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The Charlie Hebdo Massacre and France’s Islamism problem

Jan 9, 2015

The Charlie Hebdo Massacre and France's Islamism problem

Update from AIJAC

January 9, 2014
Number 01/15 #02

This Update is devoted to just a few of the most interesting of the many comments being made around the world in the wake of the horrifying massacre of 12 people at the French satirical magazine Charlie Hebdo on Wednesday, with victims including not only the editor, but several well-known French cartoonists and other journalists. (An eyewitness account from journalist Claire Berlinski, who happened by chance to arrive on the scene in the immediate aftermath, is here.)

We lead with with George Packer of the New Yorker magazine, who weighs in to the debate about who beyond the immediate perpetrators bears responsibility for this attack. He says this must be understood as part of a larger attempt by an ideology to achieve power through terror over several decades – but says this reality is often being avoided or obscured because this ideology is the byproduct of a major international faith, Islam. While of course, it is both wrong and unhelpful to attribute this act to the large majority of Muslims who deplore such violence, it is also necessary to recognise that the perpetrators of this act were acting as “soldiers in a war against freedom of thought and speech, against tolerance, pluralism, and the right to offend—against everything decent in a democratic society” in the name of this ideology. For this important big-picture look at what is behind this act of terror, CLICK HERE.

Next up is noted American journalist Jeffrey Goldberg, who notes that while the international slogan, “Je Suis Charlie”/”We are all Charlie” is natural and helpful in response to this massacre, it is also frequently not true. Goldberg notes that major international news outlets are refusing to republish Charlie Hebdo content out of fear of inviting further violence – and this amounts to “cowering before the threat of totalitarian violence.” Further, some journalists and politicians are essentially arguing that by offending Muslim sensitivities, Charlie Hebdo was almost inviting this violence – including, indirectly, US President Barack Obama (whom Goldberg generally admires and supports) in a UN speech in 2012. For his explanation of what real solidarity with Charlie Hebdo amounts to, CLICK HERE. More on how Charlie Hebdo stood alone in the past in the face of extreme Islamist threats comes from British writer Douglas Murray.

Finally, offering a good look at the France’s wider problem with Islamist extremism is American scholar Reuel Marc Gerecht. Gerecht notes that France’s internal security agency, the Direction central du renseignement intérieur (DCRI), is easily the most effective in Western Europe, and has long been anticipating this sort of blowback from the Middle East among France’s large Muslim minority, yet were still unable to stop this attack. He notes that both the declining appeal of the European or French identity to Muslim immigrants, and spread of antisemitism in these communities, bodes ill for both France’s and Europe’s ability to manage this threat. For this argument in full, CLICK HERE. Offering more details on the flow of European Muslims into the Syrian civil war and especially to ISIS, and the link to this attack, is Avi Issacharoff of the Times of Israel. More on the France’s ongoing challenges in the aftermath comes from Jim Hoagland of the Washington Post.

Readers may also be interested in:


The Blame for the Charlie Hebdo Murders

By George Packer

New Yorker, Jan. 7

The murders today in Paris are not a result of France’s failure to assimilate two generations of Muslim immigrants from its former colonies. They’’re not about French military action against the Islamic State in the Middle East, or the American invasion of Iraq before that. They’’re not part of some general wave of nihilistic violence in the economically depressed, socially atomized, morally hollow West, —the Paris version of Newtown or Oslo. Least of all should they be “understood” as reactions to disrespect for religion on the part of irresponsible cartoonists.

They are only the latest blows delivered by an ideology that has sought to achieve power through terror for decades. It’’s the same ideology that sent Salman Rushdie into hiding for a decade under a death sentence for writing a novel, then killed his Japanese translator and tried to kill his Italian translator and Norwegian publisher. The ideology that murdered three thousand people in the U.S. on September 11, 2001. The one that butchered Theo van Gogh in the streets of Amsterdam, in 2004, for making a film. The one that has brought mass rape and slaughter to the cities and deserts of Syria and Iraq. That massacred a hundred and thirty-two children and thirteen adults in a school in Peshawar last month. That regularly kills so many Nigerians, especially young ones, that hardly anyone pays attention.

Because the ideology is the product of a major world religion, a lot of painstaking pretzel logic goes into trying to explain what the violence does, or doesn’t, have to do with Islam. Some well-meaning people tiptoe around the Islamic connection, claiming that the carnage has nothing to do with faith, or that Islam is a religion of peace, or that, at most, the violence represents a “distortion” of a great religion. (After suicide bombings in Baghdad, I grew used to hearing Iraqis say, “No Muslim would do this.”) Others want to lay the blame entirely on the theological content of Islam, as if other religions are more inherently peaceful –— a notion belied by history as well as scripture.

