Le Parc des Buttes-Chaumont, the 60-acre public park in which the Kouachi brothers, who carried out the murderous attack on the offices of Charlie Hebdo, participated in an extensive jihadi network, is a short walk from where I stay when I am in Paris, and I pass by it often. And, as it happens, I left Paris after a three-week stay the day before the attack on Charlie Hebdo.
As it also happens, I was in Wallonia a couple of days before police there raided suspected terrorist cells and killed two terrorists who fired on them. If I were the type, I might start to see terrorists and terrorist plots all around me. Paranoia is almost the default setting of the human brain: a thousand conditions or situations will uncover it.
This morning, however, a former colleague of mine, a Muslim doctor of kindly and peaceable disposition, phoned me to ask whether there was anything wrong. My wife and I had not sent him a Christmas card this year. So much for the notion of Muslims’ being offended by Christmas.
The two temptations, to see evil everywhere and to see it nowhere, are equal and opposite. The first is exciting and the second reassuring, and we all want both excitement and reassurance, preferably at the same time. Alas, this is not easy to achieve. The rational man wants to perceive danger in exact proportion to its real existence, with no false positives and no false negatives. This is by no means easy of accomplishment, perhaps impossible, especially when so much remains hidden or subterranean.
Once in my hospital corridor I overheard the recently appointed medical director, a sophisticated Muslim internist who wore the most beautifully tailored suits (though his wife never wore Western clothes), say to two younger doctors, “Remember, we are doing this for Allah.” But what was this? I never found out, though subsequently the proportion of Muslims appointed to senior positions increased dramatically. I confess that the most paranoid thoughts ran through my mind, though this might have been something entirely innocent. In my heart of hearts, however, I couldn’t, and didn’t, believe it.
In the wake of the terror attacks in France — which, incidentally, started before Christmas, when a Muslim convert of Burundian origin entered a police station in a suburb of Tours, took out a knife, cut a policeman’s throat, and injured two others while shouting “Allahu akbar!” before being shot dead by a policewoman, the assailant’s relatives of course complaining afterward that she had not merely incapacitated him by, say, shooting him in the leg, and all kinds of conspiracy theories being immediately propounded and spread in his banlieue — it is hardly surprising that a cacophony of interpretations soon erupted; for no event in the post-modern world has a settled or unequivocal significance or meaning.
What was the nature of the connection between Islam and the violence? Was Islam a necessary or a sufficient cause, or neither? How many Muslims in France supported it, inwardly if not outwardly? How far were Muslim protestations of disagreement with such violence to be trusted in the light of the theological permissibility for Muslims to dissimulate friendship while harboring enmity, on the grounds that the end justifies the means? Was it generous or naïve to believe such protestations? How far should free speech extend, and are there any proper limits to it? If so, what are they? What was the relation between the “disaffection” of the terrorists and their experience of life in France, and the relation of that “disaffection” with colonial history? And so on and so forth.
For myself, as soon as I saw pictures of the Kouachi brothers, I knew elements of their biography without having to be told them. Someone would come forward to attest to their politeness, their normality, their lack of aggression, their helpfulness to old ladies, etc. On the other hand, on reaching adolescence they would have involved themselves in “petty” crime, such as robbery and drug dealing, and they would themselves have taken the drugs in which they dealt. They would have been fans of rap music, perhaps even aspiring performers of it. (I secretly harbor the belief that rap music is the fundamental cause of terrorism in the Western world. The BBC, with its eternal and deliberate state-sponsored tin ear for reality, wondered how a rap-music-loving youth or young man could possibly have become a vicious terrorist. Of course, there is the chicken-and-egg problem here: Does rap music make young men violent, or are violent young men attracted to rap music? Or is the relationship a dialectical one?) Then, having hitherto lived a purposeless existence of sin and crime, they, the Kouachis, would have come under the influence of a radical preacher, either in prison or out, who would easily have persuaded them that much greater violence had a purpose — Islamism in the modern world being the continuation of crime by other means. And so indeed it proved to be.
