What Are We to Make of the Attack in Paris?

News Abroad
tags: al-Qaeda, ISIS, Jihid



Andrew Seth Meyer is associate professor of history at CUNY Brooklyn College and the translator of "The Dao of the Military: Liu An's Art of War." This article was first published on the blog, Madman of Chu.


The heinous murder of artists, journalists, staff and police officers at the offices of Charlie Hebdo has opened a new phase in the global paroxysm that began on 9/11. The Paris attack marks the emergence of a new and potentially dangerously effective strategy for the jihadist movement. As at 9/11, U.S. and allied leaders stand at a watershed moment, and their response to this crime will impact the course of global affairs for the next decade or more.

One of the problems that has most vexed observers and analysts of our post-9/11 world is that of the context in which jihadism should be understood. Who are the jihadis? Why have they emerged in the times and places in which they operate, and what drives them? Formulating an effective response to the challenge obviously resides in first answering such questions.

The answer that most profoundly shaped the initial international response to 9/11 was that posited by the White House as a corollary of the "Bush Doctrine."  President George W. Bush was careful to avoid identifying jihadism with Islam more generally, declaring that "[o]ur war on terrorism has nothing to do with differences in faith," and that groups like Al-Qaeda had "hijacked a great religion in order to justify their evil deeds."

But in formulating its rationale for the invasion of Iraq, the Bush administration situated jihadism into an expansive context much broader than that of the material operation of Al-Qaeda and its affiliates. In this view, jihadism was an expression of a deep social pathology afflicting many Islamic nations, but particularly those of the Arab Middle East. If freedom and democracy could be forced to take root in that region, the effects would reverberate outward, eliminating the underlying causes of terrorism more effectively than the simple pursuit of terrorists where and when they act.

Whatever one's opinion of this concept, subsequent events have undermined its traction as a principle of policy. The human and material costs of spreading democracy in the Middle East through military occupation have proven politically unsustainable.  Though debates over the wisdom of ending the occupation of Iraq are likely to continue indefinitely, until some dramatically ameliorating effects are felt (in other words, until there are no more heinous terrorist attacks like that just perpetrated in Paris), there is virtually no likelihood that the U.S. or its allies will ever embark on a similarly conceived venture in the future. The chapter of post-9/11 global affairs in which the Bush Doctrine informed the response to jihadism is thus at a close.

From the outset, a dissident answer to the conundrum of jihadism was exemplified by critics like Michael Scheuer. A former CIA operative, Scheuer argued in his book Imperial Hubristhat the Bush administration's analysis of jihadism as a sociocultural pathology was misguided. Terrorism, in his view, was motivated by anger at U.S. foreign policy, and the actions of a group like Al-Qaeda should be viewed as "blowback" for the meddling in and exploitation of Middle Eastern countries by the American government and American corporations.

Though this view has held sway in many parts of the American left (and libertarian right), it has never made a real impact on U.S. policy. It has arguably been waning in influence, moreover, and the recent tragedy in Paris will no doubt undermine its persuasive power as much as it does that of the Bush Doctrine. If we follow Scheuer, the root causes of terrorism could (and should) be alleviated by changes in the foreign policy of the U.S. and its allies. But the attack on Charlie Hebdo can not plausibly be interpreted as "blowback." Would the murderers of Stephane Charbonnier and his colleagues be any less motivated to "avenge the Prophet" if, say, the U.S. withdrew its support from Israel or stopped drone attacks in Pakistan?  The logic of blowback does not help us make sense of this crime, or formulate a meaningful response.

Another alternative explanation of the phenomenon of jihadism is exemplified by critics such as Samuel Harris. Harris is an atheist and a self-professed liberal, but ideas analogous to his can be found on all parts of the political spectrum- right and left, secular and religious, moderate and extreme. Though varying widely in tone and logical coherence, these formulations commonly reject President Bush's assertion that "our war on terrorism has nothing to do with differences in faith." In this view, the origins of terrorism can not be disaggregated from the doctrine and practice of Islam. Islam exhorts its followers to violent jihad against the infidel, thus on some level a struggle against groups like Al-Qaeda and ISIS will inevitably and irreducibly be a struggle against Islam itself.

Unlike the "blowback" view, this perspective on the causes of and response to jihadism has been growing in influence, and is, understandably, likely to gain even more currency as a result of the murders in Paris.  The standard apologist response to the indictment against Islam, that jihadis like the murderers at Charlie Hebdo "are not real Muslims," is not credible in more than rhetorical terms. As Harris notes, many millions of Muslims, when polled as to whether transgressions such as defamation of the Prophet should be punishable by death, answer in the affirmative. Though there are scriptural and traditional precedents upon which one can draw to suggest that this view misunderstands the doctrine of Islam, there are likewise such resources that its proponents can cite in its defense. If, as we are forced to acknowledge, Islam is as Muslims do (and say), there is no way to completely acquit Islam of implication in the Paris murders and similar crimes. 

