Tag Archives: Charlie Hebdo

Do Europe’s Revolving-Door Prisons Compound Terror Threat?

Photo Deborah Jones © 2015

Paris was in shock after terrorists attacked the Charlie Hebdo satirical newspaper and a Jewish supermarket in January. The details of the case suggests that bonds formed in French streets and jails were more crucial than al-Qaida strategists, according to counterterror experts. Above, signs commemorating the attacks are found everywhere in Paris, from construction sites to official buildings. Photo by Deborah Jones © 2015

by Sebastian Rotella, ProPublica
June, 2015

In the summer of 2011, three French ex-convicts met in Yemen to talk about unleashing death and terror on the streets of Paris.

The trio was part of a crew of jihadis who radicalized together in the Buttes-Chaumont neighborhood of Paris a decade earlier. All three had been convicted of serious crimes. But they were at large thanks to a problem that gets scant attention in France and elsewhere in Europe: lenient sentencing policies for people convicted of terrorism and other violent crimes.

Peter Cherif, the son of Afro-Caribbean and Tunisian immigrants, was the dominant figure at the meeting. In 2004, U.S. troops had captured him while he was fighting for al-Qaida in Iraq. After his return to France, he served just 18 months in jail before he won release pending trial.

By the time the court imposed a five-year sentence on Cherif, he had fled to Yemen to join the al-Qaida offshoot there. U.S. courts have sent terrorists found guilty of comparable offenses to maximum-security prisons for decades or life.

Intelligence officials say Cherif was visited in Yemen by Salim Benghalem, who was radicalized in prison by another Buttes-Chaumont jihadi who fought in Iraq. Convicted for a murder, Benghalem had served about six years before he was back on the street.

Cherif’s other visitor had done a mere 20 months behind bars for his role in sending young Parisian suicide bombers to kill U.S. troops in Iraq. His name: Cherif Kouachi.

In Yemen, the three discussed attacks on U.S. targets in France and on a satirical magazine that had published cartoons of the Prophet Muhammad, investigators say. Peter Cherif helped provide Kouachi with cash and a few days of al-Qaida training, according to French and U.S. intelligence officials.

Four years later, Kouachi hit the big time. He massacred journalists at Charlie Hebdo magazine in January, dying along with his brother Said after a rampage across Paris that killed 17 people and caused international outcry.

Although the Kouachi brothers got most of the public attention, others in their crew have attained frontline roles in terrorist groups. Their story underscores a worrisome reality at a time of unprecedented radicalization among youth in Europe. European law enforcement is good at catching terrorists, but not so good at keeping them locked up. The problem is evident in France and Belgium, two nations that have seen the largest number of extremists travel to Syria to fight.

“Penal policies have not adapted to the reality of the terrorist threat,” said Louis Caprioli, a former counterterror chief of France’s domestic spy agency, now with a private security consulting group.

“Terrorists are treated like common criminals when it comes to sentencing, even if they are repeat offenders,” he said. “We have to take these guys off the streets. The philosophy has been to rescue the individual rather than to protect the society.”

Tilt Toward Rehabilitation

If prison terms were tougher, the January attacks in Paris might never have happened. Consider the trajectory of Amedy Coulibaly, a 32-year-old Frenchman who killed hostages at a Jewish grocery in coordination with the Charlie Hebdo massacre.

Coulibaly’s criminal career began at age 18. In 2004, he was sentenced to six years for armed robberies and drug dealing. While in jail, he met Cherif Kouachi and other terrorists and adopted their extremist views. Soon after their release, French police arrested Coulibaly and Kouachi for plotting to storm a prison and free a convicted terrorist bomb maker.

Charges were dropped against Kouachi. Coulibaly was convicted of illegal arms possession in the jailbreak plot, but sentenced to only five years even though he was a repeat offender linked to known terrorists. By May 2014 he was out again. Eight months later, he was dead 2013 along with four victims at the Jewish grocery and a policewoman he gunned down earlier.

French prosecutors have strong tools for putting terror suspects in preventive detention and convicting them at trial. But when it comes to punishment, judicial authorities have less power than their U.S. counterparts, who win long sentences for crimes such as “material support” of terrorism.

In France, the main weapon in the judicial arsenal is the crime of terrorist conspiracy, which generally brings a maximum of 10 years. Thanks to probation and good behavior policies, people convicted of conspiracy often serve about half their terms, experts say.

“It’s a real problem,” said Mohamed Douhane, a French police commandant and secretary general of the Synergie Officiers police union. “We police officers don’t understand the weak sentences and the fact that convicts don’t serve their entire sentences.”

After the Paris attacks, public scrutiny focused on intelligence breakdowns that had caused police to curtail their monitoring of the Kouachis and Coulibaly. In May, the French parliament approved legislation giving authorities vast new surveillance powers 2014 and raising concerns about civil liberties. Authorities have also sped up a project to segregate convicted terrorists in prison to prevent radicalization of common criminals.

There has been little movement, however, toward beefed-up punishment. Although special investigative magistrates prosecute terrorism cases, courts continue to handle trials, sentencing and their aftermath much like other cases.

“The main difference is in the degree of flexibility in the sentence for parole, semi-conditional liberty, etc.,” said Agnes Thibault-Lecuivre, a spokeswoman for Paris prosecutors. “It is a question we are asking ourselves: Should the sentences for terrorism be longer?”

