The assassination in Paris of 12 people at the offices of the cartoon magazine “Charlie Hebdo” and the murder of four others at a Jewish grocery store have caused a worldwide revulsion against terror by Islamic extremists. Over one million people filled the streets of Paris a few days later to demonstrate for tolerance.
The murders were a unifying force, bringing world leaders and people of all colors and backgrounds together behind the slogan “Je suis Charlie”, “I am Charlie”. On the news, I saw people of widely disparate backgrounds speak of their support for each other and for diversity. The significant presence of Muslims, who may have been offended by the “Charlie Hebdo” cartoon but were outraged at the murders, demonstrated that the killers represent only a radical slice of Islamic belief. The absence of any high-ranking American official was an embarrassment.
I write about this because a second major issue behind the demonstration was freedom of expression. “Charlie Hebdo” was targeted because they published a cartoon mocking the Prophet Mohammed. I don’t think the mockery of other people’s religious beliefs is clever or useful, but I firmly support everyone’s freedom to write or draw whatever they want, no matter whom it offends. As soon as a government is allowed to make rules about what may not be printed, that government can effectively restrict open discussion of its policies. If a social group, majority or minority, can censor free speech, they have taken enormous power over the rest of us. The proper way to indicate disapproval of offensive writing is to say so, not to make it illegal, and certainly not to attack with violence.
I am privileged to live in a society where freedom of speech and of the press are fundamental rights. Only a minority of nations protect these freedoms.
The Paris marchers reacted to a horrible tragedy by demonstrating for something good. A more negative demonstration took place in Dresden, Germany. The political group PEGIDA, standing for Patriotic Europeans Against the Islamization of the West, has organized weekly demonstrations for several months against immigration and against non-white immigrants to Germany. PEGIDA leaders use their Facebook pages to make racist remarks about Turks in Germany. As do many conservative movements who do not like their claims and ideas to be examined too closely and publically, they are fond of the phrase Lügenpresse, “lying press”, the German version of complaints about the “mainstream media”. Their demonstrations have provoked counter-demonstrations in support of more tolerance and diversity, usually in greater numbers.
The PEGIDA demonstrations represent the German version of a much wider European reaction against “immigrants”, which really means non-Caucasians. This continental movement promotes an extreme conservative ideology of nationality and race, often bordering on fascism. Marine le Pen leads the National Front, which has recently become the third largest party in France. She used the killings in Paris to criticize “radical Islamism”. The right-wing Party for Freedom has become the third largest party in the Netherlands under a platform opposing immigration from non-Western countries. Golden Dawn in Greece, more closely identified with the Nazis and more violent against opponents, received only 7% of the votes in 2012, but attracts much more attention than its numbers have earned.
In the advanced economies of the West, immigration of people of color from poorer regions has caused conservative backlash. Although Germans recruited Turks, and French recruited North Africans, and Americans recruited Mexicans as cheap labor after World War II, the continuing flow northward created political division as those industrial nations have experienced economic problems since the 1970s.
The conflict between President Obama and the Republican Congress over how to treat undocumented immigrants is a pale reflection of these deeper divisions in Europe. Our most radical rightists are moderated by their membership in the larger Republican Party, while in multi-party European countries, the extremists form their own smaller, but more radical parties.
But the issues are the same and they won’t go away. The absolute dominance of white majorities has been shattered by decades of immigration and by successful pressure for equal rights of existing minorities. The worldwide force of migration cannot be stopped by nostalgia for the disappearance of “traditional values”, often expressed as a cover for hatred and racism. New colorful societies are emerging. This process can be protested and fought, as in the PEGIDA marches, or it can be welcomed and celebrated, as in Paris. But it cannot be reversed or wished away.
Published in the Jacksonville Journal-Courier, January 20, 2015