BERLIN – Although French police have now identified and are hunting the suspects in Wednesday’s Charlie Hebdo attack, the terrorists have, on at least two levels, already won: They’ve scared a number of powerful news organizations into submission, and they’ve stoked European Islamophobia, whose rise will help militant Islamists recruit more supporters.
Here’s a mental exercise: Imagine you’re a terrorist leader watching today’s news. You’d scoff at images of big rallies in European cities meant to express solidarity with the victims of the attack. The people in the street may hold up placards saying “Not afraid” and “Je suis Charlie,” but these crowds are not made up of journalists.
News organizations, in many cases, have chosen to censor images in which Charlie Hebdo cartoons are visible. The media outlets involved include London’s Telegraph, the New York Daily News and the Associated Press. The latter actually uploaded the Charlie cartoons to its database but then deleted them. Major U.S. television networks also refused to show the images, saying that would go against their policies.
The New York Times and CNN decided to describe the cartoons but not show them, arguing that would give readers an understanding of the story, but not offend religious sensibilities: After all, irreverent (or, indeed, any) images of the prophet Muhammad are what Islam objects to. A terrorist reading this would laugh out loud at the hypocrisy: These are cartoons, for God’s sake, works of visual art that are funny, or meaningful, only as such. It’s as ridiculous to describe them verbally as to explain a joke.
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Those who made the rules at these news organizations can plaster themselves head to foot with “Je suis Charlie” stickers, but they are transparently not Charlie.
To be sure, others upheld the Western free-speech tradition in the face of the strongest resistance it has faced in decades. I am proud to work for one of these organizations. Others include The Huffington Post, Sweden’s Expressen, the Daily Beast, Germany’s Berliner Zeitung, Denmark’s Berlingske. On balance, however, a terrorist watching the news would have to see the level of journalistic fear as a convincing win.
The second victory is subtler. After the Paris attack, the number of people who “liked” the Facebook page of the German anti-immigrant group Pegida, which holds big and ever-growing weekly demonstrations in Dresden, jumped by about 7,500 to 120,500. The page now features a black ribbon in memory of the Charlie Hebdo victims. It also contains one of the most hypocritical messages I have ever seen following a major terrorist attack:
“Even if today’s cowardly attack in Paris, an attack on freedom of expression, democracy, Europe itself, seems to be water on our mill, we will not take it as an opportunity to say ‘We told you so.’ No, precisely because we are no loudmouths like those who vilify us, no claque like those who reflexively say about us ‘Never Again in Germany,' wanting to prevent our mostly silent evening walks… We remain silent in sorrow and humility and solidarity with the families of the French editors who have been the first victims. We remain silent and we will go for a walk on Monday again, silently and with black armbands.”
After the killings, Marine Le Pen, leader of the French far-right Front National, made a politically correct speech condemning Islamic fundamentalism, but one of her top lieutenants, Wallerand de Saint-Just, explained in an interview before she spoke that the problem was Islam, which “has a tendency to create fanatics more than any other religion,” and the French nationality of the suspected terrorists, which makes it impossible to deport them.
Wednesday’s act of terrorism is clearly encouraging anti- Muslim, anti-immigrant forces. They also don “Je suis Charlie” buttons, even though Charlie Hebdo was a leftist publication that made fun of them more often than it went after Muhammad.
At this, the terrorist watching the news must be rubbing his hands. After all, the militant Islamic groups do not want European Muslims to integrate, to become Europeans as Charlie Hebdo copy editor Mustapha Ourrad and police officer Ahmed Merabet – both killed in the attack – had done. They want Muslims to join them to carry out more such terrorism, or go off to fight with Islamic State. The more far-right protests against their very presence, the more likely Muslims will be to turn to the militant groups for guidance and moral support.
This situation requires both standing up for European values and making integration more, not less, attractive to Muslims. With the news media barely hiding their fear and the far right on the rise, the terrorists cannot but win.
Bloomberg View contributor Leonid Bershidsky is based in Berlin.