Europe’s Brutal Truth

Europeans are both too Islamophobic and too timid to face up to the roots of Islamic fundamentalism.

Muslims holding French and Algerian flags rally in front of the Paris Mosque on Sept. 26, 2014, to pay tribute to a French mountain guide who was beheaded by an Algerian Islamist group. French Muslims, at 5 million, make up about 8 percent of the population.

Photo by Jacky Naegelen/Reuters

Wednesday morning, two assailants armed with Kalashnikovs forced their way into the editorial offices of Charlie Hebdo, a French satirical magazine, and murdered 12 people—many of them writers, editors, and cartoonists. It was as pure an attack on freedom of speech as can be imagined. Though the identity of the terrorists is as yet unknown, they likely meant to exact vengeance for the fact that Charlie Hebdo had published a caricature of the Prophet Mohammed in 2011.

For now, it is difficult to think beyond the brutal slaughter of journalists who would not bow to intimidation even though they knew the risks their bravery would court. But the long-term consequences of Wednesday’s events are likely to be just as disastrous. The attack on Charlie Hebdo will further entrench the terms of a confused European debate about Muslim immigrants—one in which both the “accusers” and the “defenders” of Islam are painting in dangerously broad brushstrokes. While the European far right points to Islamic terrorism to exclude and malign all Muslims, the European left responds by refusing to recognize how fundamental a challenge Islamic terrorism represents (or that it is inspired by Islam at all). Both sides fail to realize that two seemingly opposite sentiments can stand side by side: the conviction that Muslims should become full and equal members of European democracies and the unabashed determination to defend those democracies against Islamic fundamentalism.

Even before Wednesday’s attacks, tensions between “natives” and “Muslim immigrants”—a telling juxtaposition, since a majority of Europe’s Muslims were in fact born on the continent—were at a boiling point. In France, fears about Islam have been at the center of political debate for the past year, helping far-right political parties attract unprecedented support. If French presidential elections were held today, Marine Le Pen, leader of the xenophobic National Front, would likely beat her rivals to the top spot in the first round of voting.

Leading French intellectuals have begun to join the anti-Islamic bandwagon. For the past several weeks, French papers have been consumed with a protracted debate about Submission, a new novel by Michel Houellebecq—one of France’s most celebrated writers—which landed in French bookstores on Wednesday. Set in 2022, its protagonist is François, a literature professor who converts to Islam to practice polygamy, rises to the French presidency, and rules the republic according to the dictates of Sharia.

That is just the kind of scenario that adherents of Pegida, a self-styled alliance of “Patriotic Europeans against the Islamization of the West,” claim to be resisting in neighboring Germany. For months they have been taking to the streets of Dresden to protest immigration in general and the growing influence of Muslims in particular. Though they say that they defend universal values, their chants of “We are the People” betray how exclusionary their conception of nationhood really is. Appropriating the most famous slogan of the 1989 protests that helped to bring down the Berlin Wall for their own purposes, they are signaling that they will never consider Muslims as true Germans.

That’s sadly typical of the “liberal Islamophobia” that has taken hold in much of Europe. To court mainstream support, the far right has cleverly repackaged its disdain for immigrants and religious minorities as a defense of liberal values like gender equality and freedom of speech. This allows the far right across Europe to claim that its real problem with “those Turks” (or “those Algerians” or “those Bangladeshis”) is not that they look different or worship another God; it is that they are enemies of the universal values that a much wider portion of Europe holds dear.

This tack is doubly disingenuous. It is disingenuous because it invokes violent extremists to tar the vast majority of peaceful Muslims with the same calumnious brush. And it is disingenuous because its supposed love of liberal values is but a fig leaf. What ultimately drives movements like Pegida or the National Front is not a defense of universal norms but rather a monocultural and monoethnic conception of who is a true German or a true Frenchman. After all, most of the same people who attack Muslims on the grounds that they are unwilling to accept liberal values are themselves unwilling to accept that most basic of liberal credos—that somebody should be able to become a full member of the nation irrespective of his skin color or his creed.

Those who advocate for a more diverse Europe tend to have a lot of fun pointing out the sheer hypocrisy of liberal Islamophobia. But, all too often, these tolerant souls are guilty of an equally dangerous hypocrisy of their own. They rightly lament that there’s a lot of prejudice against Muslims, but they wrongly infer that we should refrain from criticizing any manifestation of Islam—and consequently deny that there is anything Islamic about the kind of terrorism that has just left a Paris magazine’s offices riddled with bullets.

The terrorism of ISIS and al-Qaida no more defines Islam than the Crusades or the Inquisition define Christianity. But just as no historian can make sense of the nature of the Crusades without grappling seriously with the religious beliefs of their protagonists, so too it is impossible to make sense of Islamic terrorism without taking seriously the religious motivations of those who perpetrate it.

In denying that Islamic terrorism has anything to do with Islam—or that a small fringe of fundamentalist Muslims poses a real threat to values we deeply cherish—self-styled defenders of Muslim immigrants are making the same mistake as their adversaries. For political reasons, they blind themselves to the vast differences among various forms of Islam.

Many observers—especially, but not only, in Europe—talk about the dangers of fundamentalist religion and homegrown terrorism as though there were a debate between two discrete sides: defenders of Islam on the one hand and detractors of Islam on the other hand. But this only encourages us to split the difference in the most disastrous of ways: by being somewhat intolerant of ordinary Muslims even as we remain somewhat reluctant to take on the fundamentalist ideology that really does pose a threat to liberal democracy.

The slogan #JeSuisCharlie, “I am Charlie,” is making the rounds on Twitter and Facebook at the moment. It’s the right sentiment, for the attack on Charlie Hebdo surely was an attack on everyone who values a free society. But in rallying to the defense of our values, we must, as ever, remember what those values actually are: a set of rules and institutions that allows everyone who subscribes to them to live together peacefully—whether they be a devout Muslim or a blasphemous cartoonist.

Read more of Slate’s coverage of the Charlie Hebdo attacks.