A report by Europol, the European police alliance, found that in 2012 the average sentence for terrorism in France was five years 2014 which often meant about two and a half years actually behind bars. The average terrorism sentence was six years in Germany and Britain, and five years in Belgium, according to the study. Sentences tended to be tougher in Spain, where Basque and Islamic terrorism have killed hundreds.

In 2013, the average prison term for terrorist offenses in France and Britain rose to seven and nine years, respectively, and declined to four years in Germany, according to Europol.

A deep-rooted judicial philosophy in Europe emphasizes rehabilitation. In a major trial that ended in February, a Belgian court convicted 45 members of Sharia4Belgium, an extremist group that sent dozens of fighters to Syria. Most of the defendants remain in Syria, where some allegedly committed terrorist attacks and atrocities.

The sentences ranged from three to 15 years, and some were suspended. Fouad Belkacem, the group’s charismatic chief based in Antwerp, got 12 years. He had previously been convicted of crimes including drug trafficking and incitement of hatred.

“A 12-year sentence is nothing for a man like that,” complained Ozana Rodrigues Viana, a defendant’s mother, in an interview with La Libre Belgique newspaper. “He’s a terrorist. But Belgium doesn’t want to understand a thing 2026 In Belgium, prison is like a hotel.”

U.S. courts have dealt far more harshly with defendants convicted of joining overseas terrorist groups.

John Walker Lindh, the so-called American Taliban, is serving 20 years. A group of Virginia militants who trained in Pakistani terror camps 2014 but did not commit violent acts 2014 got sentences as long as 20 years in 2005. Two leaders of that Virginia cell2014one a cleric based in the United States 2014 went to prison for life. And a U.S. court gave a life sentence in 2009 to a Swedish al-Qaida operative who set up a terror training compound in Oregon.

Open-bar Jihad’

Some European officials defend the restrained approach, contrasting it with what they see as harsh sentences and mass incarceration in the United States.

“In most European countries, we don’t do that,” said Eric Van Der Sypt, a veteran counterterror prosecutor in Belgium. “The only thing that you obtain is protection of society, not rehabilitation of individual.”

But some police and intelligence officials insist it is time to do more. European terrorists pose a worldwide danger because their passports enable easy travel to the United States and elsewhere.

Police are arresting repeat offenders, veterans of a quarter-century of shifting hot spots: Algeria and Afghanistan in the 1990s, U.S.-occupied Iraq in the 2000s, and Syria today.

“Some are caught for the second or third time,” said Bernard Squarcini, a former director of France’s domestic spy agency. “If they keep getting out, we will have to worry about them until they are grandfathers.”

During their stints in prison, convicted terrorists grow more radical and recruit common criminals, exchanging expertise with them, Squarcini said.

Until a few years ago, European countries relied on aggressive surveillance to make up for the limited prison terms. The accelerated pace of radicalization, officials say, upended that balance. There are increasingly too many suspects to watch, and too many of them gain hands-on experience.

Thousands of Europeans have gone to Syria to fight, most of them joining the Islamic State. The biggest contingent is French: more than 1,400. At least 350 Belgians make up the largest proportional group of foreign fighters.

The new, easy-to-reach battleground differs from al-Qaida’s secret compounds in Pakistan. The Islamic State’s priority is conquest of territory. Unlike al-Qaida, it does not have an external operations unit that trains militants for terror attacks against Western targets, according to intelligence officials.

Fighters returning from battlefields of Syria and Iraq are more likely to plot on their own. Officials said the leaders of the Islamic State gave their blessing to several foiled plots in Europe proposed by foreign fighters 2013 without getting involved in details.

“We believe the plots had Islamic State approval, but were thought up by the Westerners,” said a senior French counterterror official, who requested anonymity because he is not authorized to speak publicly. “What we are dealing with now is open-bar jihad. Do what you want, where you want, when you want, how you want.”

In January, Belgian fighters with the Islamic State came home from Syria to prepare an attack on police, authorities say. European and U.S. intelligence got wind of the plot and tracked the suspects. Two died in a shootout with a SWAT team in the city of Verviers.

A Real-Life Video Game

While prison sentences remain low, the threat rises. The young men and women who journey to Syria and Iraq quickly end up in combat. Many participate in or become inured to the atrocities 2014 beheadings, torture, rape 2014 that the Islamic State uses as systematic tactics.

“It’s like entering a real-life video game: real guns, real people, real blood,” said Supt. Alain Grignard of the Belgian federal police. “You develop a feeling of power like you’ve never had. You come back to your neighborhood full of that power. You are ready to fight the cops. You are drunk on that power, drugged on that violence. It’s very dangerous.”

Law enforcement officials say it remains a challenge to prove a defendant committed specific acts of terrorism overseas. Last year, a Belgian court sentenced a jihadi to an unusually stiff term of 18 years because he admitted to participating in a deadly ambush of African peacekeeping troops in Somalia.

Investigators also try to capitalize on the self-destructive propensity of militants to leave an incriminating digital trail.

“In the beginning, the first thing they would do when they got to Syria was post a photo on Facebook posing with an AK201347,” said Van Der Sypt, the Belgian prosecutor. “With their Armani T-shirts, looking very Western, saying 2018I’m here. I’m a warrior.'”

