Three madmen armed with AK-47s on Jan. 7 very likely ended a reluctance most of the mainstream press have until now lived with in Europe. Newspapers, magazines, websites, and radio and TV stations will lead a charge for freedom of speech. There is a risk this will translate into a blanket condemnation of Islam. It should not.
Of all the outrage that filtered online shortly after the massacre at Charlie Hebdo magazine, two reactions immediately stood out. Tony Barber of the Financial Times called Charlie Hebdo's editorial staff "stupid" and lacking in "common sense." The Islamic Council of Muftis in Russia was reported as saying that "the sin of provocation is no less dangerous than the sin of those prone to react." In other words, the provocateurs at Charlie Hebdo got what was coming to them.
As writer Oliver Bullough tweeted, "Russia's official Muslim organization missed a great chance to shut up." Condemnations by fellow journalists of the FT's comment were no less damning. Tony Barber in his piece seemed to have forgotten that Charlie Hebdo ridicules all religions - not just Islam.
The Debate that Was
Ever since Danish cartoonist Kurt Westegaard went into hiding after his drawings of the prophet Mohammed were published, and the murder of Dutch filmmaker and Islam critic Theo Van Gogh, many in Europe's mainstream news media have refrained from criticizing Islam.
Some held back out of respect for the religion, stating that while you can say anything you want, you should always ask yourself whether you should. This is of course not limited to Europe. Even in the hours after the attack on Charlie Hebdo, the New York Daily News censored a photo of a now-slain editor of the magazine and was widely ridiculed for it on Twitter.
Other media, columnists and comedians have over the past years censored themselves simply out of fear of becoming the next Westegaard (whose house was invaded by armed madmen) or Theo van Gogh.
This is about to change. The danger now is that populists will hijack the debate and push the press into an anti-Islam frenzy. As this was being written, nationalist organizations and proponents of identity wars, such as supporters of the Pegida movement in Germany, were already using the Charlie Hebdo massacre as justification for their anti-Islam stance.
This is precisely what religious fundamentalists seek: to divide the world neatly into pro- and anti-Islam parts, leaving no distinction between mainstream Muslims and the fundamentalist fringe. In reality, no group has suffered more from violence by Islamist extremists over the past decades than Muslims themselves. At around the same time the hitmen exited Charlie Hebdo headquarters, where they killed 12 people, a bomb attack in Yemen killed 37 people and injured scores more.
The last thing media should do now is give the terrorists the divided world they seek. A defiant show of free speech is called for. It should point straight at the hideous monstrosity behind the violence: extremist fundamentalists, of any any stripe - exactly like Charlie Hebdo did. #jesuischarlie.