The message of Islamism fits perfectly with the wounded narcissism of so much modern youth, a narcissism that is evident in the comportment of the Kouachi brothers after they had killed twelve people. They wanted to be seen, and no doubt filmed, strutting their 15 minutes of world fame, so different from their previous, humiliating anonymity in such unglamorous work as pizza delivery, which is more in keeping with the level of their educational efforts and attainments. And their wish for death — they could hardly have thought they would survive — was, paradoxically, perfectly compatible with their narcissism. Having listened to thousands of immature young people who have made suicide attempts, I came to the conclusion that their concept of death is often of a shadowy continued existence as observers of the sorrow they leave behind, particularly at their own funerals, reveling in the revenge they wreak on parents or others who denied them what they wanted or thought they were entitled to. Islam was the answer to the young men’s prayers (their secular, psychological prayers, that is): It gave them the reason, the permission, the justification for acting as they did. As the current leader of Nigeria’s Boko Haram, Abubakar Shekau, once said, “I enjoy killing anyone that God commands me to kill.” Of course, he mistakes the locus or origin of the orders he receives. The desire to kill precedes the justification; the justification — in this case, Islam — is necessary but not sufficient.
What is the appropriate response to this? Clearly there must be properly directed surveillance of susceptible types, though no system will ever be perfect and some will escape the net. For the moment it will have to be accepted as a regrettable fact that there are substantial numbers of young people in European countries — not just France — susceptible to the siren song of idiot Islamism.
But surveillance will never be enough: Criticism of Islam itself must be free and unconstrained and relentless. For example, in the very small town in France near which I live some of the time, there was a demonstration against terrorism in the wake of the attack on Charlie Hebdo. The small and generally well-integrated population of Maghrebis there was conspicuous by its absence from the demonstration. Of course, citizens are free to demonstrate or not demonstrate as they wish; but it is at least possible that some of the young Maghrebis did not demonstrate because of fear of denunciation, of accusations of apostasy. Muslims live in fear of one another more than in fear of others, at least in the modern world, and this is because of a fundamental incompatibility of Islam with the modern world.
The accusation of apostasy in Islam is a serious one, potentially fatal to the accused. I hardly need prove this since it is admitted on all hands, Muslim and non-Muslim alike. So long as this is so, so long as Muslims fear to adopt another religion or publicly proclaim their atheism or detestation of Mohammed and Islam, intellectually justified or not, the religion is incompatible with our notions of what our polity should be, even if our polity sometimes betrays its own principles and ideals — as all principles and ideals are sometimes betrayed, man being an imperfect creature.
In other words, the ideological gloves should come off. There should be no insincere (and cowardly) homage to Islam as a religion of peace and tolerance. No religion that makes apostasy a punishable crime is tolerant. On the contrary, it more resembles a criminal conspiracy, at least when the punishment is severe. And this is so no matter what proportion of Muslims are decent people (the people of Egypt, for example, have often struck me as among the most charming and hospitable in the world, as did the Syrians in the good old days of uncontested secular dictatorship), or how troubling or hurtful they find the thought. What is so is so.
The pope’s recent performance on the papal plane to the Philippines was a textbook example of what not to say, the product of deep intellectual and moral cowardice, but alas by no means untypical of prominent Westerners who should know better. I am no Catholic theologian, but I should have thought that his argument that a man who insults another’s mother should expect to be hit — he imitated the action — was not exactly in keeping with the teachings of Christ (see, for example, Matthew 5:39). Furthermore, his implicit suggestion that criticism of religions is on a par with insults offered to the mothers of interlocutors means that an important realm of human existence would be placed beyond reproach, whatever the contents or practices of those religions. Islam does not partake of such inhibitions, and I do not reproach it with that, only with the fact that it does not allow non-Muslims the same liberty.
It is not sufficient for the National Assembly to break out spontaneously in the “Marseillaise” during the minute’s silence for the victims of the attacks, moving as it was. Some might say that there was irony in the choice of that particular song, for its lyrics are a ringing call to bloodshed and terrorism:
To arms, citizens!
Form your battalions!
Let us march! Let us march!
That impure blood . . .
Moreover, the characterization of the enemy of the citizens is not exactly the epitome of multicultural political correctness:
Do you hear in the country
These ferocious soldiers roar?
They are coming right into our arms
To cut the throats of our children and women.
Of course, the deputies, or most of them, knew that this was no longer to be interpreted literally, and no one suggests that the “Marseillaise” is the unmediated word of God.
Aux armes, citoyens! But let your arms be intellectual ones as well as a good intelligence service.
– Mr. Dalrymple is a retired doctor and writer. His forthcoming book, Admirable Evasions (Encounter), is an essay on the uselessness of academic psychology.