A religion is not just a set of texts but the living beliefs and practices of its adherents. Islam today includes a substantial minority of believers who countenance, if they don’’t actually carry out, a degree of violence in the application of their convictions that is currently unique. Charlie Hebdo had been nondenominational in its satire, sticking its finger into the sensitivities of Jews and Christians too, —but only Muslims responded with threats and acts of terrorism. For some believers, the violence serves a will to absolute power in the name of God, which is a form of totalitarianism called Islamism— – politics as religion, religion as politics. “Allahu Akbar!” the killers shouted in the street outside Charlie Hebdo. They, at any rate, know what they’’re about.

These thoughts don’’t offer a guide to mitigating the astonishing surge in Islamist killing around the world. Rage and condemnation don’’t do the job, nor is it helpful to alienate the millions of Muslims who dislike what’’s being done in the name of their religion. Many of them immediately condemned the attack on Charlie Hebdo, in tones of anguish particular to those whose deepest beliefs have been tainted. The answer always has to be careful, thoughtful, and tailored to particular circumstances. In France, it will need to include a renewed debate about how the republic can prevent more of its young Muslim citizens from giving up their minds to a murderous ideology, —how more of them might come to consider Mustapha Ourrad, a Charlie Hebdo copy editor of Algerian descent who was among the victims, a hero. In other places, the responses have to be different, with higher levels of counter-violence.

But the murders in Paris were so specific and so brazen as to make their meaning quite clear. The cartoonists died for an idea. The killers are soldiers in a war against freedom of thought and speech, against tolerance, pluralism, and the right to offend— against everything decent in a democratic society. So we must all try to be Charlie, not just today but every day.

George Packer became a staff writer in 2003.

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We Are Not All Charlie

It is easy to express solidarity with murdered cartoonists, but it is difficult to live as bravely as they did.

The police are evacuating the Gare du Nord station in Paris as my train from Brussels arrives; a suspicious package, I learned later. The rain is coming down quite hard. I resist the urge to interview my taxi driver about the current mood.

We see a blue “Je Suis Charlie” sign on a lamppost. Very nice. But the sentiment is partially a conceit. We are not all Charlie. Much of Europe, which, as a political entity, is not fully grappling with the totalitarian madness of Islamism, is not Charlie. Certainly much of journalism is not Charlie. Any outlet that censors Charlie Hebdo cartoons out of fear of Islamist reprisal is not Charlie. To publish the cartoons now is a necessary, but only moderately brave, act. Please remember: Even after Charlie Hebdo was firebombed in 2011, it continued to publish rude and funny satires mocking the essential ridiculousness of the Islamist worldview. That represented a genuine display of bravery. CNN, the Associated Press, and the many other media organizations that are cowering before the threat of totalitarian violence represent something other than bravery.

Here is someone who is not Charlie: Tony Barber, of the Financial Times, who wrote yesterday: “Charlie Hebdo has a long record of mocking, baiting and needling French Muslims. If the magazine stops just short of outright insults, it is nevertheless not the most convincing champion of the principle of freedom of speech. France is the land of Voltaire, but too often editorial foolishness has prevailed at Charlie Hebdo.”

Editorial foolishness!

He went on: “This is not in the slightest to condone the murderers, who must be caught and punished, or to suggest that freedom of expression should not extend to satirical portrayals of religion. It is merely to say that some common sense would be useful at publications such as Charlie Hebdo, and Denmark’s Jyllands-Posten, which purport to strike a blow for freedom when they provoke Muslims, but are actually just being stupid.” (Some of these lines have since been edited out of Barber’s “expanded and updated” FT column without explanation.)

Stupid is in the eye of the beholder. To me, it seems stupid and self-destructive to let men with guns tell us what we can or cannot write, or read.

Do you know who else isn’t Charlie? Barack Obama isn’t Charlie. This is from a speech the president delivered to the United Nations General Assembly in 2012:

The future must not belong to those who slander the prophet of Islam. But to be credible, those who condemn that slander must also condemn the hate we see in the images of Jesus Christ that are desecrated, or churches that are destroyed, or the Holocaust that is denied.

I wish President Obama had not said this, for a number of reasons, not the least of which is that the Holocaust is an historical fact, and church desecrations are physical crimes against property; neither vandalism nor the denial of historical reality compare to the mocking of unprovable religious beliefs. (And yes, I find attacks on the principles of my faith painful, but I would defend the right of people to make such attacks; I’m opposed, for instance, to the criminalization of Holocaust denial.)

Mainly, Obama’s statement is troubling because it should be the role of the president of the United States, who swears an oath to defend the Constitution, to explain to the world the principle that free speech is sacred—painful, sometimes, but sacred. If the future does not belong to those who slander the prophet of Islam—in other words, to people who speak freely and offensively—then it belongs to those who would suppress by force any criticism of religion. This is not an American idea, and it certainly isn’t Charlie.

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France and the New Charismatic Jihad

Worries about autonomous jihadist cells appear to have been realized in Paris

The terrorist attack in Paris on Wednesday—with 12 people killed by masked men yelling Islamist slogans— has been a long time coming.