The barrage of photos, videos and messages reached such a volume last year that the Islamic State urged foreign fighters to curtail their use of social media. Chiefs warned that militants put themselves at risk of being tracked or prosecuted, but the directive didn’t have a big impact, according to French and Belgian officials.

In this anarchic subculture, relatively young veterans go far.

More than a decade ago, Boubaker el Hakim was the first of the Buttes-Chaumont crew to reach Iraq. Before the 2003 U.S. invasion, he gave a French radio station an interview in Baghdad, calling on his potes (buddies) back in Paris to join him and “Go boom!”

El Hakim was arrested in 2005. His brother died in combat in Iraq. In 2008, a French court convicted El Hakim of terrorist conspiracy along with Cherif Kouachi and five others involved in the Iraq jihad.

El Hakim did a seven-year term, including time served: the longest sentence. He rapidly returned to the fray: He joined militants in Tunisia. In 2013, he released a video taking credit for the assassinations of two Tunisian political leaders. The 31-year-old El Hakim is now in Syria with the Islamic State, intelligence officials say.

He is one of at least six of the Buttes-Chaumont crew who have subsequently been arrested or investigated again for terrorism.

A Soft-Spoken, Tormented Terrorist

The remarkable odyssey of Cherif, now 32, also began in northeast Paris near Buttes-Chaumont Park, which has rolling hills and a waterfall.

The neighborhood mixes young professionals, a Jewish community and working-class Muslims. Cherif was not raised as a practicing Muslim, and he had a taste for McDonald’s, rap music, American action films. By his teen years, he was in trouble for drugs, assault and robbery.

Still, the broad-shouldered youth showed signs of drive and independence. He enlisted in the army, hoping to become a paratrooper. In 2002, he started going out with a Jewish woman he had known since middle school. The relationship was unusual because of the virulent anti-Semitism among many young Muslims in France.

Cherif’s girlfriend was resolutely Western in lifestyle. This reporter interviewed her in 2006, agreeing to withhold her name for her safety.

The girlfriend said Cherif was protective and affectionate. She said they had long conversations about politics. He told her about his sympathy for the Palestinians; she told him about the experiences of her relatives in Israel.

“He never said anything anti-Jewish,” the girlfriend said. “I have always had many religions around me, and I like it like that.”

Cherif began a disastrous slide, however. An injury forced him out of the Army. In 2003, he and a dozen friends (the youngest was 13) became disciples of Farid Benyettou, 23, a self-styled ideologue from the neighborhood. Peter Cherif first recruited Cherif Kouachi and brought him to religious courses taught by Benyettou, according to French court documents.

Although Cherif did not mistreat his girlfriend, he and the others vandalized Jewish restaurants with rocks and Molotov cocktails, and assaulted a Jewish man in the street, breaking his nose, according to court documents. The youths took part in protests against the U.S. invasion of Iraq, catching the attention of police intelligence officers as they prayed in the street wearing basketball shoes and Islamic garb.

With no training beyond workouts in the park, the crew rushed into holy war. Most traveled to Syria, using the cover of study in Koranic schools in Damascus, and slipped across the border to fight for al-Qaida in Iraq, the forerunner of the Islamic State.

Three of the youths died. Cherif was wounded twice battling U.S. Marines in Fallujah, where he helped a Tunisian fighter firing a rocket-launcher, according to his later testimony.

“I was so close to the Americans that I could almost see them with the naked eye,” Cherif testified.

American troops captured him in December 2004 and put him in Abu Ghraib prison. An Iraqi court sentenced him to 15 years for illegal entry into the country. In March of 2007, masked al-Qaida militants stormed a prison near Mosul and freed Cherif and about 150 others.

Spending another year in the terror underworld, Cherif met militants from Saudi Arabia and Yemen and helped fighters reach the battlefield from Syria, French court documents say. He remained in contact with his mother and girlfriend by phone and Internet.

In February 2008, a weary Cherif went home to France and surrendered to police. Based on intercepted communications, his statements and the testimony of accomplices, he was charged with terrorist conspiracy. But he told authorities he had repented and deserved a second chance.

“He wasn’t a maniac,” said Olivier Foks, a lawyer for Cherif. “He spoke softly, expressed himself well. If he was someone who had terrorist intentions at that time, he must have had the talent of a Hollywood actor 2026 He was liberated because he convinced the judge, as he had convinced me.”

Cherif spent 18 months in jail before the judge approved his release pending trial in July 2009. During his trial in early 2011, Cherif told his lawyer he could not stand the idea of being behind bars again. Foks predicted imprisonment would be brief, especially considering time served.

The lawyer was right. Despite the evidence of al-Qaida activity and battlefield combat, the court handed down a five-year sentence in March 2011.

But Cherif was already gone. He fled to Yemen, probably using contacts from his past sojourn in the Middle East, according to French intelligence officials.

Al-Qaida’s Frenchman in Yemen

The Yemen-based al-Qaida in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP) is one of the small, sophisticated al-Qaida offshoots that remain determined to strike the West.

In contrast to jihadi hotspots in South Asia and North Africa, very few French militants have gone to Yemen to join AQAP. Cherif became the first Frenchman active in the group’s external operations branch, intelligence officials say.

Investigators suspect that Cherif’s presence in Yemen was the reason for the trip by Kouachi and Benghalem, who spent about three weeks there in late July and August of 2011.

