The slaughter of French journalists as well as French Jews and Muslims by terrorists is unconscionable and has rightly provoked outrage. All life is sacred and the loss of any life at the hands of killers like those who carried out the shootings in Paris should provoke moral outrage.
At the same time, some have asked why the international community and international media are paying so much attention to the tragic attack in Paris within days of the Paris shooting, but only passing attention to Boko Haram's massacre of 2000 people, 61 killed by al-Qaeda in Yemen and 164 children school children murdered by the Taliban in a bomb attack. Is it the identity of the victims that explains our selective empathy? While this might partially explain it, something more is at play.
Perhaps the Paris attacks hit a deep nerve in the Western psyche beyond the death toll because it was more than an attack on a business. It was an attack on the most sacred core of European identity: liberty and freedom of speech.
Why did the terrorists do what they did? They, or at least their operational masters, knew that targeting a Western sacred symbol would provoke an explosive response.
Human beings, whether religious or secular, rely on civic and sacred symbols as markers of their identity. They are also at their worst, feel most threatened and outraged, when their sacred symbols are violated. The terrorists behind the attacks were banking on that. They aimed to achieve exactly the response we saw: the ability of a hand full of terrorists to outrage and terrorize a nation and spread that hysteria beyond its borders. The US, Great Britain and many other countries immediately announced increased security, while France's premiere declared war against "radical Islam."
From the terrorists' point of view their goal was achieved: a global war along cultural and religious lines was reignited, and they were its first "martyrs."
These attacks, like many before them and regrettably in the future, aim to provoke this response in an asymmetric war where an individual or handful of individuals can terrorize a nation and grab global attention and headlines and provoke anti-Islam and anti-Muslim hate speech and hate crimes, and attacks on mosques in France and elsewhere. The first 48 hours following the attacks saw printing and reprinting of illustrated anti-Muslim racial slurs, Islamophobic media hysteria, accompanied by 15 separate anti-Muslim attacks across France alone.
But are we beholden to follow this script?
Terrorism stripped of symbolism is violent crime by murders -- without "martyrs," without the rhetoric and romance of ancient religious or civilizational rivalries. The perpetrators would then be remembered, if at all, as common criminals and murderers, and not be allowed to don the mantle of Islam and the "defender of oppressed Muslims."
Had the attackers been white Christians, would we have attached so much symbolism to their actions? Though Anders Breivik, who killed 77 mostly children, in Oslo in 2011, and offered a lengthy hate filled ideological manifesto to explain his actions, took more lives, his action did not trigger a global war. He was seen as a disturbed individual. No one declared a war on "anti-immigrant right wing ideology." No one suggested banning political parties closely aligned with his rhetoric. No one put forth the notion that the specific names of prominent American Islamophobes cited in his manifesto as his philosophical clerics should be called to answer for the murderous venom they had so clearly inspired. He was dismissed as a madman -- one of "us," who had gone astray.
Yet we handed the Paris shooters what they craved. By targeting Secular Sacred Symbols, they aimed to trigger a "clash of civilizations." The attackers, reportedly sent by Al Qaeda or ISIS, represent organizations with dismal Muslim public support. But like other fringe ideological movements, they seek to represent a large community that mostly rejects both their philosophy and tactics. Provoking Western societies to overact and behave at their worst is meant to provoke Muslim societies to do the same and therefore widen the psychological space for extremist ideology.
What if instead we isolated the criminals as criminals rather than anointing them as representatives of a faith community of more than a billion? What if their actions were stripped of their symbolism and seen as crimes by terrorists deliberately aimed at provoking hatred and division that we as free people would not fall for?
What if public statements poked a finger in the eyes of the terrorists by reasserting French commitment to all its citizen's full membership in the Republic rather than hand the terrorists their desired victory by alienating Muslims as a whole?
German Chancellor Angela Merkel set a good example for her colleagues. A day after walking arm-in-arm with French President Francois Hollande in the massive march in Paris said in a public statement: Islam "belongs to Germany", in a clear repudiation of anti-immigration protesters gathering in Dresden and other cities. http://www.reuters.com/article/2015/01/12/us-germany-islam-merkel-idUSKBN0KL1S020150112
Free speech, the sacred value we are so zealously defending after the tragic attacks in Paris, is all about choice, agency and reason. We must employ these values in our response to those who wish to trap us in their divisive narrative.
University Professor as well as Professor of Religion and International Affairs and of Islamic Studies at Georgetown University, John L. Esposito is Founding Director of the Prince Alwaleed Bin Talal Center for Muslim-Christian Understanding in the Walsh School of Foreign Service. He is author of "The Future of Islam" and co-author with Dalia Mogahed of "Who Speaks for Islam: What a Billion Muslims Really Think"
Dalia Mogahed is Director of Research at The Institute for Social Policy and Understanding and former Executive Director of the Gallup Center for Muslim Studies.