Report

Mosque Attacks Spark Fears of Blowback After ‘Charlie Hebdo’

Anti-Muslim sentiment in Europe was already rising before Wednesday’s shooting. Now, many fear it could boil over.

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The deadly shooting Wednesday at French weekly Charlie Hebdo, the worst terrorist attack on French soil in five decades, is already sparking violent blowback against Muslims in France, highlighting the risk many diplomats see as part of a broader anti-Islamic push gaining momentum in Europe.

Several mosques in France were attacked overnight after the shooting at Charlie Hebdo, which left 10 staffers dead at the satirical paper as well as two police officers. Shots were fired at a Muslim prayer hall in southern France, and grenades were launched at a mosque in Le Mans, while in eastern France, a restaurant linked to a mosque was bombed Thursday morning, Jan. 8, according to news reports. There were no reported casualties.

The deadly shooting, which was carried out by two brothers still on the loose and a homeless man who turned himself in to police late Wednesday, is also providing kindling for far-right European politicians who for years have peddled an anti-immigrant and anti-Muslim message. Marie Le Pen, the leader of the French National Front party, decried what she called a “murderous ideology” and suggested that France should bring back the death penalty in the wake of the attacks.

Right-wing leaders in the Netherlands, the United Kingdom, and Italy also stepped up their rhetoric in the hours after the shooting. Geert Wilders, the leader of the Dutch Party for Freedom, said that the Paris shooting shows that the continent is already “at war,” and he called for stricter measures to limit immigration. Leaders of Italy’s right-wing Northern League denounced the “Pandora’s box” of immigration policies that have led to increased populations of Muslims across the continent.

“With xenophobia and anti-migrant sentiments already on the rise in Europe, I am very concerned that this awful, calculated act will be exploited by extremists of all sorts,” said Zeid Ra’ad Al Hussein, a Jordanian who serves as the U.N. high commissioner for human rights, in a statement Wednesday after the killings.

“If this attack is allowed to feed discrimination and prejudice, it will be playing straight into the hands of extremists whose clear aim is to divide religions and societies,” he said.

Olivier Roy, an expert on jihadi movements, told the New York Times that the Paris shooting marked a dangerous “turning point.”

Even before Wednesday’s attack, some 7,500 protesters gathered in Dresden, an eastern German city with few Muslims, to denounce the influence of Islam in Europe. The group that organized the march, the Patriotic Europeans Against the Islamization of the West, known by its German acronym PEGIDA, is one of many populist anti-immigrant groups building an increasingly large following. In Sweden, anti-Muslim sentiment is on the rise due to immigration, with at least three mosques firebombed in late December and early January, even before the Charlie Hebdo killings.

“The main danger probably now is that these forces gain traction,” said one European diplomat.

At the same time, however, the official response to Wednesday’s killings could risk further stoking tensions, especially in France. David Kaye, the United Nations special rapporteur on promotion and protection of the right to freedom of opinion and expression, said there is a “real risk of governments overreacting to the terrorism in Paris.”

“The French government has a legitimate interest in tracking down those who are responsible for the crime, holding them to account, and taking security measures to prevent a repeat,” Kaye told Foreign Policy. But there is a real danger that “a dragnet approach” that targets Muslims could backfire, he said, inflaming resentment against the government and providing fertile recruiting ground for future extremists.

“Governments, and in particular the French government, are going to be under a lot of pressure to crack down on Islamist groups,” he said. “But they need to be very careful about how they approach this threat.”

France has traditionally taken a tough line to protect its secular heritage — including progressively stricter bans on Muslim headscarves in schools and government offices — and it has repeatedly deported radical Islamist preachers. That stands in contrast to many countries that long tolerated radical religious preachers, especially Britain, which for years allowed violent Salafi religious figures such as Abu Hamza al-Masri and Abu Qatada a high-profile pulpit in what became known as “Londonistan.”

But Kaye also said that European governments need to ensure that even anti-immigrant groups have their right to protest preserved, as long as they do so peacefully.

“I think the protests in Germany are offensive to a lot of people, and I can understand how governments might fear them taking on a life of their own,” he said. “But as long as they are peaceful protests and the speakers are not inciting violence against any particular group, the government needs to lay off them.”

Photo by JEAN-PHILIPPE KSIAZEK/AFP/Getty Images

Colum Lynch is Foreign Policy’s award-winning U.N.-based senior diplomatic reporter. @columlynch

Keith Johnson is Foreign Policy’s global geoeconomics correspondent. @KFJ_FP

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