The horrific terrorist attack in Paris at the office of the French magazine Charlie Hebdo is a direct assault on the freedom of speech, thought and expression, the fundamentals on which all open, democratic societies are built. Ten staff members at the satirical weekly, including four of its top cartoonists, were gunned down by masked men who entered the building and targeted the editorial meeting in what seemed to be a well-planned and professional operation. They left shouting Allahu-Akbar , killing two policemen on the street outside before driving off in a getaway car. Since 2006, when it first published the Danish cartoons of Prophet Mohammed, Charlie Hebdo had been under threat of violent attacks by Islamist groups. Refusing to be intimidated, the publication continued to caricature Islam even after a firebombing in November 2011, just as it also relentlessly lampooned Christianity and Judaism — its Christmas week cover caricaturing the birth of Jesus was designed to provoke and cause offence. Self-censorship in order not to hurt religious sensibilities is now the norm in most parts of the world, so too in India, where media and expressions of popular culture including cinema, art and writing have to walk the tightrope daily in deference to what Salman Rushdie in an interview to this newspaper described as the non-existent “right to not be offended”: the fracas caused by Hindutva groups against the film PK is the most recent example of this. In truly democratic societies, this should not be the case, and that is what Charlie Hebdo believed and practised. Irrespective of what anyone thinks of its editorial policy, all who believe in freedom of expression and the democratic way of life must express solidarity with the magazine, and condemn this unspeakable act of violence against them.
Attacking democratic freedoms is part of a larger agenda. Whether it is al-Qaeda, IS or any other group, extremist ideology thrives best in a polarised society. If the sizeable numbers of people adhering to the Muslim faith have been able to resist Islamism, it is because French republicanism has been able to surmount even the most divisive controversies, such as the ban on wearing the hijab and niqab in public and the Islamophobic discourse by the French right-wing parties that surrounded it. While the inevitable security measures will have to be taken, it would be most unfortunate if the attack on Charlie Hebdo were to give rise to a backlash against French Muslims. That would result in precisely what Islamist groups want — an alienated Muslim population that would become a recruiting ground for their violent cause. Maintaining freedoms and equality before the law in the face of a severe challenge to security is the most difficult test for any democratic polity and society.