You would think that the Paris terrorist attacks offer a chance for western intellectuals to reflect not react. We have been involved with issues of radical Islam for more than 20 years. What have we learned? What is the so-called clash of civilizations? What are we to do about Islam?
Maybe thoughtfulness was impossible. The attack was directly on speech, on the way that journalists make their living, and so there have been a great number of intemperate responses from writers who live far from Paris. Roger Cohen called on the west to respond ruthlessly to the attack. OK, yes ruthless toward the perpetrators, but who else should we go after? Their enablers and their ideologues, he told Justin Raimondo, indicating that it is a widely-held vision of the world we must fight. That is similar to the view of French premier Manuel Valls, who has declared “war” on Islamic radicalism. George Packer wrote a piece in The New Yorker that is getting widely denounced as shades of 2001, in which he said the curtain has been pulled back and we are in a battle with an extremist ideology that “is the product of a major world religion.” Packer seemed to be justifying his own support for the Iraq war as a means of disabling radical Islam. But one of the radicals in the Charie Hebdo murders was himself radicalized by the Iraq war, according to accounts. So what would another spasm of Middle East shock and awe achieve? More dead Arab children, more Kouachis. Isn’t that a big part of the problem?
There have been some thoughtful responses. Raimondo, a conservative, points out there are material causes for Islamic terrorism, including French colonialism and western war/occupation. The Kouachis were French citizens, born in France—despite the New York Times’s casual characterization of them as immigrants. And James North says that most terrorist violence falls into the category of policeable activity, which is to say it is best solved by informants within the community from which it arises. He sent along the dramatic graphic above. It goes without saying that almost all Muslims are as disturbed by the attacks as anyone else and that they are the best folks to deal with radical Islam, to lead their religion away from this response to oppression and inequality.
I’m a modern. I don’t doubt that there are plenty of codes inside Islam that radicals can draw upon. But that’s true of all traditional religions. They are human creations filled with godly justifications for gore. Just the other day I did a report on a Jewish leader, a former congressman, who has called for banning speech critical of Israel inside the Jewish community and cited a bible passage in which a rebel and his followers are swallowed up by the fiery earth for going against god. That’s not a very peaceable code now, is it? Last summer a friend of mine seeing the Gaza slaughter, in which hundreds of children were killed and a good number of journalists too, said, This is making me really anti-Semitic. He was convinced, as George Packer is, that something in the religion had produced the atrocity– in Islam’s case an intolerance of free thought, in Judaism’s case the rabid ethnic self-centeredness so evident in Zionist political culture. I didn’t try and argue with my friend, though I did point out that a growing number of Jews oppose Israel’s militarism, and are taking on the leading Jewish orgs.
As a non-traditional religious person myself, I think the sooner we rid ourselves of these oldtime codes the better. They serve to separate humanity more than they bring it together.
But there are relatively few people like me. Hordes of folks get direction in life from these religions and they are not going away any time soon. Even if George Packer is right that Islam is the problem, what can we do about that? Muslims are people too, there are 2 billion of them, they outnumber Christians, and the planet is getting smaller by the day. You would think that the Charlie Hebdo murders are a time to instruct greater tolerance, to learn to get along with different types of people on this little ship we call the earth…. And yes, to emphasize that free speech is an animating principle of democracy, even speech for racists and Islamophobes, like some of the content of Charlie Hebdo.
David Brooks says that even racist speech must be allowed, and that in the west we hear anti-Semites through veils of opprobrium. But that is another lesson of the Hebdo murders: We actually don’t allow the expression of anti-semitism or anything near it in legitimate venues, while Islamophobia is expressed in mainstream places. As Andrew Sulllivan pointed out, people lose their jobs for saying anything that is vaguely critical of Jews in France; pro-Palestinian demonstrations have been barred at times in France; and the good priest Bruce Shipman lost his job at Yale last summer for for suggesting that maybe Israel’s behavior—PS it slaughtered 2300 Palestinians last summer in an orgy of violence– played a role in the rise of anti-Semitism in Europe. Our free speech codes are patently hypocritical.
And though I think of myself as a libertarian, I’m writing for a site that censors, or tries to, expressions of Islamophobia and anti-Semitism and racism. We adopted this policy because we think it is important to build a diverse community; and gosh, people are driven away by prejudice.
Speaking of double standards, our obsession with radical Islam overlooks the incredible peacefulness of most Arab societies (Cairo is one of the safest huge cities you can ever visit, James North has said here) and the wide destruction we’ve wrought in the Middle East. Steve Walt used to keep a counter on how many Muslims we’ve killed– over 200,000 Muslims a few years ago. Bill Kristol and George Packer and Roger Cohen seem to think the answer is to undertake actions that will kill more, because we are now in a civilizational clash. That will just radicalize more Kouachis and make us all more unsafe.
I don’t mean to diminish the great struggle that Arab societies and Islam are now experiencing as tradition confronts modernity. These are huge social/philosophical conflicts, not so different from the ones that filled the streets of Paris with blood 200 years ago, and I’m on the modern side, of personal freedom over tradition, of cosmopolitanism over fundamentalism. I’m all for women marathoners in Gaza. But as a great Palestinian/Jewish/Christian teacher once said, the mote in The Other’s eye is bigger than the beam in ours, and now I will go where I always do in these debates. Zionism is a European movement aimed at (liberating Jews and) colonizing a Middle Eastern land. If the New York Times can get away with saying that the Kouachi brothers undertook jobs typical of immigrants – when it was their parents who moved to France, from a colonial holding of France – how should we refer to Israel’s foreign minister, who moved to the country from Moldova when people born in the country were not allowed to return to their homes, and who has come up with a peace plan to pay off even more indigenous people to leave their own lands?
If I’m obsessed with Zionism it’s because it’s part of this civilizational misunderstanding, and concern for Palestinian human rights was a factor in at least one of the French terrorists’ rabid anti-Semitism; again, Zionists killed 500 children in Gaza last summer because they were the wrong religion. If I’m obsessed with Zionism, it’s because the State Department warned 70 years ago we’d have endless conflict in that region if a Jewish state was established in Palestine, and because just last year the head of the State Department said that the Palestinian conflict is a material source of terrorist violence. John Kerry, speaking to Muslims at Eid:
As I went around and met with people in the course of our discussions about the ISIL coalition, the truth is we – there wasn’t a leader I met with in the region who didn’t raise with me spontaneously the need to try to get peace between Israel and the Palestinians, because it was a cause of recruitment and of street anger and agitation that they felt – and I see a lot of heads nodding – they had to respond to. And people need to understand the connection of that. And it has something to do with humiliation and denial and absence of dignity, and Eid celebrates the opposite of all of that
If I’m obsessed with Zionism, it’s because I’m Jewish and know that Jewish culture formed elements of my thinking I’m deeply proud of; but this is a time when all religious organizations should examine their codes and consider what works and what doesn’t to make our societies peaceful and respectful.