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Opinion: Some Exploiting France’s Tragedy


From the left, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, Malian President Ibrahim Boubacar Keita, French President Francois Hollande, German Chancellor Angela Merkel, EU president Donald Tusk and Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas march during a rally in Paris, France, Jan. 11, 2015.

From the left, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, Malian President Ibrahim Boubacar Keita, French President Francois Hollande, German Chancellor Angela Merkel, EU president Donald Tusk and Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas march during a rally in Paris, France, Jan. 11, 2015.

In the aftermath of last week’s tragic events in France, the world has witnessed great demonstrations of solidarity.

Judging from the more than one million people who gathered in Paris - and others in smaller rallies in Europe and in Washington, D.C. -- the murder of 17 journalists, police and shoppers in a Jewish market by three terrorists claiming to be avenging insults to Islam has brought together ordinary people from many religions and ethnic groups in an emphatic rejection of violence and intolerance.

At the same time, however, these deaths are being exploited by some world leaders whose actions in support of peace and freedom leave much to be desired.

Among those who took part in the huge rally in Paris on Sunday were high officials from Egypt, Turkey, Russia, Algeria and the United Arab Emirates, all of which restrict and jail journalists in large numbers. According to Reporters Without Borders, these countries rank 159, 154, 148, 121 and 118 respectively out of 180 nations in terms of press freedoms.

Egypt is still holding three journalists from the Al-Jazeera television network among the tens of thousands scooped up following a July 3, 2013 coup against President Mohamed Morsi. Turkey has jailed 70 reporters writing for publications that have criticized the increasingly authoritarian rule of President Recep Tayyip Erdogan.

Marc Lynch, a blogger and professor at George Washington University, captured the hypocrisy of these governments when he tweeted on Sunday: “Glad so many world leaders could take time off jailing and torturing journalists and dissidents to march for free expression in France.”

Other countries that have expressed solidarity with France also have dismal press freedom records.

While French authorities were struggling to end two hostage standoffs on Friday, Saudi Arabia was flogging a blogger, Raif Badawi, 50 times in public. Badawi has been sentenced to 1,000 lashes and 10 years in prison for criticizing Saudi Arabia’s clerics’ harsh interpretation of Islam.

Iran, which condemned the terrorist attacks but also the cartoons that ostensibly provoked the murderers, has held Iranian American reporter Jason Rezaian for nearly six months without revealing any credible cause for his detention. Iran routinely closes newspapers and jails journalists for departing from the official line.

Meanwhile, the leader of Iran’s Lebanese partner, Hezbollah, Hassan Nasrallah, also condemned the Paris attacks without any evident sense of irony despite Hezbollah’s own bloody record of suicide bombings, assassinations and kidnappings including of Lebanese and foreign journalists.

Another government that was quick to express support for France was that of Israel. While Israelis have certainly suffered grievously from terrorist attacks, there was something unseemly about Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s eagerness to milk the Paris tragedy to try to boost European support for Israel and encourage European emigration to the Jewish state.

Netanyahu suggested an equivalence between France and Israel that does not exist, given Israel’s nearly half-century occupation of the West Bank and continued control over Gaza, where a war last summer killed a disproportionately large number of Palestinian civilians.

The Israeli leader announced that the Jewish victims of last week’s attacks - who included the son of the chief rabbi of Tunisia -- would be given state burials in Israel. He told France’s Jewish population in a speech at Paris’s main synagogue that they are welcome to move to Israel, where, he implied, they would be would be safer than in France.

Some French residents of Israel criticized Netanyahu for suggesting that they had left France out of fear of anti-Semitic attacks rather than allegiance to Zionism. The newspaper Haaretz quoted Gerard Benhamou, the head of a French expatriate group in Tel Aviv as saying that such comments are "dangerous because it lets the enemy understand that with violence they can push the Jews out, with violence they can reach their goal."

Rather than grandstanding in Paris, Netanyahu - who is running for a fourth term as prime minister - could do more to undermine anti-Israel sentiment in Europe by limiting expansion of Jewish settlements in the West Bank and offering other concessions for peace with the Palestinians.

Palestinian leader Mahmoud Abbas, who was also in Paris on Sunday, could have used the opportunity to re-dedicate himself to the peace process as well.

No one is suggesting that such steps would end the plague of terrorism.

The young men who attacked Charlie Hebdo and a Paris supermarket last week had been radicalized by personal disappointments and association with radical imams.

The U.S. invasion of Iraq, the egregious behavior of some Americans at the Abu Ghraib prison, the war in Syria and the public diplomacy debacle of detentions at Guantanamo Bay will continue to provide pretexts for other young Muslims and converts to Islam to embrace jihadist ideology.

But the best answer to their nihilism is more freedom of expression - in the West and especially in the Middle East -- and more efforts to combat discrimination and to resolve Middle Eastern conflicts.

It is easy to march and shout slogans, much harder to govern inclusively and courageously. The real test for French President Francois Hollande and his international guests comes after the feel-good shows of solidarity.

In the meantime, Vive la liberte and Vive la France!

The views and opinions expressed are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the positions of Voice of America.

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    Barbara Slavin

    Barbara Slavin is a senior fellow at the Atlantic Council’s South Asia Center and a correspondent for Al-Monitor.com, a website specializing in the Middle East. She is the author of a 2007 book, Bitter Friends, Bosom Enemies: Iran, the US and the Twisted Path to Confrontation, and is a regular commentator on U.S. foreign policy and Iran on NPR, PBS, C-SPAN and the Voice of America.

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