Experts and commentators speak on race relations in France, al-Qaeda in Yemen, and Islamophobia in Europe in light of the Charlie Hebdo attack
The attack on a French magazine's office in Paris on Tuesday, in which at least 12 people were killed by three heavily armed gunmen, has seen an outpouring of grief from around the world.
While attackers were heard to shout Islamic slogans in amateur videos posted online, little is known about the assailants who remain on the run despite a manhunt launched by French authorities.
Eyewitnesses told The Daily Telegraph gunmen shouted: "Tell the media that this is al-Qaeda in the Yemen” but the group are not believed to have claimed responsibility themselves.
Middle East Eye spoke to a number of experts and commentators about the likelihood of an al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP) attack in France, race relations and the Muslim community in France, as well as taking a wider look at Islamophobia in Europe.
The Paris attack and AQAP in Yemen
Adam Baron, visiting fellow at the European Council on Foreign Relations.
“It’s too soon to say for sure whether the attack was carried out by AQAP or not. My immediate thought when this happened was not that it was an AQAP related attack, I – along with many others – had the gut feeling this was potentially done by the Islamic State (IS) group.
That being said AQAP has mentioned Charlie Hebdo in the past. AQAP has an English language magazine called Inspire and in their 10th edition that was published in March 2013 they issued a list of their "10 most wanted" that included Stephane Charbonnier, the editor of the magazine.
While AQAP lacks the strong presence of North African and European foreign fighters that IS has, there is a history of French students who have gone to study at Salafi institutes in Yemen and later gone on to join AQAP.
That being said when I’ve looked at the AQAP affiliated social media accounts – which you would expect to hear from in a case like this – they have been rather quiet; there’s been no claim of responsibility when you would think this is something AQAP would jump out to claim responsibility for very quickly.
When you look at it from AQAP’s point of view, in recent times they have been risked being eclipsed [by IS]. Three years ago, before IS came to prominence, AQAP had come close to taking over AQ central as the most notorious and talked about terror group. But now IS has almost left them in the dust.
Recently, media coverage has almost been painting AQAP as more of a local issue, something the group are keenly aware of. This attack in Paris would potentially be a way for the group to demonstrate that they can fight two battles at once – the Houthis in Yemen and the West.
At the end of the day, in terms of capacity, it doesn’t take that much effort to pull something like this off. It takes very little effort on behalf of AQAP in Yemen – if it was indeed carried out by the group – and in reality it requires very little training.
All the huge caveats have to be mentioned: There is very little that we know about this attack. But the Inspire magazine edition is potentially of key importance here.”
Race relations and the Muslim community in France
Erik Bleich, professor of political science at Middlebury College.
“There are ongoing medium level Islamophobic statements that pop up from time-to-time in France from both political leaders - particularly those on the far right - and cultural figures.
Today we saw the publication of a new book by Michel Houellebecq, Submission, which imagines France several years in the future ruled by ‘the Muslims’. Houellebeq – a number of years ago – said ‘the stupidest religion is Islam’. He was taken to court and acquitted.
There is an ambient Islamophobia that I would characterise as medium level in the sense it is spoken often enough by figures with enough prominence that it gets headlines and has a real impact on the public debate.
But it’s not constant and not assumed by the government.
That said, on a day-to-day level, in the average neighbourhood there are very few race relations problems. It’s not like you walk down the street, in my city Lyon for instance, and notice people are grouped by ethnicity.
Most Muslims in France, according to surveys, feel very French. It’s even truer if they happen to be born in France, speak the French language and have French citizenship.
It’s not like there is some grand alienation of all Muslims in France – that’s not the case.
However, there are pockets of certain – generally immigrant clustered – neighbourhoods where there are certainly groups of Muslim youths, although I prefer to call them disaffected youths, who feel alienated from society and don’t have much in the way of job prospects.
In those cases, in those neighbourhoods, especially when there are flare-ups – for example in the Middle East – they can organise and mobilise to engage in protest activities that tend to revolve around their Muslim identity.
This Muslim identity is not otherwise particularly strong – these youths tend not to ardently practice their religion – but on these occasions the identity becomes a vehicle to express a sense of alienation from society.”
A view from the British Muslim community
Mohammed Ansar, British political and social commentator
“First, we have to offer our condolences to the victims of today’s attack in Paris. Everyone – who is sensible – has condemned the attack.
The Prophet Mohammed did not sanction his detractors, even when they enjoyed their freedom of speech by slandering him. For anybody to think that they are avenging the Prophet by killing people is absurd.
The attackers may believe they are religious but they are completely on the wrong path. They are barbaric and - from a theological perspective - are rejected by Islam.
The Prophet Mohammed specifically addressed this issue in his lifetime. He said ‘those people who wear black clothes and fly the black flag’ are not from Islam. This has been, pardon the pun, prophetic.
With regards to the specificity of the issue in Paris, we have seen many people sharing the [Charlie Hebdo] cartoons [about Islam] in solidarity with the victims. I know emotions are running high but most people are aware the images are provocative.
I find the images provocative, for example. I know they offend many people – they don’t massively offend me – but I think what offends me is the way people use them to provoke and to offend.
People who generally want to have a debate about freedom of speech or religion – that’s absolutely fair, right and proper in a liberal democratic society.
My message after the Woolwich attack – and my message today – has been we need to ensure that communities do not turn against one another. My social media timeline has been inundated with hate – from sympathisers for the killers and from far-right ideologues who use the argument of free speech as a veil for their prejudice.
Those on the far right will see today’s attack as a green light to go all out and attack Muslims. They see this as an opportunity to drive a wedge between communities – we have already seen the rise of anti-Islam, not anti-Islamist, protests in Germany.
We can’t – and we shouldn’t – stop people from spreading these cartoons. All we can do is to ask people to think about the effect it’s having on those around you, knowing that the images are provocative.”