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Wednesday, 21 January 2015

Sometimes Everything Doesn't Change: The Aftermath of the Charlie Hebdo Attacks

The aftermath of an Algerian jihadi bomb attack in Paris, 1995

A shocking attack at the heart of a major city that inflicts significant casualties. Tens of thousands demonstrating solidarity with the victims. Fraught debates on television and social media about freedom of speech and tolerance of political movements connected to the perpetrators. And columnists and politicians saying that ‘everything has changed’.

In the past years these scenes have repeated themselves in many Western states. Most recently the attack by a gunman on the Canadian Houses of Parliament and a hostage taking in Sydney already demonstrated the vulnerability of major cities to acts of terror by supporters of jihadi ideologies. In France itself, the attack on Charlie Hebdo magazine and a kosher supermarket are only the latest in a succession of terrorist incidents reaching back to the shooting of Jewish school students and soldiers of Algerian origin by a supporter of jihadi ideology in March 2012. Looking further, Paris experienced a wave of bombings by Algerian jihadis in the mid-1990s while even earlier in the 1970s brutal acts of terror by radical left-wing networks were a regular challenge faced by French governments. Each of these terrible acts represented an attack on the fundamental values that underpin the political order of the French Republic. Yet after initial weeks of anxiety such attacks in themselves ultimately failed to cause the deep social changes commentators predicted.

There is no doubt that in certain parts of Europe minority groups in general and Muslim and Jewish communities in particular are coming under increasing pressure as right wing populist movements promote ethnically exclusivist agendas. Yet the kind of impact such right wing populist movements are having do not necessarily follow a uniform pattern across Europe. Even within larger European countries such as Germany, right wing populist movements can have a major impact in certain provinces while barely registering in other regions. In a country where Muslim communities are tiny such as Hungary, the ethnic exclusivism of a movement such as Jobbik is far more likely to be directed at established minorities such as Jews or Roma. In societies with significant Magrhebi or Turkish minorities such as France or the Netherlands, right wing populist movements campaigning against Muslim migrants often court more conservative strands of the Jewish community in order to shield themselves from accusations of extremism.

Adding complexity to this picture are the deep ideological fractures within Muslim immigrant communities. In Germany, the Turkish community remains deeply divided between supporters of movements based on a Kemalist secular tradition and more religiously oriented groups. Such profound differences between secularists and Islamist milieus are now also beginning to play a significant role in the development of Tunisian and Libyan diaspora communities based in France and the UK. A growing sense of unease among such secular milieus has made many Europeans of Maghrebi or Turkish origin willing to engage with right wing populist movements as well as supporters of Israel, who they see as potential allies against Jihadi threats to their way of life.

As tragic as they are, acts of terror alone such as the shooting at Charlie Hebdo's offices often do not lead to the sweeping changes analysts and pundits predict. Rather, different social groups interpret such events in a way that confirms their own pre-established biases. In their efforts to instrumentalize this event for their own political ambitions, right wing populist leaders such as Marine Le Pen or Nigel Farage are preaching to the converted, solidifying their own political base rather than recruiting undecided voters to their cause in a lasting fashion. Fears that such terrorist acts may play into the hands of right wing populists are also more likely to mobilize their political opponents in support of their own left-wing or centre-right values rather than suddenly lead to a massive switch in political allegiance. Whether right wing populists succeed in a way that threatens the position of minorities in Europe such as Jewish and Muslim communities therefore comes down far more to long term social factors specific to each European region than the immediate shock a terrorist act can cause. However overwhelming acts of terror can initially be when we witness their every on social media, sometimes they don’t change very much at all.

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