Western Politics Changed with the Charlie Hebdo Massacre

A man holds a giant pencil as he takes part in a citizens solidarity march in the streets of Paris, France, January 11, 2015. (Stephane Mahe/Reuters)
Five years later, we still have not grappled with the implications.

NRPLUS MEMBER ARTICLE F ive years ago this week, the Saïd and Chérif Kouachi brothers walked into the offices of the illustrated French satirical magazine Charlie Hebdo and opened fire with Kalashnikovs. This act itself was brutal and disgusting. And it was also absurd: a massacre of a dozen cartoonists and satirists.

But Western politics has been being transformed by this act, and the year it ushered in, 2015, was the year that the Tories won a surprise majority in Parliament, setting in motion the Brexit referendum of 2016. It was the year of Angela Merkel’s statement “We can do it” — when she offered to welcome 1 million refugees in defiance of the Dublin accords. It was the year Donald Trump took his ride down the escalator and into the presidential race. It was the year in which Abdelhamid Abaaoud used the flow of refugees to travel between Syria and Europe while he masterminded the Bataclan-theater massacre that claimed 131 victims that November. It was after the Bataclan that Ann Coulter said, “They can wait if they like until next November for the actual balloting, but Donald Trump was elected president tonight.” People laughed. But she was right.

Some reacted to the Charlie Hebdo massacre by asking for more restrictions on speech that “punches down” or criticizes groups of people who are on the margins of society. But for a larger set of people, the event joined the cause of free speech with open and hostile criticism of Islam and Islamic immigration. It linked free speech with criticism of a dunderheaded and naïve elite. Without a robust culture of free speech and offense-giving, terrorists would dictate the limits of permissible debate and speech. Without free speech, a mandarin political class would continue to impose the open borders agenda that they deemed “good” even if all the consequences of it were intolerable.

There were, I think, two distinct manifestations of this new politics. Most substantially, there was the rise of populist nationalism and the center bending toward it. Hungary’s Viktor Orban was already steering in this direction from the start of the migration crisis, and his stature in Europe rose as a result. European political parties such as Poland’s Law and Justice or Italy’s Lega rose as well. If one word could be used to describe their political project it is “custodianship”: custodianship of a nation-state, a culture, or a people. For nationalists, the nation matters because it is theirs. Putatively liberal leaders including Emmanuel Macron and Angela Merkel have responded to this challenge by making a show of becoming hawkish about borders. Macron engaged in practically staged confrontations on the issue, and Merkel made a deal with Turkey to keep refugees from continuing to flood into Europe.

Second, Charlie Hebdo seemed to radicalize a certain type of liberal and even push them toward the political Right. These men and women are generally upwardly mobile, secular in outlook, and iconoclastic, and they’ve become convinced that social egalitarianism is now an obstacle between a sound mind and the truth about the world. And perhaps it’s also an obstacle to equality before the law. The progressive project of achieving equal esteem was taking the form of special rights for marginalized groups. For these radicals of the center, the truth is that there are better and worse cultures, better and worse religions to have in your society, better and worse people. Or, most dangerously, better and worse groups of people. If multiculturalism means anything, it means that cultural differences matter. Does it not?

The newly radicalized are deeply offended by identity-politics movements that would forbid the free interplay of cultures by policing “appropriation.” For them, cultural appropriation is a source of strength, confidence, genius, and a sign of good humor. This radical liberal is embarrassed by populist nationalism insofar as it resembles identity politics to him. Although many of these liberals might be lumped into parties that have nationalist convictions, they are cosmopolitans of a sort. Their nation matters to them because they deem it good. Prime Minister Boris Johnson is far more likely to fit into this camp than with Orban-style nationalists.

But even five years on from Charlie Hebdo, I’m not sure that our politics has developed a sufficient response to the problems this terrorist attack revealed to us. The secularism of France and the English-speaking world was built to contain and constrain the Christian church as a vehicle of majoritarian prejudice. How can secularism be applied to members of the Islamic ummah, a minority who don’t easily fit into its categories? Islam’s understanding of the world and the state differs in profound ways from the one that is the inheritance of the Christian West.

This absurd and appalling event revealed to us a profound and distressing fissure in the life of the West, and while the political consequences keep rolling in, we are still far from comprehending the depth of the chasm opening before us.

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