After Charlie Hebdo Attack, France’s Churchillian Moment

France needs governance that will not fall into the traps in which the United States, after 9/11, nearly lost its way.

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Sign of unity: Fans at a soccer match in  Guingamp, France pay tribute on Saturday to the victims of the Charlie Hebdo attack, with "Je suis Charlie" signs.
Sign of unity: Fans at a soccer match in Guingamp, France pay tribute on Saturday to the victims of the Charlie Hebdo attack, with "Je suis Charlie" signs. Credit: AFP

Twelve faces. Twelve names, some of which were specifically called out before execution. Twelve symbols mourned around the globe, symbols of the assassination of freedom of laughter and of thought. The very least that France owes to this dozen — to Charb, Cabu, Wolinski, and Tignous, to Bernard Maris, to the martyrs to humor who so often caused us to die laughing and are now dead because of it — is to rise to their level of commitment and courage and, today, to prove worthy of their legacy.

It is incumbent upon the leaders of France, the West, and the world to take the measure of a war they did not want to see, one in which the journalists of Charlie Hebdo, its writers and caricaturists, long ago put themselves on the front line — war reporters of a sort, as we now know. This is the Churchillian moment of France’s Fifth Republic, the moment of implacable truth in the face of a test that will continue far beyond the neutralization by the police on Friday of the jihadist Kouachi brothers and of Amedy Coulibaly.

It is time for us to break with the Leninist reasoning that has been served up to us for so long by the useful idiots of a radical Islam immersed in the sociology of poverty. And it is the moment, now or never, for a calm resolve among all believers in democracy not to give in to the catastrophic measures of a state of emergency. France can and must erect dikes — but not the walls of a besieged fortress.

The nation needs and deserves counter-terrorism without special powers, patriotism without a Patriot Act — governance that will not fall into the traps in which the United States, after 9/11, nearly lost its way. Was that not the implicit challenge of the words of John Kerry, who, a decade ago was the unsuccessful but honorable opponent of the feckless anti-terrorist, George W. Bush? Did not the tribute he delivered in French to the dozen French victims, the “Je suis Charlie” that he offered in the same French as President Franklin Roosevelt’s moving speech over the airwaves of Radio London on November 8, 1942 — did it not have the twin virtue of underlining the epochal dimension of the event and sending to a sister nation a quiet warning against the always possible temptation of biopolitical liberticide?

To us as citizens falls the duty of overcoming fear, of not responding to terror with fright or by arming ourselves against that obsessive fear of the other, that generalized Law of Suspects, that nearly always follows such explosions. As I write, democratic moderation seems to have prevailed. The “Je suis Charlie” movement that sprang up simultaneously and as if in one voice in France’s major cities indicates the birth of a spirit of resistance worthy of the best we have been and known. And the arsonists of souls who ceaselessly preach the unbreachable gulf between being French by blood or only on paper, the trouble-makers in the National Front who found in these 12 executions a new “divine surprise” attesting to the inexorable advance of the “great replacement” of Christianity by Islam and to our cowardly submission to the prophets of Michel Houellebecq’s newly published fable, “Soumission,” are visibly disappointed by it.

The question, however, is whether the moderate spirit can prevail in France. It is essential that the de facto democratic union of people of every political conviction and of every origin who courageously filled the streets in the hours following the carnage continue to stand up against the “France for the French” of Mrs. Le Pen. Because France for the French is the opposite of national unity. From Cato the Elder to the theoreticians of the modern social contract, the beautiful idea of national unity never mistakes its true enemy, perhaps because it is related to the art of the just war. National unity is a sign that the French have understood that the Charlie Hebdo killers are not “the Muslims” but rather the tiny fraction of them who confuse the Koran with a torture manual. And it is absolutely essential that this idea be carried forth from the laudable civil outpouring that followed the tragedy.

Finally, it behooves those among us whose faith is Islam to proclaim very loudly, very often, and in great numbers their rejection of this corrupt form of theocratic passion. Too often have we heard that France’s Muslims have been or should be summoned to explain themselves. They are not summoned. But they are — and here, too, is an exact opposite — called to express their brotherhood with their massacred fellow citizens and, in so doing, to put to rest once and for all the lie of a spiritual commonality between their faith and that of the murderers. They have the responsibility — the opportunity — before history and their own conscience to echo the “Not in our name!” with which Britain’s Muslims dissociated themselves from the killers of James Foley. But they also have the even more urgent duty to define their identity as sons and daughters of an Islam of tolerance, peace, and kindness.

Islam must be freed from radical Islam. We must say and say again that to assassinate in the name of God is to make God an assassin by association. What we hope from religious scholars like the imam of the Drancy mosque, Hassen Chalghoumi, and even more from their many followers, is a courageous aggiornamento that will make unmistakably clear the idea that forcible obeisance to the holy is, in a democracy, an attack on the freedom of thought; that in the eyes of the law religions are systems of thought of a status that is neither greater nor lesser than that of secular ideologies; and that the right to doubt them, debate them, and laugh at them is the inalienable right of each and every one of us.

Along that difficult but wonderfully liberating path traveled the Islamic consciences that I had the honor of meeting in Bangladesh and Bosnia, in Afghanistan and in the countries of the Arab Spring, some of whose names I recall here: Mujibur Rahman, Alija Izetbegovic, Ahmad Shah Massoud, and the heroes and heroines of Benghazi, such as Salwa Bugaighis, felled by the bullets or the knives of the barbarous brothers of the assassins of Charb, Cabu, Tignous, and Wolinski. It is the message of those enlightened consciences that must be heeded, theirs the betrayed testament that must urgently be reclaimed. Even in death they are the proof that Islam need not succumb to the malady diagnosed by the poet and philosopher, Abdelwahab Meddeb, who died in November and whose presence we will sorely miss in the dark times ahead. Islam against Islam. Enlightenment versus jihad. The pluralistic civilization of Ibn Arabi and Rumi against the nihilists of Islamic State. That is the battle that awaits us, a battle that we will wage together.

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