Once again, Islamist terrorism has reached out and wreaked havoc in the West. On Friday night, ISIS gunmen and suicide bombers took the lives of 129 men and women and injured hundreds more. In the midst of this horror, President Francoise Hollande declared a territory-wide state of emergency and closed France’s borders. This is the second state of emergency called in the French hexagon since 1945, indicating the severity of the situation, as well as the government’s uncertainty about how to contain it.
Sadly, though, France is no stranger to terrorist attacks. The Armed Islamic Group (one of the main insurgent groups in the Algerian civil war) was responsible for the 1994 hijacking of Air France flight 8969, and bombings in 1995 and 1996 that killed more than a dozen and injured hundreds.
These attacks were extensions of the ongoing civil war in Algeria, something that separates them from the more recent model of Islamist terrorism in France. They were perpetrated by Algerians in the context of France’s colonial past and the still-bitter memory of the Algerian war for independence. Their motivations were largely political and easily identifiable.
The new model of terrorism, which includes Mohammed Merah’s killing spree in Toulouse (2012), three separate incidences involving a stabbing and vehicle rammings by men yelling “allahu akbar” (2014), and the Charlie Hebdo massacre (January 2015), has more to do with religious fervor than political goals.
It is a new kind of enemy that France, along with the rest of the world, faces. It’s a threat that doesn’t belong to just one country or nationality, but rather is united in global militant Islamism. Because of this, it is far more dangerous.
Did Charlie Hebdo Teach Us Nothing?
Friday’s attack comes just ten months after Islamists gunned down employees at the satirical magazine Charlie Hebdo for publishing images of Mohammed. Afterward, there was international outpouring of sympathy with the twitter hash tag #jesuischarlie (“I am Charlie”) saturating social media.
Yet those sentiments were quickly put aside in the name of tolerance. People became more concerned with fighting Islamaphobia than with fighting radical Islam. When Charlie Hebdo won the PEN freedom of speech award, several prominent authors boycotted, citing the publication’s “cultural intolerance” toward Islam.
What makes this weekend’s atrocity especially upsetting is the feeling that it could perhaps have been avoided. Perhaps if, upon the genuine emotional outpouring after the Charlie Hedbo massacre, people had then thought seriously about its causes and been willing to face the real threat of ISIS, maybe if they hadn’t so quickly taken refuge in the politically correct rhetoric of Islamaphobia, as President Obama did, if we weren’t all so afraid of offending, some of these lives might have been saved. It feels like the writing was on the wall.
We’re Deliberately Not Getting the Message
This is not to say that the French government has done nothing. After Charlie Hebdo, they passed a massive surveillance bill giving them more powers to monitor French citizens. They also joined United States-led aerial bombings of ISIS after intelligence emerged that Muslim French men were being recruited to train with ISIS, not to fight with them in the Middle East, but explicitly to return home to carry out attacks.
However, what persisted after Charlie Hebdo, and what continues to plague the Western world, is a paralyzing level of political correctness that prevents us from naming the real problem. For all the hand wringing and hashtags, the denial continued.
Our supposed solidarity with those who were killed was only a knee-jerk, albeit well-intentioned, reaction to the tragedy. People weren’t willing to go further and commit intellectually to the idea that there is a problem with militant Islam. Instead, the insistence that Islam was being “hijacked” drowned out the fact that groups like ISIS have just as much of a “right” to claim Islam as their religion as the many peaceful Muslims around the world do.
Within hours of the Paris attack on Friday, people had changed their Facebook photos to show solidarity with France. Monuments around the world were lit up in red, white, and blue. There was a brief moment of hope while watching the terror unfold that this time things would be different. That there would be no defense of the terrorists’ actions because this time the victims were people who had made no provocation or political statement. That this time, perhaps, it would be harder for people to make excuses. They couldn’t turn away from the reality of our world in the twenty-first century: radical Islam is real, they truly believe what they do is their religious duty, and they aren’t going to stop.
Yet, less than 24 hours after the attacks, the top-trending hashtag on Twitter was “Muslims are not terrorists.” Somehow that became the main takeaway from the horror. Not the dozens dead, or their mourning families. Not the motives of the killers or their affiliation with a group that strictly interprets and enforces Sharia law.
We Can’t Fight What We Won’t See
The media was appallingly quick to run to Islam’s defense. Salon published a piece Saturday morning titled “Our terrorism double standard: After Paris, let’s stop blaming Muslims and take a hard look at ourselves.” Before the dead were counted, or the families and friends notified, before anyone had much time to process the scale and sophistication of the attacks and what they portend for the future, the sentry had stepped forward to proclaim that this is a problem not with any sect of Islam, but with us, the contemptible West. ISIS is openly calling the Paris attack the “first of the storm” while we’re fretting over whether this might give Islam a bad image.
The point is not that all Muslims are suspect or that monolithic Islam is to blame. Nor that countries should unilaterally shut down immigration from Syria and Iraq. But neither should we avoid talking about the violent and radical sects that do exist within Islam and that have as their explicit goal attacking the West, whose way of life they so despise. We cannot ignore that at least one of the attackers got to France via Greece with other migrants from Syria, and that this could be a real source of terrorist infiltration.
We must be able to name our enemies. How can we possibly “destroy and degrade” ISIS if we don’t even acknowledge their motivations? At the Democratic Party primary debate Saturday night, Hillary Clinton repeatedly refused to say “radical Islam,” opting for the euphemistic “jihadi terrorism” instead.
Even Charlie Hebdo fell prey to this thinking this weekend. In a cartoon, they discussed the importance of naming one’s enemies, and in the next breath said our enemies are “those who love death.” Certainly. But in this case, that moniker belongs to militant Islam.
Everyone Doesn’t Want Peace
While the attacks were still in progress, Obama declared them an attack on “all of humanity” and the “universal values we share.” He, like many others, mistakenly thinks that everyone fundamentally wants peace and love and acceptance and tolerance. He lacks the imagination (or the historical knowledge) to see that people don’t all share the same values.
This world isn’t an ivory tower utopia. In the real world, people sometimes believe in something so fervently that they’re willing to do great violence.
We need to understand the values that ISIS and its followers around the world genuinely hold, and which are rooted in their interpretation of Islam. Putting a French flag filter over your Facebook picture is well-intentioned, but almost entirely meaningless, because for most people it is a hollow pledge of solidarity. Without letting go of our fear of offending, and opening up an honest and uncomfortable conversation about the serious and real threats of militant Islamism, we will not weather this storm.