After the 9/11 attacks on the U.S., Western counterterrorist experts probably feared European radical Muslims more than they did Islamic militants in the Middle East. Since the early 1990s, when Algeria’’s savage war between the military junta and Islamists began to spill over into France, the French internal-security service, now known as the Direction central du renseignement intérieur, or DCRI, began to ramp up its capacity to monitor Muslim militants.

On Nov. 27, 2001, France’s premier counterterrorist magistrate, Jean-Louis Bruguière, was pessimistic about “autonomous” jihadist cells in Europe and North America that “don’t need to receive orders to pass into action.” The Iraq War added to this widespread anxiety. Many believed that the Anglo-American invasion would provoke a maelstrom of holy warriors against the West.

It didn’’t happen then. But it may be happening now.

The lethal attack in Paris on the satirical magazine Charlie Hebdo —which has made a specialty of mocking both sides of the too-much-Islam-in-Europe debate, and in 2012 famously published caricatures of the Prophet Muhammad —probably isn’t a lone-wolf affair. But it may represent what Mr. Bruguière feared: native jihadist cells that can act independently of foreign terrorist organizations, like al Qaeda or Islamic State, but may act in concert, and certainly in sympathy, with these groups.

The DCRI, easily the most effective domestic-intelligence organization in Western Europe, has been sounding the alarm for over a year, warning that the Syrian insurrection against the Bashar Assad regime was becoming too bloody and too irresistibly magnetic for French Sunni Muslims. Several hundred of them have traveled to Syria and Iraq to fight under the banner of Islamic State and other radical groups. Hundreds of other European Muslims appear to have joined them. The French bastion against domestic terror appears to be cracking.

This isn’’t good news, because America’s dependence on the French service and Great Britain’’s domestic-intelligence outfit, MI5, cannot be overstated. They are part of America’s front line in the war against Islamic holy warriors. Take away communications intercepts, an American forte, and Washington has effectively no unilateral capacity to monitor Islamic militants on European soil. Other Western European services are quick to confess that the British and French are their models and have been indispensable in their own efforts to understand and check Islamic radicalism in a continent that is now effectively without borders.

If the French, who have more policemen and security officers per capita than any other Western country, cannot monitor and check Muslim extremists at home, Islamic radicals in Europe and elsewhere will surely take note.

The ability of Western European citizens to travel without visas offers enormous opportunities for jihadists whose dream target remains the U.S. There are now so many European Muslims it is impossible for American officials to identify suspect radicals without European assistance. Even random, targeted selections and entry denials, based on best guesses, could cause serious diplomatic problems with America’s European allies, who must protect the travel rights of their citizens. The Europeans carry the heavy load of American security in addition to their own.

The rise of Islamic State in Syria and Iraq—the first time jihadism has successfully conquered and occupied any large territory— has introduced a historically evocative charisma into Islamic fundamentalism. Islamic charismatics are always bad news for Westerners, even if their primary targets are Shiites, Kurds and Yazidis. The spillover is unavoidable, given the anti-Western core of modern Islamic militancy.

Part of the problem for Europe is undeniably home-brewed. The alarming, so far unchecked rise of anti-Semitism and violence against European Jews that is practiced by both Muslim and non-Muslim Europeans isn’t coincidental to the increase of Islamic terrorism in Europe. Contrary to the bizarre contention of U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry , Israel and the travails of the Israeli-Palestinian peace process had nothing to do with the rise of Islamic State and the birth of a new jihadism that is far more appealing than the less territorially successful jihadism of al Qaeda. Anti-Semitism has become inseparable from the gospel of a charged Islamic identity. (Western anti-Semitism, traditional Islamic suspicion of Jews, and anti-Zionism have congealed.) Anti-Semitism goes up in Europe as the appeal of a European identity to Muslims goes down.

Anti-Semitism nourishes the radical Islamic vision of a humbled Europe, once the motherland of imperialism. It encourages the idea that Muslims can dictate the terms of European expression about Islam. Not that long ago, Muslims couldn’’t have cared less what Europeans thought about them or their prophet. Christians and Jews were infidels, after all, benighted souls not worth bothering with. That has changed as Europe’’s Muslim population has grown and radicalized, and as traditional Islamic injunctions from the homelands were imported into an ultra-tolerant, increasingly politically correct Europe.

The French identity, more open than most European identities, has appealed to millions of Muslim immigrants. Thoughtful French intellectuals just a decade ago hoped that “French Islam” might work. A decade of troubles, including large riots in predominantly Muslim suburbs, increasingly lethal anti-Semitism, and now terrorism have stirred serious doubts even among the most optimistic.

Americans ought to hope that the French can get all of this right. If they can, then this horrible moment, too, shall pass. If they can’’t— and it isn’’t clear that the French can solve their worst counterterrorist problems unless Islamic State is demagnetized (pre-eminently an American military problem)— then the grim analysis in 2001 by Judge Bruguière may prove prescient.

Mr. Gerecht, a former Middle East-targets officer in the Central Intelligence Agency’s clandestine service, is a senior fellow at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies.

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