Reaction to Charlie Hebdo

The morning after the attack at Charlie Hebdo in Paris, Professor Green mentioned to me on the tram he had received a request for a student response on the situation. Being the blogger for this course, I have the opportunity to attempt such a task. Initially, I had no idea how to approach a post about this topic. Realizing that the words written here have the potential to weigh in on readers' opinions rather than just another lighthearted update on our travels was daunting so, before the post, I talked with many other classmates to frame my thoughts and better represent a true student perspective.

Let me first begin by saying I do not find myself qualified for an official "student perspective" on the matter. I am not a political science major who frequently discusses political impacts, I am not an expert on Charlie Hebdo or media influence in general, I have a limited knowledge of Islam as a religion (let alone in Europe), and I have very little experience with any sort of formal statement. However, what I can do is observe. I can internalize the feelings derived from discussions with other students, political leaders, and news sources on the trip, and attempt to provide a personal view of the impacts this attack seems to be having.

Before I left for this trip, I received several confused looks when I mentioned I would be studying "Islam in Europe" over January. I would get responses saying things like, "Isn't Islam primarily in the Middle East? Why aren't you going there?" or simply, "I didn't know there was much to discuss there. Are you sure it's a pressing issue?" If this attack speaks anything to me, it is as a complete validation for the course. Looking at and listening to the reactions of Charlie Hebdo clearly demonstrates tensions between Europeans and Muslims are present and they deserve an analysis of why these tensions exist, what is at their source, how long they will remain, and what it means for the future - not only for Muslims trying to make a life in Europe, but also for the interpretation of a "European identity" as a whole.

When first asked for a student's statement, I was very confused. To me, this event didn't change why we're here. It didn't make me more afraid to be sitting in Amsterdam. This sort of thing was occurring before we left and I primarily viewed this event as further evidence of the struggle taking place. Why were people getting so worked up about it? Sure, it's a terrible situation, but the media seemed extra attentive to this one. I questioned some classmates and many felt being here in Europe made the situation feel more real and relatable. We really aren't all that far from Paris and while the threat is probably minimal, it does raise the question for the potential of another attack near you. I was troubled with this statement because shouldn't the event be just as real wherever you are? Can I really relate to this situation better because I happen to be in the same continent, event though I'm still many miles away? My initial thoughts were everyone should be equally concerned with the tensions in Europe regardless of where they might be sitting. Admittedly, I realize locality is a prevalent factor with any event and we have the opportunity to see firsthand the response from individuals and the general public in Europe, but there was just something troubling about the underlying message you have to be here to care I couldn't quite move past.

After visiting NRC, a newspaper printed in Amsterdam, I had an opportunity to get another opinion on why this story was exploding in the media. I wanted to see if it was merely a brotherhood of news stations that took the attack on Charlie Hebdo personally and saw an opportunity to share their support for a fellow reporting venue, or if there was a stronger reason for the mass coverage. The response I received was twofold. Firstly, Paris is a place people around the world have a connection to. Also, Charlie Hebdo's controversial printing of cartoons raises discussions about freedom of speech, so an act of violence could easily be interpreted as an attack on what many consider freedom-instilling values. The combination is so relatable and concerning it creates a mass demand for further information and opinions from the general public. The second response dealt with rarity, using the example of a murder to emphasize the point. Currently, killing another person receives a headline because it is uncommon and a sensitive subject for the majority. However, in war times, such an event becomes regular and almost expected, so the news is not nearly as ground-breaking or demanded. I found this a suitable explanation for the substantial media response, and possible support for the disconnect felt by people outside of Europe. As troubling as it may seem, without a relatable and emotionally stimulating story, the struggle involving Islam in Europe may never be put in the spotlight it deserves for those looking from the outside.

As far as observations, just from walking around the Netherlands, there is very little that seems to stand out. People still go about their business as usual. I don't get the impression of any sort of panic has set in or life has been significantly changed. Maybe I'm misreading the situation because I cannot understand Dutch, but as far as I can tell conversations between people on the buses and trams are not heated but seem calm and common. The only noticeable difference is the occasional posting of "Je Suis Charlie," French for "I am Charlie," in windows, on the streets, or even graffitied to show support of Charlie Hebdo.

So where does this leave us for our class and the rest of the trip? It definitely will have an impact, but in what way? For one, it gives us an enormous topic to discuss. Questions of extremism, freedom of press, proper responses to attacks from all sides of the issue, segregation of and integration into the "European identity," and the obligations of media sources are only a short list of deeply involved scenarios with no immediate answers. In addition, we have a focus for our interviews and discussions with other people throughout the trip. We can point to and learn specifics rather than having to deal with hypotheticals. While beneficial, this event could be potentially hindering. Hopefully, as a class, we can still reach beyond this single event and approach Islam as a whole throughout Europe. It would be unfortunate to get caught up in the emotions of the situation instead of looking at the other pressing questions it raises. Lastly, it is a validation for us as a class, as well as anyone else we have the opportunity to meet on the trip, for why we see Islam in Europe as a topic worth the effort of traveling to five countries in one month.

I leave this post incredibly optimistic. Not only am I looking forward to the rest of this month after fascinating conversations already taking place in the first few days, but because a statement was requested from such a small group of students who attend a small liberal arts college. If we're getting attention, maybe the interest and concern for Islam in Europe still has hope for attaining the discussion it deserves. I thank you all for reading and hope you continue to follow the rest of our trip!

Ben Harney

Support for Charlie Hebdo posted in an Amsterdam store window.
A giant sign in Brussels showing city-wide support.