The terrorist attacks continue relentlessly in quick succession. Blood has been spilled on the streets of Algiers, Cairo, Tel Aviv, Madrid, Tunis, Islamabad, Baghdad, Bali, Bombay, New York, London, Paris and San Bernardino. For decades only Muslim countries were targeted. Jihadi violence — once barricaded within the lands of Islam by dictatorial regimes or civil wars — has been exported to the West.
It struck America on Sept. 11, 2001. People wondered if it was the fault of U.S. foreign policy. It struck Charlie Hebdo and the Kosher supermarket on Jan. 7, 2015. People wondered whether the cause lay in the growing alienation of Muslims from mainstream society. The Anglo-Saxon media also insinuated that France was targeted more often because Muslims there aren’t well-integrated, misunderstanding and sometimes misrepresenting the law to protect the neutrality of state schools from religious signs or the burka ban.
President Obama and enthusiasts of American « soft power » implied that America had managed this issue far better, conveniently overlooking that we don’t have the same colonial past, that there are a much smaller percentage of Muslims living in America and that those that can afford to travel to the United States tend to be on average better educated and less impoverished.
To hear them all speak, they say France got it all wrong: while the killings were terrible, hadn’t they brought it on themselves? We must all fight for freedom of expression, but it has to be exercised responsibly, they wailed. The right to commit blasphemy (to make fun of all beliefs and dogmas) could seem racist; secularism (which concerns all religions) could seem « Islamophobic. »
This right, a core component of secularism — in essence a reaction to fanaticism — is presented as a form of hate against Muslims, despite the fact that discrimination and incitement of hatred towards Muslims or any minority is forbidden by French anti-racist laws.
Jihadism results from fanaticism. It is not a direct result of « Islamophobia » — as the apologist rhetoric from ISIS and many others claim. Terrorist attacks will continue even if we import U.S. affirmative action programs based on ethnic and not on social criteria, which is the case today in France. No doubt ISIS will abandon victimization as a recruiting strategy, to secularism itself or equal rights between men and women. It is far enough for them to blame free countries.
We don’t hear much from the detractors of the French model following the recent terrorist attack in San Bernardino. An attack perpetrated by well-integrated American citizens and parents, radicalized like everywhere else.
Yet the demonstration is clear: jihadism is not linked to any one model. It recruits worldwide, from all backgrounds and all countries. It’s in the city centre of Algiers just as it lies in the French suburbs; among the poor, as well as among Saudi billionaires and the British and American middle classes.
Jihadism is a totalitarian and sectarian ideology. It can recruit from among the poor, but not just them. Many of the most dangerous terrorists were well-educated and grew up in middle-class families. It is not a social or cultural symptom. We have to stop providing excuses for it and hold it to account. All democracies should see themselves as allies in this fight, instead of seeking to claim cultural superiority.
America’s secularism and France’s have different origins. America’s was built on religious freedom while France’s was built on freedom of conscience. Inevitably this leads us to different ways of tackling the intellectual roots of jihadism or fanaticism.
France sees fanaticism as the political manipulation of religion with the aim of destroying our freedoms. A majority French people refuse the relativist complacency towards radicalization, which is the result of a wrong, cowardly and politically motivated interpretation of multiculturalism.
This approach is sometimes at risk of racism and xenophobia. But not everything that is described as « Islamophobia » is necessarily racist or xenophobic. The word is too often misused by those seeking to silence their critics through implications of racism. It is sometimes brandished by fundamentalist associations trying to label searches of Salafist mosques or laws banning religious symbols in state schools as racist, all in the name of equal opportunities.
In the case of political instrumentation growing with the fear of Islamism, which country can claim to be protected? Donald Trump, who is clearly racist and Islamophobic, is more right-wing than Marion Maréchal Le Pen, who succeeded in uniting both the French right and left against her.
In France, we have fewer hate crimes (a few cases of assaults on women wearing the veil, graffiti on mosques and desecration of cemeteries). In America, the numbers exploded following September 11 and San Bernadino, and tripled in England after the terrorist attacks in Paris.
That means that neither the British nor the American model prevents Islamophobia. So, can we stop blaming our respective models, respect them as part of our different histories, and face these fanatic threats together?