However, though jihadis may be real Muslims, and though understanding and engaging their Muslim identity is necessary for anyone who would effectively oppose them, reconfiguring the struggle against jihadism as a response to "Islam" is fundamentally misguided. This is not because of some ethical imperative for religious tolerance or multicultural sensitivity. Rather, trying to defeat jihadism with a "war on Islam" ignores the basic logic of how religious traditions operate in human society and politics. 

Any religious community, especially one as ancient, populous, and geographically dispersed as Islam, contains within it (in its scripture, rituals, literature, art, traditions, and institutions) a complex array of diverse and often mutually contradictory trends and imperatives. Is Islam a religion of "peace (the Arabic cognate of Islam- salaam)" or violent jihad? The only meaningful answer to this question is "yes."

At any given time, given the intrinsic volatility of human nature and the human condition,  almost all the potential tendencies of a religious tradition may be found in some part of its community. Thus in Christendom today we see Pope Francis I bathing the feet of prisoners in Rome while Terry Jones burns Korans in Florida, the Sisters of Charity nursing the sick in New York while the Lord's Army slaughters innocents in Uganda.  Parsing out which of these figures are "real Christians" is a futile exercise, and it is only slightly more so than trying to isolate the role of Christianity in their social conduct and profiles. Would any of these figures have acted in exactly the same manner if they were not Christian? Almost certainly not, but predicting how that difference would manifest itself is impossible.

The raw fact is that religion, pace the perspective of atheists like Samuel Harris, is an irreducible dimension of human social life. In everything we do, from the most mundane quotidian work to the most sublimely quixotic enterprises, we are faced with questions of ultimate value. Why does the world exist? What is life's purpose? How should we confront death? An individual may be able to go about his or her business without plumbing these questions too intently, but as soon as two or more people come together to attempt a project of even moderate complexity (build a house, start a family, found a city, wage a revolution) they require some sort of roughly consensual framework within which answers to these questions may be at least provisionally situated.

Every aspect of social life thus has at least a latent religious dimension, and every social project or conflict into which a community enters will implicate all of the religious commitments they have already made and any of the religious traditions they already inhabit. A Christian society that experiences some sort of trauma will respond in a way that expresses Christian values and traditions. But because Christianity is itself so multifaceted, and because people are ultimately free to select from, interpret, and transform their religion in ways that serve their perceived social interests and needs, the "Christian" responses to a crisis that emerge from the same community will almost invariably be numerous and mutually divergent. Every such moment of change thus constitutes three types of negotiation simultaneously: 1)a struggle over the new shape of society; 2)a struggle over the new relationship of religious to other social institutions; 3)a struggle over how the doctrines and practices of the religion will be interpreted moving forward.

Many cases could be taken to illustrate the point. That of Girolamo Savonarola, the charismatic Dominican friar who rose to become theocrat of fifteenth century Florence, is instructive. Italy at the time was in the throes of the Renaissance, a period of dramatic dislocation similar to our own age of globalization. Commercialization, urbanization, the rise of the bourgeoisie, and the flourishing of humanist art and literature were radically transforming the shape of Italian society. As all such revolutions, it benefited some groups and individuals disproportionately, creating winners and losers. Savonarola gave voice to all those who felt left behind by the new order of things. He preached a return to fundamental Christian values of austerity, humility, community, and faith, a turning back of the Renaissance tide. He famously ordered a "bonfire of the vanities," in which all of the humanist art and literature Florence had created were set aflame.

Unfortunately for Savonarola, the Catholic Church had by that time become an enthusiastic participant in and beneficiary of the Renaissance revolution. His tirades against ecclesiastical wealth and worldliness set him at odds with Pope Alexander VI, who was busy employing artists and sculptors to adorn the Vatican. Both men were wholly and authentically Catholic. If one had used today's empirical methods to test them one might have found very little daylight between them on points of doctrine. For example, if asked in a survey "Is luxury a source of sin?" both men would almost certainly have answered "yes." Yet Alexander felt no qualms about issuing an order for Savonarola's excommunication from the splendor of his palace in Rome.

So did Christianity create Savonarola or destroy him (he burned at the stake on the orders of a clerical tribunal in 1498)? The answer, again, can only be "yes." He and Pope Alexander were engaged in a struggle over the shape of both Italy and Christianity. If Savonarola had won, the Reformation might never have occurred, and the Sistine Chapel might look more like a Quaker meeting house than the ornate masterpiece that stands today. The more secular among us may dismiss him as a figure who was hopelessly out of step with modernity, but his writings continue to be studied and respected by Christian theologians of all denominations today.

