The War We Need to Fight

The West must fight Islamophobia and Islamist terrorism with the same unwavering resolve.

A girl lights candles outside Le Carillon bar on Nov. 14, 2015, in Paris, the day after a deadly attack killed at least 120 people.  

Photo by Antoine Antoniol/Getty Images

When Islamist gunmen murdered many of Charlie Hebdo’s writers, editors, and cartoonists in central Paris at the dawn of this year, a sense of unity swept France. All over the country, millions turned to the streets to voice their solidarity with the victims but also to ensure that France’s Muslims would not be scapegoated for the attacks. All over the world, Facebook users changed their profile pictures to Nous Sommes Charlie—We are Charlie.

That unity lasted, at best, a couple of weeks. Then began the attempt to exploit the situation for political gain, on the left and the right, in France and beyond.

Marine Le Pen, of the far-right National Front, was conspicuously quiet for a few days. But when the establishment political parties refused to invite her to the national solidarity rallies, she shrewdly accused them of using the attacks to isolate her party. Once the first shock receded, and the anger began to rise, she ramped up her Islamophobic rhetoric. Her tactic worked like a charm. At first, pundits had marveled at the fact that the attacks had actually reduced support for the right-wing populists. A few months on, the National Front surged to unprecedented strength in national polls.

If the reaction of the far right was morally repugnant but tactically shrewd, the reaction of many on the left was morally repugnant—and a tactical disaster to boot. The terrorists who went on a killing rampage around Paris in January stand in about the same relation to Islam as the crusaders did to Christianity: They represent a twisted version of their faith, and yet it is impossible to understand them without reference to the beliefs they invoke. Even so, politicians and commentators throughout Europe insisted that the attacks, perpetrated by self-described Islamist terrorists to avenge a perceived slight to their prophet, had nothing at all to do with religion.

Then things got worse. Intellectuals on both sides of the Atlantic began to proclaim that Je Ne Suis Pas Charlie, I am not Charlie. Undeterred by their ignorance of the publication’s nature or goals, they accused Charlie Hebdo of “punching down”; some even insinuated, with varying degrees of subtlety, that the murdered journalists might have had it coming to them.

But the real motives for this unwillingness to mourn the victims of that chilling January day—not to mention the victims of another attack, a few days later, in a kosher supermarket—were, in any case, politico-psychological. Many self-proclaimed leftists could not fathom that brutal and senseless deeds might be inexcusable even if they are perpetrated by people who have historically been victims; that the enemy (ISIS) of their enemy (America’s military-industrial complex) may nevertheless be something other than their friend; or that there might come a moment in which it is right to stand with the political mainstream, rather than to demonstrate their supposed virtue by “punching up” indiscriminately.

In the past hours, another, even greater tragedy, has been unfolding in Paris. Many of the scenes look eerily familiar: The Bataclan, where more than 100 concertgoers are feared dead, is only a few minutes’ walk away from Charlie Hebdo’s offices. But if the logic of the attack and the visuals on our TV screens give a dark sense of déjà vu, the scale of the bloodshed has been ramped up. Officials have, so far, confirmed the death of at least 120 people.

Why, at this time of renewed heartbreak, am I dwelling on the aftermath of those January attacks? In part because we can use the reaction to those first attacks to get a sense of how the reaction to these second, even more bloody events, is likely to play out. Worryingly, what we learned about all sides of the debate at the beginning of the year does not bode well for the coming weeks. Over the course of the next days, there will no doubt be moving speeches, impressive shows of solidarity, another fleeting sense of unity. But, as before, the rally around the tricolore will not last long.

France’s attitude toward immigrants and minorities, especially Muslims, has always been skeptical at best and downright hypocritical at worst. The country’s principles of républicanisme and laïcité promise that everyone can be a true Frenchman, irrespective of religion or skin color. But in reality ethnic minorities are heavily discriminated against by employers, and routinely targeted by police. As for religion, it may be true that any outward sign of faith is met with discomfort in France—but headscarves or long beards have long elicited downright hostility. This ill will toward ordinary Muslims has risen over the past months, and rise again it will in the coming weeks.