Although Cherif has not been charged in the Paris plot, French and U.S. counterterror officials believe he played a key support role.

“We think Cherif is the guy who gave Kouachi the money and instructions from al-Qaida,” said the senior French counterterror official. “What we fear is that Frenchmen like Peter Cherif in Yemen and 2026 in Syria are the ones in charge of terrorist missions targeting France.”

French investigators suspect Cherif helped Kouachi get brief training from al- Qaida in the Arabian Peninsula during the visit to Yemen. U.S. intelligence officials believe the al-Qaida offshoot also provided $20,000 to Kouachi to fund the Charlie Hebdo plot, but they say the group’s involvement appears to have been limited.

Kouachi received “a general directive about going after those who insulted the prophet,” said a senior U.S. intelligence official familiar with the case. “Charlie Hebdo fits that. I have yet to see more information about hands-on management or command and control by AQAP. There was some type of engagement or meeting in Yemen, and he expressed a desire to take action. AQAP blessed it.”

During his rampage in Paris, Kouachi told a journalist by phone that he had acted on the direct orders of Anwar al-Awlaki, the group’s U.S.-born ideologue, who was killed in Yemen in September 2011. But investigators have not confirmed that he actually met Awlaki, according to Thibault-Lecuivre, the prosecutors’ spokeswoman.

French investigators are also looking at Benghalem’s possible links to the case, officials said. They believe “an attack on U.S. interests in France was discussed by Benghalem during the meetings with al-Qaida” in Yemen, Thibault-LeCuivre said. “But the attack didn’t happen.”

Like the others, Benghalem had exploited the legal system. He had racked up arrests for robbery, assault, guns and drugs by 2001, when he and an accomplice concealed guns in traditional djellabah robes and opened fire on gang rivals in a Paris housing project. One man died.

After a year on the run in Algeria, Benghalem returned and was convicted of attempted murder because evidence showed his gunshots missed the victim. Benghalem served only about half an 11-year sentence, authorities say. In prison, he radicalized under the influence of his cellmate: a Buttes-Chaumont homeboy who had lost an eye and an arm in the battle of Fallujah, French intelligence officials said.

The Charlie Hebdo case suggests that bonds formed in French streets and jails were more crucial than al-Qaida strategists, according to counterterror experts.

“These guys are not sleepers,” said Marc Sageman, a former CIA officer and scholar on terrorism. “It’s a homegrown, bottom-up attack. It’s a far more complex story than calling it an AQAP attack.”

Today, French and U.S. intelligence officials believe Cherif remains active with al-Qaida in Yemen.

Benghalem, meanwhile, found refuge in Syria with the Islamic State, intelligence officials say. The U.S. State Department publicly designated him as a terrorist last year, alleging that he presides over executions as a member of an Islamic law panel.

The career criminal, authorities say, has become a judge.

 Creative Commons

This story was co-published with The Daily Beast.

Related stories:

Je Suis Charlie, Facts and Opinions, Jan. 7, 2015

Read more of Sebastian Rotella’s coverage of international terrorism. ProPublica is a Pulitzer Prize-winning investigative newsroom. Sign up here for their newsletter.



Facts and Opinions is an online journal of select and first-rate reporting and analysis, in words and images: a boutique for slow journalism, without borders. Independent, non-partisan and employee-owned, F&O performs journalism for citizens, funded entirely by readers. We do not carry advertising or solicit donations from foundations or causes. Subscribe by email to our free FRONTLINES, a blog announcing new works, and the odd small tale. Look for evidence-based reporting in Reports; commentary, analysis and creative non-fiction in OPINION-FEATURES; and image galleries in PHOTO-ESSAYS. Some of our original works are behind a paywall, available with a $1 site day pass, or with a subscription from $2.95/month – $19.95/year. If you value journalism, please help sustain us.


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Matters of Media

What’s new in media matters: Charlie Hebdo; the state of American media; attacks on the press; and Jon Stewart’s next mission.

Protesters marched for freedom of expression worldwide after the January slaughter of journalists and police by extremists at Charlie Hebdo's Paris office. Above, protesters in Vancouver carry "Je Suis" signs for Ahmed, a Muslim police officer killed, and "Charlie." © Deborah Jones 2015

Protesters marched for freedom of expression worldwide after the January slaughter of journalists and police by extremists at Charlie Hebdo’s Paris office.  © Deborah Jones 2015

The illustrations of Muhammad, which sparked such incendiary controversy by Muslims whose faith prohibits images of their prophet, may have run their course in the French satirical publication Charlie Hebdo. Extremists apparently protesting the illustrations slaughtered 10 journalists and two police officers outside Charlie Hebdo’s Paris headquarters in January, sparking global support for freedom of expression. 

Now cartoonist Renald Luzier, whose pen name is “Luz,” told French magazine les inRocks  he is no longer interested in creating images of Muhammad. He said he has grown tired of drawing Muhammad, as he had grown tired of drawing previous subjects. The statement was newsworthy (see BBC report here) because Charlie Hebdo is again controversial news: PEN America’s decision to honour Charlie Hebdo, with a Freedom of Expression Courage Award next month, sparked a protest by two dozen writers.

