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On Tuesday, 7 January, France is commemorating the fifth anniversary of the Charlie Hebdo massacre. It was the first in a series of terrorist attacks to rock the nation, often perpetrated by jihadists, stirring public debates about the radicalisation of Muslims.
Physician and columnist Patrick Pelloux was one of the first people who arrived at the scene of Charlie Hebdo’s building in the afternoon of 7 January 2015.
That day, brothers Said and Cherif Kouachi killed 12 people and wounded 11 others in one of the worst attacks on the press in history. Jokes the magazine made about Islamic leaders and Prophet Muhammad, as well as its depictions of the prophet, considered a sin in Islam, are understood to have been the primary motive behind the attack.
Speaking on a French radio network ahead of the fifth anniversary of the tragedy, Patrick Pelloux defends the beliefs the magazine still holds.
“To criticise Islamism and not agree with the rise of political Islam in France is not equal to being racist,” he argues. “It’s just saying that in 2020, France’s hope is to continue to live in secularism and the Republic, and not to create the French Islamic Republic.”
He laments that there is “a form of self-censorship [in France] in relation to Islam and what it represents”.
Last week, a man shouting “Allahu Akbar” killed one civilian and seriously wounded two others in a knife attack in the Paris suburb of Villejuif.
Pelloux, a former Charlie Hebdo contributor who now works with the satirical journal Sine, cites the Villejuif attack as proof that terrorists “are indeed present, even if they are lone wolves”.
He also refers to his former colleague at Charlie Hebdo, Zineb El Rhazoui, who has become a vocal advocate of secularism and freedom of expression after the 2015 attack.
Pelloux says that El Rhazoui has been “threatened with death like all of us regularly on social networks” despite being “absolutely not racist”.
“We simply defend republican values of living well together and non-violence,” he adds.
Hot off the press, Charlie Hebdo’s commemorative edition is dedicated to new forms of “dictatorships” and “censorship” that challenge free speech. The cover depicts a man whose tongue is pinned to the ground by a giant smartphone with social media apps like Twitter and Facebook visible on the screen.
A trial began on Monday over the “jihadist network” suspected of aiding the Kouachi brothers and their acquaintance, Amedy Coulibaly, who murdered a police officer and four hostages at a kosher supermarket in the following couple of days. All three gunmen were killed on 9 January 2015.
There are a total of 24 suspects, but only five of them will appear in court. The rest have fled to Iraq and Syria and have since been killed or are presumed dead.
Pelloux wants to understand the “architecture” the terrorists used when plotting the attack, including the logistics and the ideologues.
Five years on, he says that everything is different: “In sectors such as the health sector or emergency services where I work, the risk of an attack is an important part of our daily lives. Life has changed, our life has changed.”