The Paris Attacks


When Islamist gunmen murdered 18 people at the offices of a French satirical magazine and a Jewish supermarket in Paris in January this year, some people were tempted to blame the victims. The Pope, who has become something of a darling of the liberal-left, said that if ‘you swear at my mother – or Islam – expect a punch.’ A snivelling cartoon by the (otherwise excellent )political cartoonist Joe Sacco seemed to flirt with the same notion. Both men – and some apologists who reasoned on the same lines as they did – overlooked the attack on the Jewish supermarket, which could not remotely have been construed as retaliation for a hateful cartoon. That was a sectarian, racially-motivated attack and the victims were singled out because they were Jewish.

Yes, Israel oppresses the Palestinians but this can hardly be a sufficient explanation, let alone justification. Islamist grievance against Jews and Judaism runs deep, not just limited to Israel but against Jews generally. The popularity of holocaust denial or hate screeds like the Protocols of the Elders of Zion among many parts of the Islamic world attests to this. And it’s not just Jews – Shia and other minorities are subject to vilification from rabble-rousers, much of it sponsored by Saudi money.

I am not saying that the popularity of these tracts are down to the gullibility of the Muslim masses. It’s down to the circumscribing of free speech in much of the Muslim world, making such hate speech difficult to combat. Note what I am saying here. The peddlers of hate are committing speech acts. They can only be combated by speech acts in turn but to do that, the state needs to uphold the right to free speech. But few states presiding over Muslim-majority populations do (perhaps Turkey is partial exception).

Nor am I saying that Western societies are absolute paragons of virtue in this respect. I am saying is that Western societies are better at doing this. To the intellectually lazy, who fall back on relativism, because they flinch from anything that might actually mean that West is indeed the best, this is abhorrent.

The fact is, the right to free speech is well-protected in the West, as it is France. So, to answer to Joe Sacco’s question – what if Muslims didn’t find the cartoons funny? Apart from the obvious answer that they could have ignored it, given that the cartoons appeared in an obscure underground publication that till the attacks practically no one had heard of, there is the even more blindingly obvious answer: they could have protested against it.

Of course, France does not always uphold its own self-declared principles when it comes to freedom of expression (like passing laws against holocaust denial) but that does not make the point I am making here false: those offended by the cartoons could have protested using speech. The complaint of French double-standards fails against this observation. France would have allowed and does allow those offended by ideas expressed by others to talk back.

But, for the gunmen, the offence could not be answered by speech but only by the gun. It’s a mistake to assume that the men concerned were unhinged. They acted according to their convictions, convictions that overrode everything else– such as respect for the state’s laws. They did what they did because their sense of the sacred was offended and it was not enough merely to talk back to the offenders. Those who had given offence had to die. Those who say that it had nothing to do with religion have fallen into wishful thinking. It had everything to do with religion – or, at least, the killers’ interpretation of it.

Furthermore, the conviction that the victims were blasphemers and hence contributed to their fate probably extends to many in the law-abiding Muslim mainstream. If people like Joe Sacco can think it, then I am sure many otherwise moderate Muslims can think it. Yes, it’s true that a Muslim policeman was murdered doing his duty, trying to protect the staff of Charlie Hebdo. Muslims’ allegiances cut many ways. We are talking about millions of people and we want to avoid the sort of trap that Sacco and the Pope made when they talk of Muslims as an undifferentiated mass of ‘they’.

Having said that, the question remains as to how far the violent act of extremists find a degree of acceptance and even encouragement from within the mainstream. It’s not a question that can be ducked and it is too easy, as President Hollande has just done, to blame an undifferentiated, external other in the shape of the Islamic State, and refuse to ask questions about how far the values of the extremists grow from tacit approval from within the mainstream.

Sacco and the Pope seem to assume that the problem of ideological conflict between secular host and devout immigrant communities living in liberal societies is a matter of the hosts minding their manners and their speech – a matter of respect. This is too complacent an assumption. It goes a lot deeper than that. The latest attacks in Paris demonstrate this emphatically. This time, there appeared to be no obvious provocation. The victims were blown up or mowed down indiscriminately while they were out enjoying themselves and having fun. They did not insult the Pope’s mother, Islam or the Prophet.

