Editor’s note: As director of the Global Reporting Centre at the University of British Columbia, Peter Klein travels to Europe, Asia and Africa to report under-covered stories with impact on North America. The Observer asked him to reflect on the Charlie Hebdo tragedy, on the alarming rise in ethnic tensions across Europe and how journalism education is fighting xenophobia by empowering marginalized European communities.
VANCOUVER—On the day of the horrific attack on the offices of the French satirical newspaper Charlie Hebdo, people around the world tweeted the hashtag #JeSuisCharlie and held up a pen in solidarity with the journalists who were brutally murdered. I joined the crowd, putting the message pictured at right on the Global Reporting Centre’s Facebook page.
The next day, pundits weighed in, calling the hashtag callow and shallow and, even worse, racist. Charlie Hebdo published admittedly offensive images of the prophet Mohammed, which surely offended many people beyond just the fundamentalist Muslims who decided to shoot up the office and murder a dozen journalists and artists. The argument goes: Those who proclaimed “I am Charlie” were essentially saying “I am a bigot.”
On Friday, the same group of terrorists attacked a Jewish deli, taking hostages, murdering several people and eventually committing suicide by cop. They hijacked the narrative they themselves created and confounded the world community that had come together in solidarity of the satirical newspaper. So they don’t like journalists and they don’t like Jews?
Theodor Herzl, a secular Jewish Hungarian journalist in the late 1800s, experienced such deep hostility that he was convinced the only safe place for someone like him was a new Jewish homeland. He went on to found modern Zionism, which has been one of the sources of anger for French Muslims.
Last summer, a violent anti-Jewish riot broke out in a Paris suburb, with stores looted and two synagogues attacked. A week later a man in Toulouse firebombed a Jewish community center, in the same community where a rabbi and three children at a Jewish school were murdered a couple years before. Jewish headstones have been sprayed with swastikas, and a bizarre backward Nazi salute, known as the quenelle salute, seems to be gaining popularity.
At the same time, the Pegida movement—Patriotic Europeans Against the Islamization of the West—is gaining popularity. Last Monday, two days before the Charlie Hebdo attack, the group organized a record 18,000-person anti-Muslim march in the German city of Dresden—the same city that was leveled by the Allies the last time they exhibited Nazi sympathies. In France, tensions between the largely disenfranchised Muslim communities and the country have been increasing for years, which is precisely what Charlie Hebdo was trying to highlight. Since the attack last week, several mosques have been attacked with racist graffiti and small explosives.
So what’s going on here? Who should we hate? Who should get our sympathies? The Muslims, who are relegated to slums and derision, but in whose name the recent terrorists acts were carried out? The Jews, who have a long history of trouble in Europe?
This week, in a stroke of sad serendipity, we are launching Strangers at Home, which aims to empower the voices of marginalized Europeans who have been targets of the rising xenophobia throughout the continent.
There’s a quiet ethnic war going on in Europe that much of the world has ignored. In addition to the troubling and familiar trend of anti-Semitism and the sure-to-increase animosity towards Muslims, immigrant groups throughout the continent have come under attack. And Europe’s largest “minority” group, the Roma, is increasingly being targeted by both racist groups and politicians—with more than 10,000 so-called “gypsies” deported from France last year alone. The Global Reporting Centre is funding and empowering European storytellers to tell these stories.
Discussing these complex issues is the only way to stop the violence that seems to be simmering. So I stand by the hashtag #JeSuisCharlie, because the magazine was for free expression. #JeSuisMusulman, because much of Europe seems to be against them these days. #JeSuisRoma, since much of Europe has been against them for centuries. #JeSuisJuif, because we’ve seen this all before.