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The terrorist attack against the satire magazine “Charlie Hebdo” and subsequent hostage situations in Paris have prompted a tremendous wave of compassion throughout Europe. Surprisingly large demonstrations in European cities have revealed a remarkable level of solidarity with the French. At the same time, the specific nature of this solidarity appears to be rather fragmented and ambiguous. “Je suis Charlie” means different things to different people. To most, it means “I support free speech”; to some, it means “I support intercultural tolerance”, and to others, it means “I support restricting immigration”. The only common denominator is a rejection of murder in the name of Islam, which is a limited, but powerful message – but one that is being threatened by prejudice.

The images of millions of people coming together to denounce violence against civilians for religious reasons is a call for civility that directly challenges the legitimacy of terrorist organizations like the Islamic State. However, these images can easily be misinterpreted as a massive rally of support for the act of insulting Islam. In the battle to win over the minds of young Muslims in danger of being radicalized, this distinction is extremely important to stress. Most mainstream European leaders have been careful to avoid alienating Muslims in the wake of the atrocities, but many ordinary citizens have been less cautious, and right-wing populists have been quick to use divisive rhetoric.

In the aftermath of the attacks, there has been a string of anti-Muslim incidents across Europe. These “counter-attacks” are the tip of an iceberg of contempt and distrust which poisons society and only helps radicalize more people. Populist politicians and right-wing movements like the “Pegida” movement in Germany are exacerbating these emotions and creating more tensions in society at a time when Europe needs right the opposite. In this moment of exceptional solidarity, the powerful message of peace that the Paris attacks produced risks being tainted with bigotry.

It isn’t necessary for Europeans to agree on every definition of “Je suis Charlie” in order for their message to be interpreted in a positive way. They only need to agree to make the bottom line, the rejection of terrorism, their main message, and make it very clear that Europeans are not against Islam, but those who abuse it.

By Marco Funk

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