The protesting writers, including Michael Ondaatje and Joyce Carol Oates, wrote they support freedom of expression but the honour is unwarranted because Charlie Hebdo’s cartoons “intended to cause further humiliation and suffering” for already-marginalized Muslims. PEN America disagreed in a rebuttal, Rejecting the Assasin’s Veto — but added, “we are  very privileged to live in an environment where strong and diverse views on complex issues such as these can take place both respectfully and safely.”


The Journalism Project of the Pew Research Center in the United States this week released its 12th annual report, State of the News Media 2015. There is good, bad, and ugly. A lot of ugly. Highlights:

  • Mobile devices trump desktop computers for the audience of digital news media – but only desktop users linger.
  • Financially the newspaper industry continues to bleed. 
  • Local and network TV enjoyed greater ad revenue and audience; cable companies suffered.
  • Digital outlets continue to face financial and journalistic challenges — though a few are thriving.

The Good (?): “Digital news entrants and experimentation, whether from longtime providers or new, are on the one hand now so numerous and varied that they are difficult to keep track of. On the other hand, the pace of technological evolution and the multiplicity of choices – from platforms to devices to pathways – show no sign of slowing down.”   Plus, podcasting is booming. That’s something. 

The Bad:  More Americans receive journalism in quick hits via mobile devices. (Oh, look: SQUIRREL!!!)

The Ugly: Tech industries, especially the top five companies, are eating journalism’s lunch. “Five technology companies took in half of all display ad revenue, with Facebook alone accounting for 24%.”  Plus: “Nearly half of Web-using adults report getting news about politics and government in the past week on Facebook, a platform where influence is driven to a strong degree by friends and algorithms. ” 

Who cares? What does it matter? Pew’s Journalism Project offers a succinct answer: 

“Americans’ changing news habits have a tremendous impact on how and to what extent our country functions within an informed society. So too does the state of the organizations producing the news and making it available to citizens day in and day out ….”  

“Understanding the industry in turn allows researchers to ask and answer important questions about the relationship between information and democracy – whether this means exploring the degree to which like-minded consumers gravitate to the same sources, the opportunities consumers have or don’t have to stay on top of the activities of their elected officials, or how connected residents feel to their local communities.”

Click here to read State of the News Media 2015 on the Pew site.


© Greg Locke 2013

© Greg Locke 2013

This week the Committee to Protect Journalists released a major report, Attacks on the Press. Citing slaughters, beatings and imprisonments, from Pakistan to Paraguay, Paris to Egypt, journalists face danger, wrote Christiane Amanpour in a foreward. “From government surveillance and censorship to computer hacking, from physical attacks to imprisonment, kidnapping, and murder, the aim is to limit or otherwise control the flow of information–an increasingly complicated effort, with higher and higher stakes.”

On Thursday, the United Nations appointed Amanpour, an American journalist, UNESCO Goodwill Ambassador for Freedom of Expression. The issue needs an ambassador. As Amanpour notes in the CPJ report, dangers to journalism “are expanding in seemingly every direction, morphing in new and disturbing ways. At stake are not only journalists’ lives but also the public’s ability to know what’s going on around them.”

Click here to read Attacks on the Press on the CPJ site.  (And in case you missed it,  Reporters Without Borders/Reporters sans Frontieres released its 2014 World Press Freedom Index. earlier this year. Finland again ranked first for press freedom, with Norway, Denmark, Netherlands, Sweden, New Zealand, Austria, Canada, Jamaica and Estonia also making the top ten.  Least free are Turkmenistan, North Korea and Eritrea. France is 38th, the United States 49th, Russia 152nd, Iran 173rd and China 176th.)


Last but not least, there may be an answer to America’s intense speculation about what its favourite and arguably most effective “journalist” — comedian Jon Stewart — will do when he retires from The Daily Show on Comedy Central. Reportedly Stewart is swapping incisive political commentary about humanity for saving animals, on a New Jersey farm his family recently purchased as an animal refuge (Philly.com story here).

And on that note, here is a photo of my own rescue cat. Because. apparently, catz are what media are for these days.

Poppy the rescue cat, 1985-2006

Poppy, 1985-2005

Facts and Opinions is an online journal of select and first-rate reporting and analysis, in words and images: a boutique for select journalism, without borders. Independent, non-partisan and employee-owned, F&O performs journalism for citizens, funded entirely by readers. We do not carry advertising or solicit donations from foundations or causes. Help sustain us with a donation, by clicking below; by telling others about us, or purchasing a $1 day pass or subscription, from $2.95/month to $19.95/year. To receive F&O’s free blog emails fill in the form on the FRONTLINES page.

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Paris attack brings focus to French author Michel Houellebecq

LOUIS BETTYUniversity of Wisconsin-Whitewater
January 16, 2015

French author Michel Houellebecq

Michel Houellebecq, memorialized, in 2011. THIERRY EHRMANN/Flickr

When gunmen (thought to be radicalized Muslims) burst into the offices of Charlie Hebdo on the morning of January 7, the front page of the satirical newspaper’s most recent edition featured a caricature of French author Michel Houellebecq. The same day, his new novel Soumission (Submission) had been released – a fictionalized account of France’s election of an Islamist president in 2022.

“In 2022, I’m observing Ramadan!” the cartoon of a ragged, cigarette-smoking Houellecbecq exclaims.

