THE BLOG
01/13/2015 11:50 am ET Updated Mar 15, 2015

How the Massive Response to the Charlie Hebdo Attack Will Backfire

ASSOCIATED PRESS

President Obama has been faulted for not attending a huge unity rally in Paris in the wake of attacks there by Islamist terrorists, but his sense of proportion may look somewhat different as soon as six months from now. Was this a mobilization rally, preparing France for the "war on radical Islam" that Prime Minister Manuel Valls has declared? If so, then the message to ISIS, Al Qaeda and their sympathizers is not, "You are criminals, and we send criminals to jail" but "You are warriors, and we are arming for a new Crusade."

Sometimes the reaction to the atrocity can do more harm than the atrocity itself. Terrorist crime is a serious problem, but the solution is not declaration of war. Six months from now, what will have been the consequences of the Charlie Hebdo massacre, the Kosher supermarket slayings and the massive political and cultural reaction?

1. New confidence and boldness for Islamist terrorists.

Islamist terrorists will be strengthened by the attacks against the French enemy and ennobled by French Prime Minister Manuel Valls's declaration of war on "jihadism" and "radical Islam." Like President George W. Bush's declaration of a "global war on terror," this new French declaration will have undercut any attempt to belittle these attackers as common criminals, inflating them instead to the size of worthy military opponents of the West. It will have turned them into mujahedin, warriors, rather than muharibun, reprobates and enemies of mankind. The consequences for Iraq and Syria may be grievous. During 2014, Iraq suffered 12,282 combat-related deaths. (A proportionate one-year American loss would be nearly 111,000 dead or just under twice the number of combat-related American deaths during the Vietnam War.) Expect the horrifying Syrian and Iraqi death rate to rise even higher in 2015, thanks in part to this new boost in morale for ISIS.

2. Further attacks by Islamist terrorists on Western cultural targets.

In recent months, we have seen the Parliament Hill attack in Ottawa, Canada and a bizarre, possibly comparable episode in Sydney, Australia. Neither country has the troubled colonial history or the large, resulting domestic Muslim underclass that France has, and yet soft, cultural targets in each have proven vulnerable and attractive. A large, showy demonstration like the one just concluded in Paris will not deter such attacks any more than massive demonstrations in every major city in the U.S. as well as in several European capitals deterred the U.S. from invading Iraq. Better intelligence may make a difference, but the best intelligence cannot operate preemptively without trampling underfoot the very traditions of civil liberty that the West values and celebrates most. "Je suis Charlie" talk is cheap, but the Boston Marathon attack was not the last of its kind.

3. An acceleration of attacks on Jews in Europe and Christians in Muslim-majority regions.

Europeans and Americans struggle to fathom why the earlier publication of Islam-insulting cartoons in Denmark triggered Muslim attacks on Christians in far-off Lebanon and Nigeria. What had the Christians of those countries to do with an anti-clerical publication in highly secular Denmark? The explanation lies in the fact that Muslim cultures rarely understand Western national cultures as the latter understand themselves.

Neither the passionate nationalism of France, where nationality has largely replaced religion in collective identity, nor its often-inflamed anti-clericalism is culturally comprehensible in much of the Muslim world. If the seventeen dead Parisians had all died in the bombing of a synagogue or the machine-gunning of a church, one would not have seen le tout Paris taking to the streets. Yet, anachronistically, much of the Muslim world continues to identify the West with Christianity or with Christianity and Judaism in a mythical anti-Muslim alliance, as heard in the wildly unhistorical phrase "Crusaders and Zionists."

Nigeria presents an instructive example of the bloody consequences of this skewed perception. The name of the Nigerian Muslim movement Boko Haram derives from the English word book -- boko in Hausa, standing for all Western book-learning - and the Arabic haram, meaning forbidden. But how does this movement express its antagonism to Western learning? Not only by attacking all schools imparting such learning but also by attacking all vulnerable Christian institutions and communities. A further consequence of the recent events in Paris will be further such attacks, illogical as they must seem to Western secular eyes.

France has come commendably to the defense of its Jewish minority, but how long can it maintain the current cordon sanitaire? As Israeli militancy escalates against Palestinian Arabs, further Arab attacks -- now jihadi rather than nationalist in character -- are likely, especially in France.

