In an unusual display of unity and solidarity, 44 world leaders joined French President François Hollande in a march against terrorism and extremism in Paris on Sunday. They joined over a million ordinary French citizens – the largest demonstration in the streets of Paris since it was liberated from the Nazis 70 years ago. The march followed a series of attacks including those on the offices of a satirical magazine, Charlie Hebdo, in which several cartoonists, editors and policemen were murdered. The attacks had shocked France, Europe and the world.
The unity on display was, in some ways, unprecedented. There was little equivocation in the support that France received even from world leaders whose own record on extending freedom is poor. Old enemies marched together, even, with the leaders of Israel and Palestine in the very front rank. The president of Nigeria, a country that had just suffered a horrific attack from Islamic extremists in which more than 2,000 may have died, was also there. It is easy to condemn such a group as being hypocritical. But that would miss the point. Hypocrisy implies a shared principle is being violated – and the acceptance of the principle that freedom of speech is important, but that it is unfortunately under threat from violent extremists, is in itself an important and heartening fact.
Many leaders of Muslim-majority countries from West Asia and North Africa were present. Yet others condemned the attacks, even those who have strong religious backgrounds, such as the leaders of Iran and of Hezbollah in Lebanon. Altogether, there are grounds indeed for some very cautious optimism. West Asia and North Africa appear to be torn apart by internecine religious violence. The Islamic State of Iraq and Syria, or Isis, has shaken up coalitions – and even attacked Saudi border posts. But the universal condemnation of murder, even when the murder is that of individuals whom some might have reckoned blasphemers against Islam, shows that things are not all dark. Indeed there is ground for some cautious optimism. There may be the beginnings of an opportunity. A bold turn towards liberalism is too much to expect. But if enough people accept that religious extremism has crossed a red line, then it is not easy to predict the consequences. When societies reach a tipping point, anything is possible.
Some indications, however, are worth noting. The Saudi Arabian state, long a bastion of stability internally but an exporter of discord around the world, will soon face various crises. It is far from certain how long it will be able to maintain a low price for oil; increasing Sunni-Shia tension will inevitably have an effect on its own oil-rich eastern provinces; and the lack of clarity on the monarchy’s succession is beginning to worry many observers. The Gulf emirates, too, may not long be able to be islands of stability. On the other hand, Tunisia, where the Arab Spring was born, has shown a talent for democracy. And on New Year’s day, Egypt’s leader gave a speech to the country’s leading clerics at Al-Azhar University, the greatest in the Arab world, calling for a re-look at thinking that was “antagonising the entire world”, and calling for a “religious revolution”. The images from Paris, of streets filled with protestors, were stunning. But the consequences of this moment are still unknowable.