Submission had generated controversy even before its publication. Many on the Left worried that its depiction of an Islamicized France would be a boon for Marine le Pen’s anti-immigrant National Front party. And while François Hollande, France’s socialist president, has promised to read the novel, many have condemned it as Islamophobic.

Who is Michel Houellecbecq? Though largely unknown in the United States, Houellecbecq (pronounced well-beck) is one of France’s most popular and commercially successful living authors. Many consider him to be France’s most significant literary export in decades.

Even before Submission, the author was no stranger to controversy. Houellecbecq first came to prominence on the French literary scene in 1998 with the publication of Les Particules élémentaires (The Elementary Particles), a novel that describes the collapse of Western civilization from the point of view of two disaffected half-brothers.

The major point of contention in the novel was its disparaging treatment of post-60s culture in France (like the U.S., France was marked by anti-establishment protests in 1968) and its scathing criticism of sexual liberalism. The novel depicted a post-60s France awash in depression, social and sexual isolation, as well as moral and religious decay. From the point of view of the Left, it was read as an indictment of the values of a whole generation.

At the same time, the novel was equally unsympathetic to free-market capitalism, which caused a significant clamour in the right-wing media. In this respect, Houellebecq perplexed both the Left and Right in France: the media had difficulty determining where to place him along the traditional ideological spectrum. The novel also prominently featured the sexual exploits of its characters (one of the half brothers, Bruno, is a frequent visitor of nudist colonies) so many in the press criticized the novel for celebrating the very moral decadence it seemed to condemn.

Subsequent novels such as Plateforme (Platform), La Possibilitié d’une île (The Possibility of An Island) and La Carte et le territoire (The Map and the Territory) also garnered their fair share of controversy. Platform, for example, recounts the attempt by several French citizens to create a sex resort in Thailand, which ends in tragedy when Muslim terrorists attack the resort and kill or maim most of the vacationers. It’s worth noting that Platform was released during the fall literary season of 2001, just before the attacks of 9/11.

La Possibilité d’une île (2005) tackled the issue of glorifying youth culture and the physical and moral neglect of the elderly. It explicitly evoked the deadly European heat wave of 2003, which claimed the lives of thousands of elderly people who died in nursing homes while their families were away on vacation. In 2010, Houellebecq won the prix Goncourt, France’s highest literary prize, for La Carte et le Territoire, but more controversy arose when journalists discovered that Houellebecq had lifted brief passages from Wikipedia articles.

In translation, Houellebecq has enjoyed broad popularity in Europe, though in the United States he remains relatively unknown. Much of this is due to negative reviews his novels have received in left-leaning intellectual publications such as The New Yorker and The New York Times. But there’s also the perception that the author’s work is somehow “too European” to appeal to a broad American audience. His novels are filled with themes of cultural and economic decline, psychological stagnation, sexual desperation, and rampant materialism. It would not be too much of a stretch to say that Houellebecq’s work feeds brilliantly off the decline of European civilization in the 20th century. This message, if it is not lost on Americans, is at least antithetical to their cultural myth of progress and the American dream.

But American readers may now take notice of Houellebecq’s most recent novel: Submission deals with the pan-western concern of a globalized Islam, and in the wake of Wednesday’s shootings will certainly receive even greater scrutiny. One can only wonder how prescient it will be: how will the role of Muslims in politics change? And how will the far-right respond to – or even exploit – the tragedy?

Creative CommonsThe Conversation

Louis_BettyLouis Betty is an assistant professor of French at the University of Wisconsin at Whitewater and Honorary Fellow at the Institute for Research in the Humanities at the University of Wisconsin at Madison. He has published numerous scholarly articles on Houellebecq and is preparing the final draft of a book-length work on Houellebecq’s fiction.

This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article.


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Islam, blasphemy and free speech: a surprisingly modern conflict

Tomb of 13 Century poet Rumi in Konya, Turkey. Photo by Georges Jansoone via Wikipedia, Creative Commons

“It might be shocking for many to look back at the words of 13th-century Muslim scholar Jalal ad-Din al-Rumi, who had a strong theological and jurisprudential background,” writes Ali Mamouri. “He said: “Go on! Drink the wine of the Beloved! In that faith, Muslims and pagans are one.” Above, Rumi’s tomb in Konya, Turkey. Photo by Georges Jansoone via Wikipedia, Creative Commons

ALI MAMOURI, Australian Catholic University 
January 10, 2015

From the fatwa on author Salman Rushdie to the attack on the offices of French magazine Charlie Hebdo, the phenomenon of anti-blasphemy actions continues to be prominent in the Muslim world.

At first glance, the problem appears to be quite simple. For many years, there has been much talk about the conflicts between blasphemy and free speech within Islam. Some go further and argue about the “intrinsic hostility between two civilisations: Islam and Europe”, as the philosopher Talal Asad puts it.

It is quite easy to say that Islam suffers from a lack of tolerance and that Muslims are anti-freedom, anti-democracy, pro-despotism and pro-fanaticism. However, this generalisation ignores not only the number of branches of Islam and diversity of views among Muslims, but also the sociopolitical foundation of the problem.

Asad highlighted the big difference between the notion of talking against the religion in Christianity and Islam. It is difficult to find a specific idea rooted in the Christian historical background of blasphemy in the history of Islam.

