The grisly Islamist terrorist assault that left 12 people dead at a French satirical magazine Wednesday came against a backdrop of mounting xenophobia and tension boiling over Western Europe, where traditionally secular societies are struggling to absorb surging Muslim immigrant populations that analysts say will only continue to grow in the years ahead.
The number of Muslims living in France, Germany, Britain and Spain and other European nations is projected to hit 50 million in 2020 — a 72 percent increase from 30 years ago — bringing with it a host of sensitive challenges ranging from free speech to fears that extremism may increasingly spread into the region from North Africa to the Middle East.
Those two issues collided with unprecedented fury and precision Wednesday in the assault by the black-clad gunmen on Charlie Hebdo, a satirical magazine in Paris notorious for running cartoon images lampooning Islamic terrorists as well as Islam’s Prophet Muhammad — artistic renderings of whom are generally deemed by extremists to be an act of outright heresy.
Four prominent cartoonists were among those singled out for death by the attackers, who were heard by at least one witness to claim that the prophet had been “avenged” before they fled the scene of the attack. While no known terrorism group immediately claimed responsibility, Twitter accounts and websites tied to extremists outfits, including the Islamic State movement in Syria and Iraq, praised the attack.
Analysts said the assault appeared to be the work of seasoned, homegrown terrorists operating in Paris right under the nose of France’s supposedly aggressive counterterrorism authorities. “This wasn’t some lone wolf going off, this was a well-planned operation,” said Joshua Landis, who studies jihadi activity as head of the Center for Middle East Studies at the University of Oklahoma.
The attackers, he said, appear to have been far more coordinated and sophisticated than the 23-year-old French Muslim extremist who targeted French soldiers and Jewish civilians in a series of shooting attacks that killed a total of seven people in 2012.
“It makes you wonder how can a cell this big be operating in a country like France, which has been very vigilant,” Mr. Landis said. “This has got to be a shock to the intelligence and counterterrorism crowd there, because we just haven’t seen this kind of well-organized attack in France.”
Largely in response to the rising Muslim numbers, anti-immigration parties have been on the rise in France, Britain and a slew of other European nations. Germany has been dealing with weekly “anti-Islamization” rallies that have been steadily growing in numbers in certain cities in recent weeks.
Mr. Landis said the attackers mostly likely sought to feed rising European fears of what some anti-Muslim groups have dubbed a rising “Eurabia.”
The rise of the term coincides with a wider question about whether nations like France have simply failed to successfully absorb such immigrants, either economically or culturally.
Such questions have surged following several past incidents in Europe involving extremist Muslim anger over cartoons allegedly insulting the Prophet Muhammad. The most notable came in 2006, following a Danish newspaper’s publication of such cartoons.
While that incident triggered violent protests across the Muslim world, there was concern Wednesday extremists are now intent on exacting revenge through terrorism right in the heart of Europe.
“In Europe, France is at the front lines of a dangerous and growing jihadist ideology that again demonstrated today that it knows no bounds,” said House Committee on Foreign Affairs Chairman Edward R. Royce, California Republican.
Inspired by Islamic State
Others went farther, claiming the incident was clearly inspired by successes of the Islamic State, whose leader has attracted a throng of European-born Muslims to Syria and Iraq in recent months and is seen to be encouraging blowback terrorist attacks in Europe. The campaign is designed to advance the extremist reach of the Middle East-based Islamic “caliphate” that he formed last year.
Targeting Charlie Hebdo was “deftly chosen: not a religious symbol, but a symbol of what republic and democratic freedoms are, exactly where [the Islamic State] wants to drive a wedge between European Muslims and their fellow citizens,” said Jean-Pierre Filiu, a leading French scholar who studies Islamic extremism.
But despite Wednesday’s carnage, Mr. Filiu argued that the jihadi “plan has backfired because of the unanimous condemnation of this heinous attack in France and throughout the Muslim world.”
Mr. Filiu added that widespread expressions of disdain toward the incident from Islamic leaders across Europe, several of whom publicly called for tolerance on Wednesday, were underscored by the fact that one of the 12 people killed in the attack reportedly was a French policeman who was Muslim.
Dozens of moderate Islamic organizations and thousands of individual Muslims took to social media Wednesday to speak out against the incident. “As a Muslim, killing innocent people in the name of Islam is much, much more offensive to me than any cartoon can ever be,” wrote pro-democracy activist Iyad El-Baghdadi in a statement that got retweeted more than 26,000 times on Tuesday.
But even on France’s national stage, political leaders were divided in their public comments about the attack.
With tens of thousands of citizens taking to the streets of Paris in a show of solidarity against the attacks, President Francois Hollande called on the nation not to turn against its population of roughly 5 million Muslims.
“This was an attack on freedom. We must be ourselves, and we must realize our best weapon is unity,” he said in a live televised address.
A very different message came from France’s conservative Front National party leader, Marine Le Pen, who has long called for the nation to tighten its immigration policies and who is often accused of pushing an anti-Muslim agenda.
“Time’s up for denial and hypocrisy,” she said in a video message on the party’s website, according to Bloomberg. “The absolute rejection of Islamic fundamentalism must be proclaimed loudly and clearly.”
Germany is among the European nations whose Muslim populations are growing. It is projected that there will be some 4.8 million German Muslims in 2020. The number will account for roughly 6 percent of the nation’s total population, up from 4.5 percent in 2000.
Even bigger surges are underway in Britain, Spain and France, according to a Pew Research Center study. Muslims are projected to make up 6.5 percent of Britain’s population by 2020, up from 2.7 percent in 2000. In Spain they will make up 3.3 percent in 2020, compared to just 1 percent in 2000. And France’s population, which was 2.1 percent Muslim in 2000, is projected to be more than 7 percent Muslim by the end of the decade.
Mr. Landis said that any nation facing a serious surge in immigrants, regardless of their religion, is bound to experience a “springing up of xenophobic movements.”
But at the moment in Europe, he said, there is particular anxiety among non-Muslims over Muslim immigrants because “of the growing fear of blowback from Syria and Iraq, from all the [Islamic State] volunteers that have been going there from Europe.”
• Guy Taylor can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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