01/08/2015 05:00 EST | Updated 03/09/2015 05:59 EDT

Charlie Hebdo Paris Shooting May Deepen 'Naturalized Islamophobia'

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In France, home to Europe's largest Muslim population, a debate already underway on Islamophobia quickly gave way to another on Wednesday, after gunmen killed 12 people at the Paris offices of a satirical magazine.

The deadly shooting at the Charlie Hebdo newsroom left 20 others injured, but scholars who study Islam in France say the militant attack also deepened wounds and may hinder national efforts to rise above anti-Muslim sentiment.

"I feel really, really emotional about this as a person," said Valerie Amiraux, who holds the Canada Research Chair for the study of Religious Pluralism. "But as an expert, I have to tell people you can't use this event to systematically destroy the work that has been done to protect the rights of Muslims."

Before the Paris murders on Wednesday, the most recent discourse about "the Muslim other" in France had focused on the anticipated publication that very day of controversial author Michel Houellebecq's sixth novel, Submission.

The plot involves a fictional Muslim Fraternity Party that rules the republic in the year 2022 and forces a docile citizenry to convert to Islam.

Charlie Hebdo offices stormed by masked gunmen

Houellebecq, one of France's most popular writers, has called the scenario "a real possibility" in a future France. He also successfully fended off charges in 2002 of inciting racism after calling Islam "the stupidest religion."

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Along with journalist Eric Zemmour, who was sacked last month from a TV show for anti-immigrant remarks, Houellebecq has led a chorus of anti-Muslim hysteria in the country, Amiraux said.

"The public in France has this natural tendency to be Islamophobic without being aware of it," said Amiraux, who teaches sociology at the University of Montreal. "But the horror or what just happened cannot let us forget about rationality."

The French satirical weekly Charlie Hedbo has courted controversy before for lampooning radical Islam, and was targeted in a 2011 firebombing.

A cartoonist present during Wednesday’s attack told Le Monde newspaper the attackers claimed to be part of al-Qaeda.

Shortly after news of the killings, Amiraux received calls from anti-discrimination groups seeking her advice on how to respond to an expected anti-Muslim tide.

That was enough evidence, she said, of the religious tensions persisting in France.

"Islam has no 'role in French society.' It is a religion of a number of people living in France. That's it," she said. "But it's also an element of our foreign policy."

France, which in 2011 banned the niqab and burka veils worn by Muslim women, has had a long history of state secularism.

Patrick Simon, the Paris-based director of research at the International Demographics Institute, argues those laws on secularism have targeted Islam, riding a wave of fear over a "great replacement" of the French population.

"This idea is that immigrants and ethnic minorities are taking over the French population in big cities and metropolises," he said.

A shift towards the right

Simon warned that concerns about diluting the country's white, French stock could be inflamed by France's far-right movement after the mass shooting at Charlie Hebdo.

"This is a nightmare," he said. "Not only because it's a horrible massacre. It will also create more stigmatization of Muslims. It's destroying years of support to try to create more understanding between Muslims and non-Muslims in French society."

France is undergoing a political shift, with France's far-right Front National winning its first-ever seats in the Senate in September. Led by Marine Le Pen, the anti-immigration party also had surprisingly strong gains in municipal elections last March.

Far-right groups have tried to block construction of new mosques. In 2012, a right-wing candidate for the UMP party asserted that schoolchildren might have their "pains au chocolat" (chocolate rolls) snatched from their hands because Muslims were fasting for Ramadan.

Predominantly Muslim citizens rioted in the suburbs of Paris in 2005.

"That was about a strong sense of exclusion from French society, motivated by really high unemployment and a lack of connection with France," said John Bowen, an anthropologist with Washington University in St. Louis.

The division in French society runs more than 200 years deep, he said, tracing it back to France’s invasion and colonization of Algeria, and the bitter Algerian war of independence that only ended in 1962.

Bowen believes resentment over "letting Algeria go" remains among some right-wing factions.

"There was a comment in Le Monde, and I’m sure there’s going to be a lot of this, saying this event will give all the well-meaning ‘bobos’ – meaning sort of 'Muslim huggers' – pause," he said.

Those comments would presume that French Muslims don’t also condemn Wednesday’s attack, however.

'A paper that stands against racism'

"The majority of Muslims feel a huge solidarity with the people who were killed, and they’re saying we feel this way as French [people], not as Muslims," said Amel Boubekeur, a researcher with the German Institute for International and Security Affairs who specializes on Islam in Europe.

Boubekeur worries about what he calls a "normalized Islamophobia" taking hold in France, bolstered by policymakers "who might feel they have to be quite harsh with Islamic figures and point to [the shootings] because they think this is what France wants to hear."

That would be a tragedy even from the point of view of Charlie Hebdo, said Lawrence Grove, a Glasgow-based historian on French comics who has worked with some of the journalists who were targeted at the Paris weekly.

"Charlie Hedbo is a very left-wing paper. A paper that stands against racism," he said. "It goes out to break every taboo going."

Any fear-mongering political reactions out of France likely would have made great fodder for the publication, Grove said.

"I think that’s exactly the type of reaction the journal would have made fun of."