Not since the Danish cartoons case of 2005, has the freedom to express or offend come under such threat in Europe. The attack on Charlie Hebdo is a chilling escalation of radical outfits waging war against European democracy and liberalism. World leaders and Muslim leaders condemned the attack, yet this case has now become a reminder of how multiculturalism can be pushed to rest on the tip of a needle.
European secularism has been under threat from a two-pronged political attack for several years. On one side, are the Islamist radicals and on the other side is the political far right which calls for a blanket closure on immigration from Muslim countries. In the aftermath of this attack, as fear and anger spreads across Europe, the political far right in different nations is preparing for a major revival campaign. Marine Le Pen, the leader of the National Front, France’s right wing political party issued a statement on her party’s website linking the attack to ‘unregulated’ immigration to France from Muslim countries. Le Pen is famous for her 2010 statement where she compared Muslims praying on the streets to the Nazi occupation of France. Le Pen’s party in fact gave a strong challenge to Francois Hollande in the 2012 Presidential elections. In Britain, immediately after the news broke, Nick Griffin – the chief of the right wing political outfit the British National Party tweeted, "Will liberals get the message? Europe & Islam don’t mix! Vicious, wicked faith.”
The attack in Paris also came a day after thousands in Germany took part in anti-Islam rallies in the cities of Berlin, Cologne and Dresden. With this latest political escalation being called ‘Clash of Civilizations’ by some, governments across Europe have a major challenge ahead of them. The tragedy in Paris is now a test for their centrist principles. They need to stay true to their call for national unity and cannot allow both the attackers and the political right to define Islam in this mold. The governments need to protect Muslim citizens from retaliation attacks and discrimination, while reining in radical organizations to prevent the political right from taking advantage of people’s fear, panic and irrationality. As sentiments are on the precipice of upsetting the harmony of multicultural Europe, there are hawks baiting people on both sides. It is the duty of the states and civil society to make people feel safe and secure and actively guide opinion to maintain harmony. They must counter the political right for exploiting people’s fear and appeal to their citizens to stand together, keep each other safe and assure them the law will not bend to fear.
Secularism, tolerance and democracy are fragile concepts, which become tough and strong due to continued faith. This is the time where the people who matter, from a state leader to a local community leader need to protect faith of secularism, and embolden people to hold on to the ideals that make them free and fearless. It is in moments like these where I remember the famous words of CBS news legend and civil rights crusader Edward Murrow when he defended the freedom of speech – words appealing to the human condition in times of crisis. He said, "We will not walk in fear, one of another, we will not be driven by fear into an age of unreason. If we dig deep in our history and our doctrine, and remember we are not descended from fearful men. Not from men who feared to write, to speak, to associate, and to defend causes that were, for the moment, unpopular… We can deny our heritage and our history but we cannot escape responsibility for the results.”