We can of course reach for the standard rationalisations. Perhaps we can blame Iraq or Western foreign policy but the French opposed the US-UK led invasion of that country in 2003 and during the Yugoslav wars in the 1990s, Mitterrand was a champion of Bosnian Muslims in the face of Anglo-Saxon indifference. France gets little credit for this – instead Islamists complain about the banning headscarves in French public schools. If this is oppression, it is mild compared to that meted out to non-Muslim minorities in places like Iraq and Pakistan who don’t have recourse to the European Court of Human Rights to seek redress (as French Muslims do). Perhaps we can blame French colonial history in Algeria which was indeed exceptionally brutal but this explanation cannot account for similar conflicts we see in countries like Denmark and Sweden, with no comparable historical baggage.

Or we can stop flailing around for implausible explanations and take the Islamic State’s own justification seriously, that this was an attack aimed at ‘the capital of perversion and abomination’. The choice of targets adds weight to these words: a football match, a rock concert, pavement cafes; doubtless, all manner of perversions and abominations were underway until the brothers in their righteous zeal turned up with their explosive vests and Kalashnikovs. The French air force could stop bombing Syria tomorrow but Paris is unlikely to lose its status in Islamists’ eyes as today’s Sodom unless it closes down nightclubs, stadiums and pavement cafes, segregates the sexes, prohibits alcohol and forbids all smoking. Since the French are unlikely to do any of this anytime soon they, and the rest of us, similarly living lives of perversion and abomination, terms which the Islamists define very broadly, are going to have to live with the murderous indignation of Islamists for the foreseeable future.

So do we surrender to the clarion calls of the radical right, close our borders and step up police repression of minorities? Of course not. What is the answer then? The answer is that there is no obvious answer but I can suggest how to start thinking about the issue. The first is to stop denying that there is a genuine ideological conflict between host and immigrant communities. The second is to stop pretending that a major fault line of this conflict has nothing to do with religion. There are real conflicts over the definition of values, sacred and secular; these conflicts cannot be dismissed as a coded expression of other, secular disputes like the conduct of foreign policy. Third, and most importantly, it’s not a case of us v them. The fault lines run within immigrant communities and throughout the wider Islamic world. Extremists hate western values partially because of their godless content but also because of a fear that these values may actually appeal to the believers.

This is a war of ideas. How will it be won? By the slow diffusion of western values among Muslim communities, not just those living in the West. What values do I mean? I mean tolerance, agreeing to disagree, living with each other despite not having agreement on fundamental foundations for morality respecting unorthodox lifestyles like homosexuality, the relegating of religion to the private sphere and the whole host of values we call ‘liberal values’. These are, after all, the values the host communities are expected – rightly – to show toward their guests, whether they be refugees or immigrants. It stands to reason then that this expectation should cut both ways.

In the wider world, among Muslim communities at large, these values cannot be imposed by force. They have to be accepted by Muslims themselves. That will mean Muslims rejecting those who offer Islam as the ‘solution’ to the sorts of challenges that modernity presents. It will mean coming to terms with moral pluralism – not just the existence of other belief systems, secular and sacred, but accepting questioning from within the ranks of the faithful themselves. In everyday terms, that means accepting the right of Muslims to set up atheist blogs, or to become apostates without fear of reprisal. When a blogger like Saudi Raif Badawi is able to do what I do – and critics of the West living in the West do – without fear of the lash, then that will be a sign of progress.

Is it possible? The West’s own historical experience suggests that it is. In the 17th Century, Protestants and Catholics murdered each other in their hundreds and thousands. Germany in the 17th century, with its religious turf wars between Catholics and Protestants, was akin to today’s Iraq and Syria, with their own Sunni-Shia divides. In time, the religious wars of Europe burned themselves out. The Protestant and Catholic divide still exists today in Germany but no one is killing each other over it anymore. They have agreed to live and let live. How that happened is another story, too long and complicated to get into any detail here. Its contemporary significance is to show that a salvation-based religion, such as Christianity, can adapt to a world of secular pluralism. There is no reason why Islam itself could not do likewise. But it is going to take a long time.

Post script, 21 Feb 2017. Some brief reflections on the left-liberal criticism on the symbols of solidarity shown with France in the aftermath of the attacks in January and November 2015. It was interesting to consider how people like Brian Klug and Salon magazine stigmatised gestures like the colouring of Facebook profiles in the tricolour in the aftermath of the November attacks or the mass rally in the wake of Charlie Hebdo murders in January. Such collective expressions were entirely praiseworthy. In the wake of the attacks, enraged mobs did not descend on the Banlieues and murder its Muslim residents. In all too many places in the world, one reprisal follows another but not so in France. Not that the critics on the left were prepared to credit France and the French with such dignified, restrained responses. Instead, the gestures were considered on par with the acts they designed to rebuke. Curious days indeed. More on this in a future post.




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