Skip to main content

From Paris to Copenhagen: What lessons not to learn

When Muslims are painted as exclusively more violent than other groups, it seemingly makes targeting them socially acceptable

In the wake of the tragic murders in Denmark of a filmmaker attending a panel discussion on blasphemy and a member of the Jewish community outside a synagogue, the temptation is to read everything through the ideological lens of the clash of civilisations. Charlie Hebdo was strike two some have already started to contend, in reference to the clear parallels between the targets of the attacks. Danish Prime Minister Helle Thorning-Schmidt has been quoted as saying, "We do not know the motive for the alleged perpetrator's actions, but we know that there are forces that want to hurt Denmark. They want to rebuke our freedom of speech.”

The simplistic narrative of such attacks representing the hard edge of an intractable Muslim community who’s inability to accept “our” values of free speech and tolerance is now the leitmotif of such incidents. The acts of politically motivated criminals, more likely - as it is the case with the alleged culprit in Denmark as it was with the attackers in France, both have a background in gang violence and criminality more than mosque attendance and devotional activities - yet are taken to reflect a broader latent threat posed by Europe’s Muslims.

The discourse is hardly novel. It represents the resurrection of the narrative of the perpetual Muslim “other”, a return to the historical pattern of European identity constructing itself as an enlightened bastion of rationality, in opposition to the backward barbarians out there – the only real difference now being that they’re out here.

There are two predominant alarmist claims made at such times.

The first is a variation on the “problem of Muslims in Europe”, the idea that something about their faith impedes Muslims from being fully integrated citizens. Examples of this include the various discussion programs on “Muslims and free speech”, implying a presumed tension, incessant focus on Muslim dress codes and dietary practises, as well as sensationalist claims concerning an alleged “demographic threat” – posed we are told by a Muslim community which represents just 6 percent of the European population and is set to rise to a still single digit 8 percent by 2030.

European Muslims having children, regular scaremongering tells us, represents a potential threat to the very core of European values. A recent article in a mainstream British paper illustrated this prejudice disguised as legitimate fear by asking its readers “Worried about Muslims in Britain?” - as if somehow this were a legitimate concern - before suggesting that fear might be rooted in the fact “the number of Muslim children is rising”.

Ask yourself if any other community’s children could be used as a scare tactic in this fashion?

The second alarmist claim made at such times is the increasingly common trope that such attacks on Jewish individuals or institutions reflects a broad climate of anti-Semitism among European Muslims. The argument is linked to the alleged incompatibility of Muslims with European values of which tolerance is allegedly one, despite figures showing increasing intolerance across the continent.

Certainly, there are significant tensions between Muslims and Jews over the Israeli occupation. And recent events indicate that Muslim extremists often mistakenly view European Jews and Israel interchangeably. Polls also indicate a growing climate of anti-Semitism within Europe, but despite the rhetoric of “Islamo-facism” being to blame, the same polls indicate that anti-Semitic attitudes are highest in countries with some of the smallest Muslim populations – Greece, Italy, Poland – while some of the countries with the highest Muslim populations – the UK, France, Germany - actually hold more favourable views of Jews.

As Yascha Mounk recently pointed out, “a European anti-Semite remains far more likely to be Christian than Muslim.” The question, he asked “is not whether Muslim immigrants will learn to tolerate Jews, but whether, in countries such as Sweden, Italy and Poland, the majority can learn to think of Muslims and Jews as true members of the nation.” Indeed, a 2008 Pew poll indicated that “publics that view Jews unfavourably also tend to see Muslims in a negative light.” 

Not only is the narrative of a hostile, anti-Semitic Muslim Trojan-horse in our midst part of a broader discriminatory lens, it actually undermines the shared struggle against rising prejudice across Europe of which both communities (and others!) are victims.

And this climate of fear is not without consequence.

In the wake of Charlie Hebdo, attacks on Muslims in France skyrocketed. Here in the UK, a recent report points to Muslim pupils across Britain suffering a backlash of bullying and abuse following the Charlie Hebdo murders, in addition to a spike in physical and verbal violence against Muslims more broadly.

When Muslims are painted as exclusively more violent than other groups, it renders targeting them seemingly socially acceptable. When we accept the fallacious claim of the attackers that they represent the voice of Muslims, or the incendiary assertions of those who draw a line from widespread Muslim anger over images to the murder of cartoonists, we are playing into a dangerous agenda. Such attacks are far less a challenge to free speech than they are to the fabric of our diverse societies. 

The Copenhagen attack may well be a copycat of the Paris murders – if it is, the key will be for Denmark not to imitate the suspicion, division and hostility of the French aftermath. Al-Qaeda aficionados and the increasingly normalised far-right have lots to gain from such a climate - the majority of us however, have the most to lose.

- Myriam Francois-Cerrah is a Franco-British journalist, broadcaster and writer with a focus on current affairs, France and the Middle East.  

The views expressed in this article belong to the author and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of Middle East Eye.   

Photo: Attacks on Muslims in France have skyrocketted after the Charlie Hebdo killings (AFP)

Stay informed with MEE's newsletters

Sign up to get the latest alerts, insights and analysis, starting with Turkey Unpacked

Middle East Eye delivers independent and unrivalled coverage and analysis of the Middle East, North Africa and beyond. To learn more about republishing this content and the associated fees, please fill out this form. More about MEE can be found here.