Camouflaged, armed security guards patrol warily outside the oldest Jewish school in Paris, automatic weapons held with military precision across their chests, eyes unblinking. In Le Marais, people go about their business, weaving in and out of the tourist throngs but there is still a tension, an electric crackling in the air as people browse chic little shops and buy falafel on the street. French authorities have detailed a force in excess of ten thousand to guard sensitive sites, half of them Jewish, but for how long can it continue? Until the threat, like a receding wave, abates, or until men in high places determine that the end no longer justifies the means?
Circling the wagons is a self-preservation strategy as old as mankind. When threats present, we huddle, seeking mutual reassurance, a metaphorical holding of hands as young children do before crossing a busy road. After the threat, we emerge defiantly, showing each other that we are still alive. Many must have felt the same in the bomb shelters of Sderot and Ashkelon during Protective Edge.
This week in Paris, many people felt the instinct to hasten home. Murder stalked the streets. Afterwards, they filled the roads and great boulevards, seeking safety in numbers and, with a roar of defiance, reclaimed the land.
Many people have drawn a parallel with the Liberation demonstrations in 1944 – a not unfair comparison, not just in terms of numbers, but also now as then, French men and women drew a line in the sand, and stood shoulder to shoulder behind it, swords beaten into crayons: France belongs to us. World leaders – with one notable and embarrassing absentee — linked arms and stood with them.
We also take to the streets because we are afraid, because we feel threatened. The act of coming together exposes our insecurities, and we hope against hope that others who march with us share the same aspirations and fears. We rally because we want to lay hold of the hope that comes from knowing that there are others, many of them, who feel as we do.
In France, national unity was the theme of Sunday’s monster rally. But by the perverse logic of demonstrations, national unity is therefore not nearly as secure as the outpouring of mass emotion would tend to suggest. Not all were in favor. Many Muslim groups did not take part because it identified them with a national movement that backs people who ‘insulted the Prophet Muhammad’. Charlie Hebdo is proposing to publish an image of the Prophet again this week, on the theme of forgiveness, in defiance of those who persist in their dark, atavistic belief that an image can be blasphemous. The law carries penalty for writing or speaking inappropriately, but an image means what people want it to mean, either amusing, offensive or scabrously rude – free thinking allows us all to make what we may of it, without recourse to slaughter of the innocent.
There are real threats out there – the British are talking in terms of ‘when’ not ‘if’. But, the cancerous and renegade elements in Islamist thinking will not be extirpated by Western protective measures. The antibiotic won’t work any more. The only sure remedy will come from within Islam itself, as imams and leaders come to the realization that religions metamorphose, change and grow with their practitioners and the cultural milieu in which they find themselves.
Islam needs nothing less than a Reformation. The children of Israel no longer slaughter Amalekites and Catholics don’t burn heretics at the stake. This, of course is nothing more than a cry in the wilderness but if messages of peace and reconciliation were preached relentlessly, Friday after Friday, in Cairo, Damascus, Ramallah and Gaza and the armed aggressors were spurned instead as cowards and infidels, there might be a glimmer of hope for peace.