When there’s some big event in the news, like the recent brutal attack on the Charlie Hebdo offices in Paris, I usually don’t post about it. It just always seems to me that enough people are commenting—people like me who don’t have any specialist knowledge; as well as all sorts of experts, who do.
This time, though, I feel moved to comment, mostly to emphasize two points in particular:
1. The real purpose of the terrorism
This comes from an article called “Sharpening Contradictions: Why al-Qaeda attacked Satirists in Paris,” by Juan Cole.
According to Cole, the purpose of this terrorist attack wasn’t just to kill those specific people to punish them for publishing supposedly anti-Islam cartoons. The purpose was bigger than that: to polarize the two communities so that more young Muslims would be susceptible to a radical extremist message.
By carrying out a vicious attack while claiming a Koranic justification, these extremists intentionally incited anger against the whole Muslim community.
And sure enough, the opinion pieces appeared right away in the press stating that the problem is Islam in general: claiming that Islam is a violent, backward religion at its core, and that we should stop appeasing Muslims. Ayaan Hirsi Ali, for example, expressed this opinion in the Wall Street Journal.
Such messages undoubtedly anger Muslims, and if you add that insult to the longstanding difficulty of their lives in Western countries—marginalized, poor—it seems likely that more young European Muslims will radicalize.
I believe it is possible—even probable—that this was the actual intention of this attack: to increase the number of recruits for Al Qaeda and similar groups by inciting hatred of Muslims. And my guess is that it will succeed. More people, including prominent politicians and reporters, will speak out against Islam. Anti-Muslim actions, whether violent or not, will be more frequent. As a result, Muslims, especially young ones, will be even more marginalized.
2. The role of moderate Muslims
The second point is a consequence of the first. Actually, it could stand alone as well, even if incitement of hatred of Muslims was not the actual purpose of the attack in Paris.
While it is heartening to hear moderate Muslims speaking out, saying “That isn’t my Islam,” I would argue that speaking out isn’t enough.
New York Times columnist Roger Cohen argued a few days ago that moderate Muslims are partially to blame for the terrorism because they don’t “fully denounce” the terrorists’ actions.
I don’t think that’s the main problem. Sure, protesting against Islamic terrorism is important in order to let non-Muslims know that terrorists don’t represent all Muslims. But even the most vocal protest won’t change the minds of the extremists themselves.
I think it needs to go much further than denouncing the jihadists. You, the moderate Muslim community: you are the ones who have to take the primary responsibility for fixing this situation.
You’ve already been doing part of it for years: reaching out to the surrounding non-Muslim community to combat prejudice against Muslims, to increase access for Muslims to education, housing, jobs, etc. That certainly needs to continue.
But besides reaching outward, you need to reach inward: into your own community. It’s not enough to talk about how the extremists do not represent the majority of Muslims. You need to try to reduce extremism. That means going into your mosques, going into your communities, and reaching out to the same young people the extremists reach out to. They need to hear your message of moderation to counter-act the message that terrorism is acceptable, and even rewarded. They need to hear it from you, the moderate Muslims—not from us non-Muslims.
The larger, mostly white, mostly Christian community in Europe can make all the speeches they want about the importance of free speech and freedom of belief. They’re preaching to the choir. They can’t reach the young people who are most susceptible to radicalization because they won’t be listened to. You, on the other hand, can. I don’t know, being an outsider myself, but I suppose that some programs are already in place to counter-balance the extremist messages coming in. You need to broaden and intensify them.
Your voices, turned inward, are key to preventing more terrorist attacks in Europe. And they’re key to improving the position of your community.
Add your comments below, if you feel so moved. Keep it polite please!