Yesterday afternoon, as I write, twelve journalists from the French satirical newspaper Charlie Hebdo were shot and killed by extremists in Paris, who allegedly shouted 'God is Great' in Arabic as they fled.
People have responded by using the quote attributed to Voltaire: 'I disapprove of what you say, but I will defend to the death your right to say it' and discussing the debate in the context of freedom of expression. Mourners have taken to the streets in Paris and other major cities holding pens aloft, as a symbol of this belief.
It has been called an attack on freedom of speech and journalism, on Paris, France and the Western world. I believe it is all of these things. It is also arguably an attack on Islam, and Muslims throughout the world.
Less than 24 hours after the shooting, someone told me 'Something has to be done, we have to start sending them back to their countries of origin', when I replied that the perpetrators could well have been born in France, they responded 'Well something has to be done.'
That scared me. Friends I previously believed to be tolerant taking to the internet to say that they "fucking hate Muslims" scares me. It scares me that politicians repeatedly use the language of war: the war on terror, the war on extremism, and that there are many who seem to be interpreting that as "the war on Islam". Islam is the second largest religion in the world, over 20% of the world's population are Muslim. Judging all Muslims on the actions of a few hundred terrorists in sporadic attacks is comparable to judging all Christians on the child abuse scandals that have rocked the Catholic Church in recent years.
IS ("Islamic State") and associated groups preach that the west hates Muslims. By carrying out these relatively small-scale attacks, they can induce the kind of panic, fear and paranoia that shocks people into a knee-jerk reaction that could, for instance, prompt someone to write that they "fucking hate Muslims" on social media. This frustrating cycle is clear to see. It is common sense. Innocent people like the French police officer shot yesterday lying on the ground with his hands in the air, who was incidentally a Muslim, are being killed. Their deaths can prompt communities to rally together, as seen in the minutes silence in Paris, and various similar vigils around the world, or they prompt acts of idealised vengeance. Whether this briefly cathartic act comes in the form of angry misinformed teenagers spraying graffiti onto a mosque or in the form of increased air raids and drone strikes, I believe it is detrimental both to any potential progress and to humanity as a whole.
With each attack I grow more worried for the thousands upon thousands of people across the globe who are not terrorists, but who are being endangered by provocative news reporting, reactionary political acts, and an uninformed and righteously angry public who feel the need to lash out.
There was a kebab shop next to a mosque in eastern France that exploded in the early hours of this morning, as I write. Three blank grenades were thrown at a mosque in Le Mans, west of Paris, just after midnight, and in southern France several shots were fired in the direction of a Muslim prayer hall.
It is the 8th of January 2015. A new year, with the possibility of a new start.
2014 was a year that introduced the world to IS, and also the year in which the USA, the UK, the Netherlands, Denmark and Belgium began attempting to carry out air raids against IS in several countries. It was also the year in which I first looked up at a clear blue sky and was reminded not of warm sunny days and happy memories, but instead of a 13 year-old Pakistani boy who told US congress "I no longer love blue skies. In fact, I now prefer grey skies. The drones do not fly when the skies are grey."
Of course I am also worried for myself. In a world that feels increasingly chaotic, where random and unexpected acts of extreme violence are permeating my admittedly comfortable western existence, it is hard not to look over your shoulder. Of course I am worried for all my friends, regardless of race or religion, because who knows when or where an attack could happen. It is hard to accept that the initial instinct to lash out is forcing us deeper into the endless cycle of violence. It is hard for politicians to sell the historically unpopular tactic of 'make love not war' to a public baying for blood.
But, to mangle the famous JFK quote: We can choose to stop this endless stream of cause and effect, violence and violent response, not because it is easy, but because it is right.