The unwelcomed presence of political opportunism in the midst of tragedy is likely to be a reasonably familiar concept for many people. However, it has been particularly conspicuous in the wake of the recent Charlie Hebdo attacks and the subsequent hostage-taking crises. While any occurence of human tragedy is utterly lamentable in its own respect, the political motives and bland self-promotion which compels the hijacking of seventeen deaths renders it all the more regrettable.
Much commentary has been made on the increased anti-Muslim sentiment, which is gaining greater prevalence in tandem with the rise of the far-right Front National party in France. This disturbing political trend has been exacerbated by recent events as attacks have been waged against innocent Muslims around France, as news sources reported over 50 anti-Muslim incidents since the murder of the Hebdo journalists. While Front National leader Marine Le Pen criticised President Hollande and Nicolas Sarkozy for politicising the tragedy, she herself availed of this opportunity to play party politics, commenting that “The Socialist Party have screwed up this opportunity to show respect to the victims and also a regard for the freedom of expression and the freedom of opinion”.
Likewise, international right-wing individuals and institutions recognised the opportunity to score political points in their own countries. Nigel Farage of UKIP, in an interview with Channel 4 News’ Jon Snow, identified the reason behind these acts of terror and suppression of free speech as “a fifth column living within in these countries” and “a really rather gross policy of multiculturalism.” In addition, Farage claimed “we’ve got people living in these countries, holding our passport who hate us.” Such commentary on the part of Farage is quite simply the advancement of his own party politics. Although in general, these statements are simultaneously emetic and incendiary in and of themselves; in the context of greater division and, in France, attacks on innocent Muslims, they are both cruel and irresponsible.
This cynical mode of political discourse was not simply confined to Europe either. In the United States, the chronically outraged Sean Hannity of Fox News courted on his show Ralph Peters, who seemingly claims to be a political strategist of a kind. They asserted that the murder of twelve people in an attack on the offices of a magazine was due to the “ridiculously lavish welfare programmes attracting the dirtbags” in France and Europe generally. Their watertight theory contends that the supposed ‘welfare state’ of France invites immigration and among these immigrants are Muslims. Of course, if one is to blame the Charlie Hebdo massacre on the welfare state, one might as well hold to task airplanes, balaclavas and the human propensity to hold a machine gun in addition. This bizarre and self-evidently unprofitable hypothesis of course plays into Fox News’ anti-welfare manifesto in a broad sense, as its determined opposition to ObamaCare and other such plans makes clear. Fox News postulated more outlandish, distasteful and obviously untrue ‘facts’ in regards to the rise of Muslim immigration into Europe, when alleged journalist Steve Emerson appeared on the channel claiming that “In Britain, it’s not just no-go zones, there are actual cities like Birmingham that are totally Muslim, where non-Muslims just simply don’t go in.” Emerson also stated that in such no-go zones “governments like France, Britain, Sweden, Germany, they don’t exercise any sovereignty. So you basically have zones where Sharia courts are set up, where Muslim density is very intense, where the police don’t go in.” In truth, the abuse of the Hebdo massacre as a political tool is self-evidently immoral but such dishonesty only whips up unreasonable fear and vilifies an entire community.
It was not simply the right-wing media opportunistically exploiting this tragedy. The established and ruling political figures of international politics did not refrain from doing so either. An estimated 1.5 million people attended the anti-terror rally in the French capital, amongst them 44 world leaders. In a toe-curling display of faux-solidarity, many of the leaders linked arms for a photo opportunity, which bore the uncomfortable appearance of the beginning of the world’s most reticent line-dance rather than a heart-warming and encouraging act of solidarity and defiance. Many people have since pointed out the immense hypocrisy of this futile gesture towards the notion of free speech, as several of these figures are effectively suppressors of this value. Not least of whom is Taoiseach Enda Kenny, who spoke poetically about the presence of political leaders as “an act of defiance.” An Taoiseach then went on to defiantly refuse to answer a question on whether or not the Irish blasphemy law should be repealed. It is of course this very law which, in this country, would muffle, fine and castigate any publication which would issue many of the cartoons published by Charlie Hebdo.
Additionally, Israeli leader Benjamin Netanyahu was present at the march. According to Reporters Without Borders, in 2014 Israel achieved a score of 31.19 in their Press Freedom Index, ranking it in 96th place out of 180 countries for press freedom. Netanyahu also sought to capitalise upon the tragedy through tweeting “To all the Jews of France, all the Jews of Europe, Israel is not just the place in whose direction you pray, the state of Israel is your home.” It goes without saying that it is entirely absurd and cynical to appeal to Jews to return “home” and to aggravate a growing separatism among communities in France.
Furthermore, a picture which showed the political dignitaries taken from a higher angle showed the extent to which their presence was as much for a photo opportunity as it was for any more noble a reason, as they were separated from the main body of the march and surrounded by a vast swathe of heavy security. While there is an argument that it is only right to isolate the political class from the hoi polloi for reasons of security, refusing to stand alongside fellow marchers simply adds to the embarrassing nature of this phony and fabricated expression of false solidarity.
Ultimately, while the Charlie Hebdo attack appears as a by-product of radical Islam’s development, and free speech appears to be threatened globally, there is little value in trusting the false friends of far-right populist political parties and lazy, radical media outlets who offer inconducive, irrelevant reasoning for such tragedies. Such institutions seek to exacerbate straining relations between communities and indeed often seem to place precious little regard for the morals they claim to condone: free speech, liberté, egalité, fraternité.