However, there are a variety of equivalents that each overlaps a part of blasphemy. The most commonly used phrase by Muslims today is “isā’ah”, which has a range of meanings, including “insult, harm and offence”. But this term is not associated with a certain jurisprudential punishment in a way that makes all Muslims feel obliged to attack the actors.

Therefore, many writers throughout different parts of Islamic history have criticised Islamic belief, including the prophet Muhammad and the Quran, without facing persecution. A quick look at the books about sects and creeds in Islam shows a great variety of discussions and debates between Muslims and non-Muslims about the essential parts of Islam. Many include sarcastic language.

For instance, when defending his non-belief in religions, renowned Arab philosopher Abul al-Ala al-Ma’arri said, “If you ask my religion I would say I am not dumb.”

Ibn al-Rawandi also dedicated sections of his books to countering the Quran in Baghdad. Furthermore, in the contemporary era, Iraqi writer and poet Maarouf al-Rasafi disputed the religious aspect of the prophet Muhammad’s life in his book The Muhamadiyan Personality.

The reality is that the persecution of blasphemers as it is done currently is a very recent phenomenon. Generally, one could say that the Rushdie fatwa was the beginning of this trend.

The founders of Political Islam are known as the innovators of this trend. That is why we can see many secular scholars, writers and poets at the start of the 20th century writing against Islam in many different dimensions, such as Zaki Naguib Mahmoud, who is known for advocating positivist philosophy in the Arab world, and Najib Mahfouz, who won the 1988 Nobel Prize for Literature.

The notion of religious actions is more problematic than is popularly supposed. It is not merely a divine spiritual matter which is separated from social political actors. Rather, it is nested within and shaped by other human dimensions.

As a result, the sociopolitical background can change any religion – to be more tolerant or more fanatical, for example. Sociologist Bryan S. Turner describes this situation in Christian society, “Given the growth of parliamentary institutions, welfare legislation and commitment to egalitarian ideology, it is small wonder that contemporary Christians cannot accept a description of God as an autocrat. Jesus, once our lord and master, has become Superstar.”

This process took a long time in western societies to become today’s accepted nature of great tolerance and co-existence. The west paid the price through centuries of religious, sectarian and political wars.

Meanwhile, the status of the Muslim world has declined continuously in the contemporary period. This is due to various reasons, including ongoing political instability, the failure to build a state of institutions and a real civil society and destructive imperialist interventions.

Western colonial powers handed the Middle East to a series of tyrannical governments. Failed attempts at building a nation-state have led to the rise of Chauvinism and military regimes which mostly have been supported by the great western powers.

The recent popular revolutions have resulted in the rise of criminal Salafi gangs. Many were supported by the west for different reasons, such as confronting the Soviet Union in al-Qaeda’s case, or anti-Israel regimes in Islamic State’s case.

It might be shocking for many to look back at the words of 13th-century Muslim scholar Jalal ad-Din al-Rumi, who had a strong theological and jurisprudential background. He said: “Go on! Drink the wine of the Beloved! In that faith, Muslims and pagans are one.”

One can see pluralistic thoughts, such as the aforementioned works of many Muslim scholars in the past, which have been influencing Muslim societies widely.

A long distance has passed to see Islamic State’s Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi in place of al-Rumi, but this underscores the argument that mainstream Muslims remain against the barbaric actions of fundamentalists. It must not be forgotten that many Muslims are suppressed in their countries for the same reasons that Charlie Hebdo was attacked.

Let’s help Muslims to represent “a more authentic image of Islam, as so many of them desire, reiterating that Islam is a religion of peace, compatible with respect for human rights and peaceful co-existence”, as Pope Francis said in a recent phone call with Iraqi Christians.

Creative CommonsThe Conversation

This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article.


Ali Mamouri

Ali Mamouri

 Ali Mamouri is a PhD Candidate at the Institute for Social Justice at Australian Catholic University.   A researcher and writer in the Middle East religious and cultural crises, particularly Iraq and Iran, he raduated from PhD study in Islamic Philosophy & Theology in 2008 and Master in Islamic Philosophy in 2000. He is a columnist at Al-Monitor, writes for Iraq and Iran pulses, and focuses on religious and cultural issues.

He  does not work for, consult to, own shares in or receive funding from any company or organisation that would benefit from this article, and has no relevant affiliations.

You can read his bio on his page at The Conversation.






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Je Suis Charlie


The web site of Charlie Hebdo was draped in a virtual black flag Wednesday, with a link to a pdf file displaying the words “I am Charlie” in numerous languages.

Scorecard, Wednesday, Jan. 7: Pen – 0. Sword – 12, and counting.

Masked gunmen with AK47s and a rocket launcher killed at least 10 journalists and two police officers early Wednesday at the offices of Charlie Hebdo, a satirical newspaper that had been under police protection since extremists firebombed it in 2011.

 French leader François Hollande  declared a national day of mourning for Thursday. The hashtag #jesuischarlie flooded social media. World leaders spoke out in solidarity.

Crowds flocked to Place de la République in Paris in the evening, many people holding up pens. The web site of Charlie Hebdo was draped in a virtual black flag Wednesday, with a link to a pdf file displaying the words “I am Charlie” in numerous languages.

