Editor’s Note: Juan Cole is Richard P. Mitchell Collegiate Professor of History at the University of Michigan. This article is reprinted from his blog, Informed Comment. The views expressed here are his own.
The horrific murder of the editor, cartoonists and other staff of the irreverent satirical weekly Charlie Hebdo, along with two policemen, by terrorists in Paris was in my view a strategic strike, aiming at polarizing the French and European public.
The problem for a terrorist group like al-Qaeda is that its recruitment pool is Muslims, but most Muslims are not interested in terrorism. Most Muslims are not even interested in politics, much less political Islam. France is a country of 66 million, of which about 5 million is of Muslim heritage. But in polling, only a third, less than 2 million, say that they are interested in religion. French Muslims may be the most secular Muslim-heritage population in the world (ex-Soviet ethnic Muslims often also have low rates of belief and observance). Many Muslim immigrants in the post-war period to France came as laborers and were not literate people, and their grandchildren are rather distant from Middle Eastern fundamentalism, pursuing urban cosmopolitan culture such as rap and rai. In Paris, where Muslims tend to be better educated and more religious, the vast majority reject violence and say they are loyal to France.
Al-Qaeda wants to mentally colonize French Muslims, but faces a wall of disinterest. But if it can get non-Muslim French to be beastly to ethnic Muslims on the grounds that they are Muslims, it can start creating a common political identity around grievance against discrimination.
This tactic is similar to the one used by Stalinists in the early 20th century. Decades ago I read an account by the philosopher Karl Popper of how he flirted with Marxism for about 6 months in 1919 when he was auditing classes at the University of Vienna. He left the group in disgust when he discovered that they were attempting to use false flag operations to provoke militant confrontations. In one of them police killed 8 socialist youth at Hörlgasse on 15 June 1919. For the unscrupulous among Bolsheviks–who would later be Stalinists– the fact that most students and workers don’t want to overthrow the business class is inconvenient, and so it seemed desirable to some of them to “sharpen the contradictions” between labor and capital.
The operatives who carried out this attack exhibit signs of professional training. They spoke unaccented French, and so certainly know that they are playing into the hands of Marine LePen and the Islamophobic French Right wing. They may have been French, but they appear to have been battle hardened. This horrific murder was not a pious protest against the defamation of a religious icon. It was an attempt to provoke European society into pogroms against French Muslims, at which point al-Qaeda recruitment would suddenly exhibit some successes instead of faltering in the face of lively Beur youth culture (French Arabs playfully call themselves by this anagram). Ironically, there are reports that one of the two policemen they killed was a Muslim.
Al-Qaeda in Mesopotamia, then led by Abu Musab al-Zarqawi, deployed this sort of polarization strategy successfully in Iraq, constantly attacking Shiites and their holy symbols, and provoking the ethnic cleansing of a million Sunnis from Baghdad. The polarization proceeded, with the help of various incarnations of Daesh (Arabic for ISIL or ISIS, which descends from al-Qaeda in Mesopotamia). And in the end, the brutal and genocidal strategy worked, such that Daesh was able to encompass all of Sunni Arab Iraq, which had suffered so many Shiite reprisals that they sought the umbrella of the very group that had deliberately and systematically provoked the Shiites.
“Sharpening the contradictions” is the strategy of sociopaths and totalitarians, aimed at unmooring people from their ordinary insouciance and preying on them, mobilizing their energies and wealth for the perverted purposes of a self-styled great leader.
The only effective response to this manipulative strategy (as Grand Ayatollah Ali Sistani tried to tell the Iraqi Shiites a decade ago) is to resist the impulse to blame an entire group for the actions of a few and to refuse to carry out identity-politics reprisals.
For those who require unrelated people to take responsibility for those who claim to be their co-religionists (not a demand ever made of Christians), the al-Azhar Seminary, seat of Sunni Muslim learning and fatwas, condemned the attack, as did the Arab League that comprises 22 Muslim-majority states.
We have a model for response to terrorist provocation and attempts at sharpening the contradictions. It is Norway after Anders Behring Breivikcommitted mass murder of Norwegian leftists for being soft on Islam. The Norwegian government launched no war on terror. They tried Breivik in court as a common criminal. They remained committed to their admirable modern Norwegian values.
Most of France will also remain committed to French values of the Rights of Man, which they invented. But an insular and hateful minority will take advantage of this deliberately polarizing atrocity to push their own agenda. Europe’s future depends on whether the Marine LePens are allowed to become mainstream. Extremism thrives on other people’s extremism, and is inexorably defeated by tolerance.
Let me conclude by offering my profound condolences to the families, friends and fans of our murdered colleagues at Charlie Hebdo, including Stephane Charbonnier, Bernard Maris, and cartoonists Georges Wolinski Jean Cabut, aka Cabu, and Berbard Verlhac (Tignous)– and all the others. As Charbonnier, known as Charb, said, “I prefer to die standing than to live on my knees.”.