Speaking French around the world.

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Charlie Hebdo and the War on Cosmopolitanism

Francis Wilkinson writes editorials on politics and U.S. domestic policy for Bloomberg View. He was executive editor of the Week. He was previously a national affairs writer for Rolling Stone, a communications consultant and a political media strategist.
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Yesterday's attack on the offices of magazine Charlie Hebdo in Paris might have been an assault on the idea of the West or on the insolence of juvenile cartoons. But it was also an attack on cosmopolitanism, the righteous incubator of those, and other, irritants. 

Islamic terrorism no doubt has multiple sources -- religious, colonial, economic, cultural, psychological. But its soul is devoutly anti-cosmopolitan. The killers, and their sympathizers, seek to contract the public space and private imaginations that pluralism expands. They are suspicious of the leveling mix of peoples and the ideal that none is the chosen one. They rebel against the gumbo of religions (and the subversion of them, indiscriminate, Charlie Hebdo-style, at which cosmopolitanism shrugs). They disdain the interchange, soft and incidental, of cultures and ideas that cosmopolitanism enables.

Terrorism is inherently separatist, an act of demarcation as well as annihilation. What is the jihadist dream of the caliphate except a circling of old wagons against the new world?

The cosmopolitans seem to get it. Much like they did after Sept. 11, they expressed their support for Parisians in part by sharing the victims' identity -- "Je suis Charlie" -- and filling public space. "Around the world, tens of thousands of people rallied yesterday in support of the victims," Bloomberg News reported, "gathering at public squares and French embassies from New York to Hong Kong."

In New York, a crowd braved a bitter chill to sing the Marseillaise in Union Square. Some sang with the perfect French accents of natives nestled abroad or of those determined to emulate them, to acquire the tongue, and live in the skin, of another.

The war on cosmopolitanism is waged by fighters familiar with their enemy. (It seems the Charlie Hebdo killers spoke French quite well themselves.) The core of the Sept. 11 conspiracy emerged from Hamburg, not Afghanistan. Osama bin Laden, well-traveled child of privilege, was no provincial.

The killers draw strength and tactical advantage from such familiarity. But there is another kind of strength in the way their enemies recognize themselves in so many distant mirrors. In Berlin, London, Madrid, Rio de Janeiro, Tunis and elsewhere, the cosmopolitans came out last night. They understand that their precious tower of babble is under assault. 

This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of Bloomberg View's editorial board or Bloomberg LP, its owners and investors.

To contact the author on this story:
Francis Wilkinson at fwilkinson1@bloomberg.net

To contact the editor on this story:
Zara Kessler at zkessler@bloomberg.net