The position of jihadis in relation to the greater world of Islam today is an analogous case. The vast majority of victims killed by Al-Qaeda, ISIS, and other jihadi groups were (and are) fellow Muslims. Some of this violence can be put down to sectarian or ethnic strife, but just as much of it is rooted in a contest over how Islamic values should be realized in society and politics (should civil law be taken from shar'iah? on whose authority? does Islam preclude the education of women, etc?), a conflict that is playing out among Muslims themselves much more intensely than between Muslims and "infidels." In the same way that one can not deny the authentic Muslim identity of Ayman al-Zawahiri or Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, one can not do so for that of Benazir Bhutto or Malala Yousafzai.

Given that we are witnessing a struggle for Islam within global Muslim society at large, it is supremely ill-advised for the leaders and citizens of the non-Muslim world to embark upon a struggle against Islam. Such a strategy can only strengthen the hand of those most hostile to pluralism and tolerance, and weaken those in the Muslim community most committed to peace and shared prosperity.  This fact is made clear by the jihadi strategy embodied in the most recent Paris attack. 

Why target satirists?  Today's industrial democracies constitute a world in which "nothing is sacred," which is to say, one no longer inhabited by figures or institutions possessed of the total and unrestrained power wielded in the fifteenth century by Pope Alexander (or more recently by figures like Hitler or Franco). The postmodern denizens of this world can no longer venerate any symbol or value with complete sincerity, in part out of suspicion of possible abuse. Thus matters of ultimate significance can only be genuinely cast in ironic and satirical terms,  and the freedom to lampoon icons or institutions has become one of the last unequivocally cherished ideals of the social contract.  

For those living in countries like Syria, Egypt, or Saudi Arabia, this state of affairs is an inscrutable enigma. It is not merely the suppression of free speech that gives rise to this incomprehension, but the cultural dynamics of power with which many Muslims have to contend. To someone living under the rule of Hosni Mubarak, Bashar al-Assad, or Saddam Hussein, the sacrosanct status of Muslim icons and institutions provided the little latitude for safe movement and communication to be found in an otherwise lethally repressive society: some slight shelter from the secret police and the torturer could be sought in the mosque. The failure of such protections, moreover, was invariably cataclysmic and deadly serious, as when thousands were slaughtered in Hama, Syria to punish local Islamists in 1982.  We might hope that those living in this environment would yet object to the murders at Charlie Hebdo, but it would be a far stretch to expect them to understand the reasons for the anguish and outrage occasioned by this act in France, the U.S. and elsewhere. 

This is the pernicious logic underpinning the Paris murders. On this issue in particular, many Muslims and non-Muslims are viewing one-another as if through a funhouse mirror, ill-equipped to understand one another's perspective. The terrorists who planned and ordered the Paris attack have discovered a perfect leverage point at which to drive a wedge between Muslim and non-Muslim society. Because the power of jihadis requires the maximally illiberal configuration of social and political forces in their own countries, and because they understand that Islamic identity is one of the few sources of personal empowerment experienced by multitudes throughout the Middle East, jihadis hope to enlist non-Muslims to broadcast the message that liberal values and Islam are fundamentally incompatible. Groups like ISIS are confident that people forced to choose between Islam and liberal ideals will choose Islam, and that the Islam that emerges from that negotiation will perfectly facilitate jihadi control of state and society. 

This is a trap that the U.S. and its allies should obviously avoid. But how, then, to respond? In the short term, we should protect our artists, journalists, and entertainers from further attacks, as there are bound to be more. Even if fear dampens the impulse to satire, jihadis are likely to search out any expression that can be construed as offensive to Islam and make its authors a target. We should not allow such provocations to be fulfilled. Every threat must be treated seriously, every care taken to prevent tragedy.

In the wider scheme of things, America and its allies should refuse to engage the jihadis on their own terms. ISIS and Al-Qaeda declare that the goals Muslims care about- Palestinian independence, the liberation of Syria from the Assad regime, a fairer distribution of the Middle East's wealth- can only be realized through a holy war to establish a particular kind of restrictive religious order. As long as these goals remain unrealized and out of reach, jihadis are empowered to exploit the resulting disaffection, disunity and strife to seize control of the societies in which they operate. If the U.S. uses its political, economic, and (with due deference to the lesson of the failures of the Bush Doctrine) military power to effect meaningful change in these arenas, the support Al Qaeda, ISIS, and other jihadi groups currently enjoy will erode out from under them. A holy war is a war that jihadis will invariably win. To defeat the jihadis, we should not undertake a struggle against Islam, but work to foster the conditions that will secure a positive outcome in the ongoing struggle for Islam.



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