Charlie Hebdo attack – More Islamist lone wolves?

Less than two hours ago two armed men entered the Paris office of the French satirical magazine Charlie Hebdo. They opened fire with automatic rifles, killing at least 12 people, including two police officer. The police have described the attack as a ‘massacre’ and ‘carnage’. Pictures from the scene show bullet holes in a police vehicle outside, and journalists being carried out on stretchers. The two suspects escaped in a car, and are still at large. Given Charlie Hebdo’s history, the suspicion immediately falls on Islamic militants.

The magazine has in the past repeatedly pushed the boundaries. While it mocks religion in general, Islam has come in for particular attention, with numerous caricatures of the Prophet Muhammad being published in the past. Their offices were even firebombed 3 years ago after Charlie Hebdo named Muhammad their ‘editor in chief’, with a cover showing him saying “100 lashes of the whip if you don’t die laughing”. This history of mocking Islam, together with the fact that France has launched airstrikes on Islamic State in Iraq, means it’s highly likely that the attackers were motivated by an extremist ideology.

The attack comes at a time when France’s relationship with Islam and Muslims is under growing attention. There have been previous attacks, such as the killings by Muhammad Merah in 2012, and these have added fuel to the fire created by the anti-immigration party Front National. The party has gained more and more support in recent years, partially thanks to their opposition to Muslim immigration. They see Islam as incompatible with French values. While the FN is an extreme example, this idea of incompatibility isn’t limited to the fringe.

France sees itself as a very secular nation, and this has caused friction between the state and the large numbers of Muslim immigrants. In 2003 a ban on ‘conspicuous religious symbols’ in schools meant that the hijab was banned, leading to huge protests. 12 years later the tension still hasn’t gone away. Just this morning the BBC published an article on a novel depicting an Islamic future for France, which has caused great debate and controversy in the country. Horrific events like this will only intensify the debate, and lead to greater mistrust between the state and its Muslim population.

It is worth remembering though that at this very early stage it isn’t 100% certain that these were Islamic attackers. Charlie Hebdo insulted just about everyone not left-wing, from the Catholic Church to the far right. When Anders Brevik killed dozens in Norway in 2011 Islamic attackers were immediately blamed, before it became apart he was driven by an extreme far-right ideology. However, it is still extremely likely that this is another lone wolf attack motivated by radical Islam, just like the recent Sydney siege or the attack on a Jewish Museum in Brussels. These attacks aren’t directed by Islamic State, but their extremist ideology has infected alienated Western Muslims. Western governments need to find a way to counter this ideology, as this is one problem that all the airstrikes in the world can’t solve.

This was written less than 2 hours after the attack, when not all details were known. Details will most likely change in the coming hours. Follow @YW_Explained on Twitter for more updates.

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