World leaders expressed outrage, support for France, and in some cases, also support for press rights. It was a rare outpouring of support for journalists and freedom of expression which, literally and metaphorically, have been under fire on all fronts and in most countries lately.
“This is an attack against freedom of expression and freedom of the press – the two pillars of democracy,” said United Nations Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon who, ironically, was in the midst of a New Year visit to the UN Correspondents Association.

From the United States, Barack Obama called  the shooting “horrific” while Secretary of State John Kerry said, in French, “Tous les Américains au côté de la France.” British prime minister David Cameron tweeted, “”We stand with the French people in the fight against terror and defending the freedom of the press.”

Reporters Without Borders appealed to all media outlets globally to republish the Charlie Hebdo cartoons thought to offend the extremists. “Freedom of information cannot shrink in the face of barbarity and yield to blackmail by those who assail (our) democracy and what  (France) stands for. In the name of all those who have fallen in the defence of fundamental values, let us continue Charlie Hebdo’s fight for free information,” said RSF in a statement.

One of the last cartoons drawn by Charb, killed in Wednesday’s slaughter by extremists. “Still no terrorist attacks in France,” it says. “Wait! We have until the end of January to present our wishes,” says the man with an AK47. Photo via Twitter, fair use.

It’s no coincidence that on the same day a dystopian novel by Michel Houellebecq, Submission, was released in France, amid a media fire storm. 

“The book’s publication could not come at a more sensitive time as France is currently undergoing a fierce debate on Islam and national identity,” noted  an analysis on the French site France 24.

Charlie Hebdo was one of many outlets to feature the book.

Submission, said numerous French media outlets, portrayed a France years in the future ruled by Sharia law and a Muslim government. In the world of Submission Muslims would eliminate France’s secular focus on human rights, captured in the official national motto Liberté, Égalité, Fraternité, coined during the French revolution. 

France takes human rights seriously, and has a long tradition of accepting and even celebrating satire. It was in France the famous quote, “I disapprove of what you say, but I will defend to the death your right to say it,” was coined, attributed to a biographer of French enlightenment writer Voltaire, the pen name of François-Marie Arouet.

One of the journalists killed by the extremists Wednesday was Charlie Hebdo editor Stéphane “Charb” Charbonnier. “A drawing has never killed anyone,” he  told Der Spiegel in 2012.  “Extremists don’t need any excuses. We are only criticizing one particular form of extremist Islam, albeit in a peculiar and satirically exaggerated form. We are not responsible for the excesses that happen elsewhere, just because we practice our right to freedom of expression within the legal limits.”

“I’d rather die on my feet than live on my knees,” Charbonnier told Le Monde in 2012, in a story about the firebombing of Charlie Hebdo by extremists in 2011, after it published a caricature of the Prophet Muhammed. 

As the world learned through the bloody, brutal, irrational, self-defeating and continuing aftermath of the 9/11 attacks, the clear and present danger now is the fanatical attack on Charlie Hebdo will boost fanatics of all stripes.
Extremism by fanatics, the latest of whom claim allegiance to the self-branded “Islamic State,” has been met by extremist xenophobia and bigotry aimed at Muslims in general. Carnage in the names of religion and “war on terror,” both, continues in world war zones, far from the light of publicity now shining on Charlie Hebdo. And if recent history is a guide, the reaction can easily backfire on all of the rights cited today in response to the Charlie Hebdo killings. Since 9/11, press freedoms of all kinds have been amongst the collateral damage in the “War on Terror.”
Warned UN High Commissioner for Human Rights, Zeid Ra’ad Al Hussein: “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.”
Who will keep a cool head after Wednesday’s slaughter by gunmen reportedly screaming, triumphantly, “Allahu Akbar?”


Further reading:

Freedom of Expression, Freedom House: https://freedomhouse.org/issues/freedom-expression#.VK2lEt6kb8s

An image gallery of the attacks, Le Monde: http://www.lemonde.fr/societe/portfolio/2015/01/07/en-images-l-attentat-de-charlie-hebdo_4550797_3224.html

Wikipedia page for Charlie Hebdo, including backgrounder: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Charlie_Hebdo

Ban outraged by ‘horrendous and cold-blooded’ attack on French magazine: United Nations news release: http://www.un.org/apps/news/story.asp?NewsID=49741&Cr=UNESCO&Cr1=#.VK2JBN6kb8s

World leaders condemn attack on France’s Charlie Hebdo, France 24: http://www.france24.com/en/20150107-charlie-hebdo-paris-attack-journalist-terror-/

‘Charlie Hebdo’ Editor in Chief: ‘A Drawing Has Never Killed Anyone,’ by Stefan Simons, Der Spiegel, September, 2012

A “Charlie Hebdo”, on n’a “pas l’impression d’égorger quelqu’un avec un feutre,” Le Monde archive:  http://www.lemonde.fr/actualite-medias/article/2012/09/20/je-n-ai-pas-l-impression-d-egorger-quelqu-un-avec-un-feutre_1762748_3236.html#jsi567twGzKCWauk.99

RWB APPEALS TO MEDIA OUTLETS TO PUBLISH CHARLIE HEBDO CARTOONS, Reporters san Frontiers/Reporters Without Borders:  http://en.rsf.org/france-rwb-appeals-to-media-outlets-to-07-01-2015,47454.html

1101 Journalists Killed since 1992: Committee to Protect Journalists report: http://www.cpj.org/killed/ 




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