As people across France and around the world mourn the death of the twelve people killed at the offices of the satirical weekly magazine Charlie Hebdo in Paris on Wednesday, and a massive manhunt continues for those thought responsible for the armed attack, a global conversation has emerged around the issues of religious sensibilities, freedom of expression, and violent extremism.
The most recent reports on Thursday suggest the two men still wanted for the crime—brothers identified by authorities as Cherif Kouachi, 32, and Said Kouachi, 34—may now be surrounded by French law enforcement officers in a town approximately 85 kilometers north-east of Paris.
According to reporting by French outlets Le Figaro and France 3, “the two may have barricaded themselves in a house in the town of Crépy-en-Valois, and are surrounded by special police units.” The third individual now considered to have participated in the Wednesday’s attack, 18-year-old Hamyd Mourad, surrendered himself to police on Wednesday.
Meanwhile, the suspected role that Charlie Ebdo’s irreverent treatment of Islamic figures, including the Prophet Mohammed, may have played in provoking the murder of some of France’s most recognized cartoonists has quickly taken over the media landscape and the global conversation about religion, freedom of speech, and violence.
Evidence of anti-Islamic backlash was already evident in France as reports have begun to appear about attacks on mosques in several areas.
Zeid Ra’ad Al Hussein, the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights, released a statement condemning the Charlie Hebdo attack, which he characterized as terrorism, but also called for unity in the face of violence.
“Freedom of expression and opinion are a cornerstone for any democratic society,” Al Hussein said, and those who try “to divide communities on grounds of religion, ethnicity or any other reason must not be allowed to succeed. The rule of law also requires that we seek to arrest and punish those directly responsible for carrying out, planning or acting as accomplices to specific crimes and do not attach blame to any wider group.”
He continued, “If this attack is allowed to feed discrimination and prejudice, it will be playing straight into the hands of extremists whose clear aim is to divide religions and societies. With xenophobia and anti-migrant sentiments already on the rise in Europe, I am very concerned that this awful, calculated act will be exploited by extremists of all sorts.”
The New York Times reports that the attack has come at a “dangerous moment” in Europe, citing the rise of Islamophobic rhetoric and a growing far-right movement which has launched virulent attacks against the continent’s immigrant communities, with special ire shown towards those from north Africa and other predominantly Muslim nations in the Middle East. According to the paper:
The attack left some Muslims fearing a backlash. “Some people when they think terrorism, think Muslims,” said Arnaud N’Goma, 26, as he took a cigarette break outside the bank where he works.
Samir Elatrassi, 27, concurred, saying that “Islamophobia is going to increase more and more.”
“When some people see these kinds of terrorists, they conflate them with other Muslims,” he said. “And it’s the extreme right that’s going to benefit from this.”