Russia finds itself in a difficult position in how it responds to the Charlie Hebdo attack. It must simultaneously show sympathy for the victims of the French attack, while also respecting the cultural, social and religious values of its own population.
French citizens will be joined by dozens of foreign leaders, among them Arab and Muslim representatives, in a march on Jan. 11 in an unprecedented tribute to this week's victims following the shootings by gunmen at the offices of the satirical weekly newspaper Charlie Hebdo, the killing of a police woman in Montrouge, and the hostage taking at a kosher supermarket at the Porte de Vincennes. Photo: Reuters
In recent global history, there have been several instances when the world felt truly united. Most of them were the result of natural catastrophes like the Fukushima nuclear disaster, the Haiti earthquake or the Indonesia tsunami. In various hotbeds across the globe, acts of terror occur so frequently they almost have become part of daily life. For outside observers, these heinous events are just routine news, reflecting a certain cynicism of today's international context. Terrorist attacks in countries that are considered more prosperous and secure usually trigger a bigger backlash.
But quite often this backlash lasts for just a short period of time and doesn't go far beyond international sympathies and declarations about the need to stand firm together in the fight against the terrorists. In this respect, the atrocious events of 9/11 in the United States were rather an exception.
What many already are calling the “French 9/11” is another remarkable milestone in that category. Gathering nearly 4 million people and world leaders from 40 states – the largest demonstration in the country's history – made it look like the world nowadays is French. The tragedy in another European country opened up yet again the debate over ''migration'' and ''multiculturalism'' that has been previously sparked after similar accidents in Spain in 2004 and in the United Kingdom in 2005.
The attack in Paris also revealed several problems that have been hibernating under the blanket of economic stability and social prosperity. As might be expected, the shock and awe in France after the attack sent a worrisome security signal about this country on the European front line with the Muslim states of North Africa and the Middle East.
But it is not just about a mere fight against terrorism, or the potential ability of the Islamic State of Iraq and the Greater Syria (ISIS) to indoctrinate its violent ideology into the minds of young French citizens. In a certain way, it even transcends the problem of assimilating and adopting migrants into European society and marrying their values with those of Europe – although it now seems to be at the core of the debate.
It's about guiding principles – those that will define the social and cultural development of future Europe. ''Liberté, Égalité, Fraternité'' – the motto of the French Republic and a founding principle of contemporary European society - turned out to be not so universal. Equality is erased by economic and social grievances. Perceptions of others as aliens undermine the idea of fraternity. And, finally, the core value – liberty – is understood and interpreted differently, to put it mildly.
As Europe becomes more ethnically, religiously and culturally diverse, its founding principles will be challenged. Whether they are altered depends on how determined in standing up for their principles the descendants of the first French republic are.
One of the benefits democracy offers is that it helps soften the extremes. What the terrorists in France succeeded at was misbalancing French society to certain extremes. While liberals at Charlie Hebdo stated they would continue drawing caricatures of Muslim prophets and the clergy, the right-leaning forces called for a thorough review of migration politics, social adaptability policy and Islamic education in the country.
In a highly polarized context, similar types of moves and debates will further fuel tensions. If it gets heated to the boiling point, counter-actions similar to that of the Anders Breivik massacre in Norway in 2011 would be a terrible, but not an unimaginable response, of those disgruntled on the right.
Russia is in an interesting position in this fight. As a nation with a long record of traumatic terrorist attacks, it understands what the French people are going through. In this regard, words of support and acts of solidarity against jihadists are sincere and they are right.
On the other hand, many in Russia, including some in the elite and intelligentsia, do not share the idea that the mockery of someone's religious beliefs is allowed. The Pussy Riot case exposed the sensitivity of this issue in contemporary Russian society, which remains largely and genuinely conservative.
In other words, the atrocious events in France may be a perfect incentive for a greater anti-terrorist cooperation with Russia – at least at the bilateral level between Paris and Moscow – but Russian support will not go further. Not because freedom of speech is not something Moscow wants to supports – although some may argue that is exactly the case – but because the agenda Charlie Hebdo propagates is controversial to Russia's own conservative agenda.
In a way, Russia finds itself between a rock and a hard place. The perception is that the violent jihadist ideology is an imminent threat to the country's national security, but an ideology liberal to the point of public aversion is a slow-acting poison for the country's identity formation. If the first is unacceptable, the latter is undesirable. However, Russia cannot be above the fray either. It faces similar challenges as France, and must make a decision about its own core principles.
The opinion of the author may not necessarily reflect the position of Russia Direct or its staff.