards fundamentalism as a means of forgetting the monetary woes. The Arab Spring was partly a result of this trend in the aftermath of the 2008 debt crisis. No one in their right mind would wish for a second wave of Islamic Springs in larger states such as Indonesia and Turkey.

I highly believe in and also respect media freedom, hence Je Suis Charlie. Being Sri Lankan, having lived under civil war, I honestly do understand its true value in changing people’s lives, both positively and negatively. Being a secular multi ethnic, multi religious state, Sri Lanka’s media is very cautious as to what they report and what they portray through words and images. It is not because there has been violence committed due to free expression by the media but because no one wants to create any reasons for tensions and violence. True, freedom of expression is tantamount and the satirical cartoons of Charlie Hebdo define it and the religious ought respect and give way. They ought to simply let it go since such acts by a few liberal journalists couldn’t cause harm to the might of God. True followers of Islam who understand their religion for its pure meaning and who understand the fine relationships between Islam and the rest of the world know that such acts are best left ignored. Instead it is the fundamentalist extremist minority who feel undermined by these acts of free expression. Their lofty ideals of religious superiority above the rights of others are undermined. Charlie Hebdo and its brave stubborn journalists struck at the hearts of these extremists. It was a group of disenchanted Islamic youth  drawn to extremism who took offence and spurred on by direct Al Qaeda affiliates, who carried out this vicious act of violence.

Returning to the future of Muslim communities in Western Europe, governments must take efficient actions to prevent any violence against them and must prevent the media from tarnishing the image of Muslims and Islam further. Governments and responsible civil society organizations need to dispel the hatred and tension growing within the native populations by portraying Muslim communities as a vital part of the European society and their economic significance by bringing in investments from their countries of origin. The media should not be allowed to portray Muslims as the cause for these attacks. Instead they must be painted as mere terrorists. The plight of the Muslim police officer killed by the terrorists need to be highly emphasized, highlighted and patronized. Looking at the post-Charlie cartoons, most were drawn on the futility of terrorists attempting to destroy the ‘pen’ but there were some with Imams or Ayatollahs being laughed at or ridiculed. The former will be celebrated even by a majority of Muslims but the latter will be condemned and cause resentment that the Western media offends the moral authority of their religious leaders. This gives more ammunition for the fundamentalist minority against the secular Muslims and they end up successful in drawing support from the youth using shrewd propaganda via social media. Thus more attacks on the heart of the secular world.

Condemning the attacks is great but this is not the most positive message to the Muslim community.

What must be done to ensure this cycle of attacks do not continue to plague civilization? Firstly all politicians must learn from the statements made by the US Secretary of State John Kerry following the attacks; “We stand by you in solidarity and in commitment both in the cause of confronting extremism and in the cause in which extremists fear so much, which has always united our two countries: freedom”. Kerry did not mention anything about jihadists or Islamic terrorism, instead used ‘extremism’ and ‘vicious acts of violence’ to describe the attacks. This proves that USA has learnt from its past mistakes of directly attacking the values of Islam. Even the word terrorism was not used probably because he did not want to confirm they were terrorists without confirming their identities – they could easily be simple criminals paid to do an attack. Thus, the right of use of words in a diplomatic and secular manner is essential to reduce the incidence of attacks in the future. The same applies to the media.

Social media is fast becoming the opiate of the masses, altering their attitudes, beliefs and actions through a simple hashtag tweeted, retweeted, posted and reposted. Modern media is shared and connected to social media all the time. The wrong word used in one media article or cartoon and used as a hashtag could easily turn into a trending matter and lead to an entire population believing in that content, and thus reflect in their actions. Hence it is the duty of responsible media to restrain them-selves in what they state in their articles to avoid repercussions that cause harm at the end to the very freedom of expression that they desire. Freedom is not an excuse to ignore the rights of a few no matter how obscene those rights might be, because as the Charlie Hebdo attacks have shown they can be expressed in the most violent ways. I am not advocating fear of extremism and silence. We must not give extremists any reasons to express themselves in public and impress the youth to gain support. Without our provocations their extremism will remain within a minority and will go to the grave with them over time. Patience is virtue.

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