Where Will the Paris Terror Attack Lead?

COMMENTARY: An American’s Reflections From Paris

Tribute to victims killed during attack at satirical magazine Charlie Hebdo at Place de la Republique in Paris.
Tribute to victims killed during attack at satirical magazine Charlie Hebdo at Place de la Republique in Paris. (photo: Aurelien Meunier/ Getty Images News)

PARIS — It seems to be over, but as one of my French confreres soberly suggested, “It could be just the beginning.”

I just came from watching on live television the assaults on both sites — one of which is located at the Porte de Vincennes, about a mile from where I live in Paris — where terrorists involved in the massacre at the headquarters of the magazine Charlie Hebdo had taken hostages in what I can only assume was meant to end in their martyrdom. The news anchors and reporters kept repeating that what France has been facing the past couple of days presents a new reality and a new threat, a sentiment that might resonate with any number of countries and peoples that have experienced something similar in recent years. What makes these incidents constitute terror is the lingering fear expressed in the statement of my confrere: We never know if it is truly over.

It has been clear to me since this all started on Wednesday morning that the French have been shaken profoundly by this fear. My own observation is to wonder why they are so surprised. They have always struggled with the presence of Islam in their country. The legend of Charles Martel, who stopped the Muslim advance at Poitiers in 732, looms large in this culture. In more recent times, Charles de Gaulle, one of France’s most revered and well-known statesmen, struggled with the wind down of France’s colonial interests in heavily Muslim North Africa. It is not a new problem, but the nature of the problem has changed.

When I first began to study French literature, the relationship between France and her Muslim citizens was framed almost uniquely in the context of colonialism and what it had done to the colonized. Of course, religion entered into the mix, since France, like many others, had sent Catholic missionaries right along with the colonizers. However, with the rise of radical Islam and the terrorism that it often supports, the dialogue and the resentment have taken on a more bitter character.

France has dealt with the problem with an approach focused on integration, not necessarily assimilation. Primarily through the educational system, the French have sought to integrate any and all who join them by inculcating in the newly arrived what they call “republican” values, among which are secularism, equality and many of the freedoms that we Americans would recognize.

It is the failure of this approach that they have been confronting in a more vivid way since Wednesday. Sure, there have been many signals that it was not going well, but they have maintained an uncharacteristic optimism regarding its success. One could cite as proof their willingness to intervene in Mali last year to suppress the threat of radical Islam there, or, on a more subtle note, their openness in critiquing radical Islam without fearing violence or an automatic accusation of Islamophobia. In this regard, while the French accept that many of their freedoms be curtailed for the sake of a more equal society, on freedom of speech, they currently have us beat.

This brings us to Charlie Hebdo. There is no doubt that this magazine is offensive, but that figures into a long tradition of satire and mockery in French culture, going back to the Middle Ages and beyond. It is true that it used to be more about getting a release from the order and structure of the Church or the crown, whereas, now, it often offends just for the sake of offending. Charlie Hebdo was closer to the latter, but not entirely. It risked so much in its satire because it sought to challenge those who threatened the republican ideal of freedom of expression, the foundation of a free society. They, like many others in the short history of the modern republic, died for the sake of that ideal.

The French have responded to that fervor, recognizing the importance of freedom of expression to their life, culture and government. On the news, people being interviewed cry out of mourning for the dead but also out of a love for what this freedom has given them. They have been eager to respond the best way they know how: the demonstration.

The evening of the initial attack, there were impromptu demonstrations all over France. In Paris, it was at the Place de la République, of course. The day after the attack, there was a minute of silence at noon. The whole country paused, the Paris Metro stopped running, and Notre-Dame Cathedral sounded its funeral toll. This last gesture was a most welcome one; even though Charlie Hebdo had been just as merciless in skewering the Church as any other, the Church expressed its support for one of the values that makes this republic great. The French press did not fail to notice it or the expressions of grief and support from the Holy Father and from local Church leaders. In that sense, among others, France continues to nod amid its secularism.

For Muslims, it may not be that easy. There is a legitimate fear of reprisals against Muslims for what has occurred here. Will it be revenge that motivates the retribution? Probably. But I worry that some of the French may look away out of frustration with those who they perceive are resisting republican ideals. At the same time, they also have a sense that this might drive more young men and women toward radicalism. No one quite knows where this will lead. Freedom is challenged on so many fronts when terrorism happens, and the French have already shown themselves susceptible to becoming divided over this.

This Sunday, they have planned another demonstration, a “marche républicaine,” to show their unity and strength. They know they need it at this moment. Frankly, all of us who enjoy the benefits of a free society need it. My confrere was right to say that it was perhaps a beginning. I do not think it will be one by which France returns to the Church, settles all political disputes or even figures out how to deal with those who do not accept republican ideals. My hope and prayer is that they have a more palpable sense of what freedom for all entails and that it has a price worth paying.

Father Gregory Haake is a priest of the Congregation of Holy Cross.  

He writes from Paris, were he is living while working toward

his doctorate in French literature from Stanford University.