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The terror attacks in France last month fuelled worldwide debates on freedom of speech and the relationship between Islam and the West. The latter issue was already on the core due to the rise of groups like ISIS and Boko Haram, as well as demonstrations against Muslim immigration that took place in Germany a few days before the terror plots in Paris.

The reactions to Charlie Hebdo’s attacks were of all kinds. Some people are sceptical about the very truth on the Charlie Hebdo attacks. Conspiracy theories spread through the Internet, claiming that the attacks were perpetrated by Muslim enemies or even by the US in a retaliation against France’s vote for UN recognition’s of Palestine. Although these conspiration theories are common throughout the Internet, it raises attention that they have gained support from people like Ron Paul. Others, like Brazilian cartoonist Laerte Coutinho, believe in the official versions, but they claim the terrorists’ goal was to provoke right-wing radicals in France and other western countries, in order to start new wars in Middle East.

Nevertheless, the debate that followed January 7th shootings mainly revolved around two questions: first, the freedom of speech and the righteousness of Charlie Hebdo while portraying images of Mohammed (often in an offensive way). Second, the relationship of those attacks with the friction between Muslim people and Western States like France.

If we depart from the value of freedom of speech, everyone should be able to depict whoever and whatever she wants in her newspapers and magazines. On the other hand, some people are trying to base their argument on a more pragmatic view, asking what consequences we expect from such offenses to Islam’s main prophet. In other words, even though we strongly agree with the value of free speech, should we keep provoking fundamentalists? What do these offensive cartoons bring to all of us? More hatred among Muslims and the Western world? This is a tricky question. Are we succumbing to intolerance and violence if we stop portraying Mohammed? Or should we stop provoking extremists to fight them through other means?

The “Je suis Charlie” movement was mainly about freedom of speech. It did not, necessarily, supported messages that could be considered offensive to a particular group (like Muslims). Ross Douthat, from New York Times, is among the many who argue that we need to guarantee the “right to blaspheme” and even offend other people, even if we do not agree with such offenses. But if “Je ne suis Charlie” supporters claims that the French magazine is racist and, particularly, Islamophobic, are true, then we could ask: is freedom of speech a higher value than the right not to suffer from prejudice?

According to French Mediapart, Charlie Hebdo is not racist as many people say. In fact, they argue that Charlie’s main target is the French extreme-right (represented by Le Pen family). Therefore, attacking Hebdo is not only an attack against freedom of speech, but it could also be an attack against people that are critics of the main enemies of diversity and the integration of immigrants in France.

Whatever is our opinion on the attitudes of Charlie Hebdo towards Muslims, it seems that the discussion over freedom of speech was overrated. No one proposed to close Charlie Hebdo, no one proposed to restrict freedom of speech after the attacks in Paris. Wouldn’t it be better to debate the violence in Europe, Middle East and Africa that is related to extremists? Shouldn’t we direct our attention to the relationship of Islam and (what is more important) the relationship of Western powers (and their foreign policies) with this sort of violence and extremism? In fact, there are two additional reasons to debate that right now: the rise of extremist groups like ISIS and Boko Haram (which have killed 2000 people in Nigeria in the same week of the Charlie Hebdo attacks) and the protests against Islamic immigration in Germany.

Some scholars show us that terrorism fuels Islamophobia, as well as Islamophobia and military occupations in Middle East fuels terrorism.  In their book “Cutting the fuse”, Robert Pape and James Feldman address suicide terrorism from 1980 to 2009. They conclude that these attacks are motivated mainly by foreign military occupation, not by devotion to Allah. By the way, even Hezbollah’s leader Sayed Hassan Nasrallah public condemned the attacks, saying that:  ‘Extremists more offensive to Islam than cartoons’.

Since violence is related to integration, tolerance and prejudice between different ethnical and religious communities, it seems profitable to address this issue as well. Three political scientists write for Washington Post’s Monkey Cage about the “discriminatory equilibrium” that creates a vicious cycle between Muslim populations and other people in Western countries. More important, they provide empirical evidence about that and show some simple and pragmatic ways of ending this horrible trend in the long-term. To summarize, they suggest that if Muslims embrace republican values while choosing Imams from countries like France and, at the same time, if nations like France itself start really fully integrating Muslims in places like the labour market, the discriminatory equilibrium could be overcome.

Therefore, it is not a matter of whether Charlie is against Islam or if Islam is against the West. It is a matter of destroying this trend of hate, intolerance and violence. For those of us who live in powerful countries, the least we could do is to try to influence our governments not to make the same mistakes again. For all of us, however, the most we can do is to act always towards tolerance and against prejudice. The symbolic human ring made by Norway’s Muslims around a synagogue, in order to condemn attacks against Jews in the country, is a good example of such initiatives. As Barack Obama said once, it is a war for “hearts and minds”. No one is born a terrorist. No one is born an Islamophobic.

 Image Source: Revista Forum