4. A further acceleration of the already growing anti-Muslim, anti-immigrant movement in Europe even as the Muslim population grows.

While European Muslims are rightly alarmed by the resurgence of European fascism, two points need to be made. First, widespread domestic violence against European Muslim communities, comparable to that suffered by Christians in the Arab world, is unlikely. Second, it is equally unlikely that any escalation in anti-Muslim sentiment in Europe will diminish the demonstrable desperation of millions of Muslims from the Middle East, Africa and even South Asia to immigrate to Europe. The combination of increasing Muslim immigration and increasing anti-Muslim, anti-immigration sentiment in Europe portend increasing civil unrest in Europe, with negative consequences for its economy.

5. A significant chilling of journalism about Islam.

The consequences for Middle Eastern journalists will be far graver than those for European or American journalism. The Saudi journalist Raid Badawi, creator of an online "Liberal Muslim Network," has just recently been sentenced to ten years in prison and one thousand lashes, of which the first installment is to be administered after Friday prayers at the Masjid al-Jafari in Jeddah. The antagonism of Prime Minister Reccep Erdogan toward the free press of Turkey, as signaled by police arrests of dozens of journalists and media executives, is severe and steadily worsening. (Abu Omar al-Baghdadi may want to revive the caliphate; Reccep Erdogan seems bent on reviving the sultanate.)

Meanwhile, in Egypt, President Abdel-Fattah el-Sisi, though ferociously, murderously hostile to the Muslim Brotherhood, has imposed the same total government control on the media that his predecessor President Hosni Mubarak imposed. These pressures -- undoubtedly more authoritarian than they are in any sense Muslim -- will dissuade journalists who might otherwise wish to publish news or commentary covering either religion or government in the region. The situation is bleak, in short, even without the threat of a jihadi attack like that on Charlie Hebdo. But the cooling effect resulting from that shocking attack will not be confined to the Middle East.

David D. Kirkpatrick recently confessed in The New York Times his nervousness with regard to reporting on Muslims who write about or opine about religion and violence in the Muslim world. True, a significantly different multi-cultural aesthetic operates in the U.S. than operates in France. In this country, the Charlie Hebdo cartoons, rather than boldly iconoclastic, seem trivially vulgar, insulting and, well, un-adult. But the chilling effect, again, may extend even to those who plan only the most respectful of discussions.

Planning as I do to offer a course starting in April at the University of California, Irvine entitled "Bible and Qur'an: Comparative Reflections," I confess that I have begun to feel nervousness like Kirkpatrick's. Why ask for trouble with the Muslim Student Union? Why not let somebody else take the chance?

6. In the West, a quick fade from the headlines.

With only seventeen dead, the past week in Paris will not seem a watershed. Consider the London subway bombing: 52 killed, 700 wounded. Or the Madrid train bombings: 191 killed, 1,800 wounded. Or the Russian theater ordeal: 130 killed, 700 wounded. Consider, more recently, the Peshawar school massacre: 145 killed, including 132 children, and 100 wounded. If the much smaller Paris atrocities do come to seem a watershed, it will be because, small as they are by head count, they somehow functioned as the proverbial last straw. This is possible, but not likely.

7. Religious activism will continue to be ignored.

The U.S. should shift its focus from defeating enemies to finding and supporting friends. But political leadership rarely succeeds in doing that. For in democracies, leaders are followers by definition: They must do the will of those who have elected them or, in the U.S., do the will of those who paid the cost of their electoral campaigns. At most, politicians can try at the margin to change the minds of their constituencies.

Deeper, more lasting change -- change comparable to that achieved by the Civil Rights Movement of the 1960s -- must come first in society at large. Only then can it begin to count among elected officials. Religious organizations that seek peace among religious and ethnic communities are aiming at that kind of change and certainly do have the potential to accomplish far more than the financial and political lords of the universe suppose them capable of. But within the time frame of the next six months, we can be confident that they will continue to be ignored.

CORRECTION: A previous version of this blog incorrectly stated that Erdogan shut down the newspaper Zaman.

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