As a result, France has now become the most promising hunting ground for Europe’s reinvented far right, which shrewdly invokes supposedly liberal principles all the better to exclude Muslims. After a short interruption, Marine Le Pen will continue her ascent in the polls. Even before these attacks, she seemed likely to make it to the final, runoff round of presidential elections in the spring of 2017. I should imagine that, in the next days, bookies will make a brisk business on bets that predict her conquering the Élysée Palace. (The odds will remain long, at least for now, but are already too short for comfort.)

The far right is likely to profit beyond France as well. Germany, for example, has for months been engaged in a ferocious debate about the hundreds of thousands of refugees the country is expecting to cross its borders this year alone, a majority of them from Syria and Iraq. This past summer, there was a brief period of ecstatic welcome offered to the refugees. Pictures of thousands of Germans giving newly arrived refugees at Munich central station a heartfelt welcome captured the imagination of the world’s media and still define the country’s reaction in the minds of most outside observers. But that heartwarming reception was in part a reaction to the scores of refugee homes all over Germany that had gone up in flames in the preceding months—sometimes, as in the East German town of Freital, to the applause of a mob of onlookers. And it has been followed by an increasingly ugly debate, which has seen even mainstream institutions play on fears about the threat posed by young Muslim men.

This debate is now set to grow even uglier. Political opposition to Angela Merkel’s relatively generous policies toward asylum seekers will reach fever pitch, especially within her own party. All the while, Alternative for Germany, a new far-right grouping which enjoys strong support from the anti-Islamic protesters who have taken to the streets in the tens of thousands for the better part of a year, will do its best to establish itself as a firm part of the German political scene.

The left, meanwhile, is likely to fall back upon its old reflexes. It will continue to deny that homegrown terrorism is a real danger, or that the attacks might have had something to do with Islamist ideology. With no impolitic cartoonists to blame, they will instead revert to the comforting idea that the West’s foreign entanglements stand at the root of all this evil.

It is no doubt true that America’s mistakes in the Middle East, from the Iraq war to the recent bombing of a Doctors Without Borders hospital in Afghanistan, have helped to fan the flames. But ISIS is a real threat, and the roots of its ascent go well beyond the mistakes of George Bush and Dick Cheney. To demand that the West simply leave the Middle East to its own fate is to deliver millions of people in Syria—where the death of some 120 people has long since become too little to make the international news—to the rule of theocratic fascists.

Similarly, the blanket denial that Islamist terrorism is a problem, so common among the continent’s left, does the majority of Muslims who live in Europe a deep disservice. In today’s tense political climate, every voice that advocates for harmony between different ethnic and religious groups is urgently needed. But when the people who are most visibly identified with the fight for ethnic and religious pluralism are palpably unwilling to call a spade a spade, it is hardly surprising that so many Europeans are growing weary of their intentions.

Europe’s difficulties with immigration can seem a little puzzling from an American perspective, in part because it is easy to forget how unique the continent’s experiment is. In the history of the world, there has never been a country that defined itself by a common creed and ethnicity, only to reinvent itself as a truly pluralist society. The Roman, Ottoman, and Austro-Hungarian empires enjoined many ethnic groups, but these lived side by side, and continued to see themselves as separate nations. The United States, meanwhile, was founded as a multiethnic and multireligious nation from the start. Though it long excluded a large portion of its population in the most brutal manner possible, national identity had never been based on the idea that all Americans were brethren or had emerged from the same prehistoric woods. In Europe, by contrast, virtually every nation is built on an imaginary joint past and a common future—underwritten, even in deeply secular times, by the ever-present cultural heritage of a shared creed.

Whether Europe’s unique experiment of integrating millions of newcomers into monoethnic, monoreligious countries can succeed is open to question, in part because it has no historical precedent. But succeed it must: Ethnic and religious minorities are there to stay. A failure to make them full citizens will lead not only to more bloodshed—but also to a betrayal of the very principles, like freedom of speech and religious tolerance, which are currently under attack from all sides. If a multiethnic and multireligious vision for Europe is to survive, we must fight both Islamophobia and Islamist terrorism with the same unwavering resolve.

Read more of Slate’s coverage of the Paris attacks.