Islamic Murders in Paris

Twelve people have been confirmed dead in a shooting at the offices of Charlie Hebdo, a French satirical publication. Armed with assault rifles and rocket-propelled grenades, the gunmen forced their way into the building by coercing a mother with her child to give the key code. They then went from office to office, asking for staff members by name, before gunning down each in turn. The attackers are reported to have shouted things like “Allahu Akbar!” and claimed to have been members of al-Qaeda. They then fled the scene in a stolen car, dumping it in the vicinity of Pantin, an impoverished African and South Asian neighborhood in the suburbs of Paris – where, incidentally, I spent New Years one year with an ex-girlfriend – and then hijacked another car before fleeing from the city. As of now, they are still at large.

The natural question most people ask in reaction to these sorts of events is “why?” Why did these three people decide to kill all these other people, over a cartoon? Answers always fall into four categories: their fault, our fault, nobody’s fault, and squid ink. As you might expect, the distribution of responses breaks down fairly neatly along ideological lines.

1. Their fault puts the blame on “radical Islam,” Islamists, terrorists, or sometimes just “Islam” plain and simple. This article from National Review Online argues that Islam is against freedom of expression at its core. Another article, also from NRO, seems to intimate that this is the beginning of some sort of clash of civilizations. CNN lists responses from the journalistic profession, all of which express solidarity against the “forces of unreason” that are on the warpath and have “corrupted the heart of Islam”

2. Our fault puts the blame on our collective intolerance of others, or on our governments’ foreign policy. We in general, or the victims in particular, somehow have it coming to us. This article by Slate does not overtly state that the employees of Charlie Hebdo asked to be murdered, but the author asserts that they have a “long history of courting controversy.” This cyclical from AP states similar claims. If we, or at least Charlie Hebdo, should have expected this, what is the implication?

3. Nobody’s fault straddles the line, asserting that such a colossal crime is the result of nothing in particular. Crazy people warped the tenets of their faith to justify their evil actions, and only they can be blamed, not the social environment that produced them, nor their creed, nor the laxity of Western society, nor any other sort of causal explanation. It just “happened.” I have not yet found an example of this in the media, but I am sure it will be offered sometime between when Europe goes to sleep mourning this tragedy, and America wakes up to ponder it.

4. Squid ink is the attempt to divert blame from targets that the speaker or author believes will likely be blamed. This article from Salon attempts to divert blame from an assumed target, Islam, by diverting it onto the onerous figure of Richard Dawkins. This article, also from Salon, has nothing to do with the current controversy, but by framing other articles on the front page of the site, acts as an implicit tu quoque: Christians are murderers too! Islamic murder isn’t that bad!

It’s always popular to say that the truth lies somewhere in between, or beyond, the options the media offers us. And so I too will follow convention. Perhaps the truth is somewhere in a combination. It is undoubtedly true that there is a great deal of resentment in the Islamic world over Western policy over time, and I don’t doubt that this played some role in the minds of the murderers. I also don’t doubt that the reactions of Westerners to increased immigration to their countries has also factored in. Resentment against the encroachments of a foreign group on one’s territory is always resented, leading to friction between the natives and the implants. In France, Belgium, the Netherlands, and elsewhere, car burnings in immigrant neighborhoods are a frequent occurrence.

Personally, I think that, like all things, this is merely a struggle for power. The governments of the West have allowed large numbers of immigrants from poor countries with inimical social systems to immigrate to their countries, often for legitimate reasons. The Belgian government, for example, entered into an agreement with the Moroccan government to allow vast numbers of Moroccan citizens to immigrate to Belgium for work purposes, as the country lacked the amount of labor it needed. However, when any new population comes to an area that is already populated, there are many ways to deal with that population. Assimilation was the dominant strategy in the United States for some time: “if a Pole is made into an American with American habits and American values, great!” In Europe, however, there was precious little done to assimilate the immigrant populations, so that they instead formed large communities of their own folk that did not interact with the natives. In Germany, for example, many Turks have lived there for decades without being naturalized, and as Germany follows jus sanguinis, none of their children are citizens either, despite having no immediate connection to Turkey except on paper.

As these immigrant populations have grown in size, many of the younger generations have learned the local tongue, assimilated into the social patterns of their host nations, and fanned out into the country as a whole. One of my friends, a Belgian of Moroccan ancestry, speaks little Berber but perfect French, and has much more affinity for the country of his birth than the country of his ancestors. Many have also become more entrenched in their immigrant communities, and have agitated for special rights and privileges for their people; not only the social services they are always alleged to be parasites on, but also special zones for sharia, halal meals in schools and prisons, the right to not view objectionable material such as cartoons they do not like, and so forth. As they grow in size, they also grow in power, and like all people will assert that power to mold their environment in the ways that they choose – ways that are not compatible with Western society. What we are seeing is, I think, the latest installment in the slow bleed of the West, its slow transformation into a multicultural, and finally a non-cultural, entity.

Or, I could be full of it. Such is a consequence of immediate reactions and thinking out loud. Dear reader, please let me know thy thoughts in the comments.

14 thoughts on “Islamic Murders in Paris

  1. I find it strange when Islam/the Arab world isn’t considered western. It was the flow of ideas from the Arab world that sparked the Renaissance. The Islamic faith itself is part of the larger Abrahamic religion, and the differences between it and the Christian sects is over-emphasized theologically I think. Or rather, I think the Christian sects are themselves so different theologically that I find it weird that

    I also can’t help but notice that those of us, myself included, who have Spanish descent have certain Arabic physical features as well. A friend of mine used to joke that North Africa and the Levant should really be referred to as Southern and Southeastern Europe respectively.

    I agree that we will have to find a way to deal with inter-ethnic struggles in the years to come. To an extent there is a purpose to ethnicity, it reduces intra-group transaction costs, so I wouldn’t want to see an end to ‘ethnicity’. At the same time it increases inter-group transaction costs, hence present struggles.

    I wouldn’t mind the rise of ‘voluntary’ ethnic groups which are based on one’s active choices, as opposed to incidents of birth. To an extent this is what the ‘American’ ethnicity is; being an American is determined not by one’s race, religion, or language, but by a raw love for liberty. I wrote on this possibility before:

    There is also an old article by the Cato Institute on the above definition of ‘American’:

    Good post Matthew. It’s gotten my mental juices flowing.

    • I think the main barrier to seeing Arabs and Islam as Western is that Westerners do not see them as Western. An ethnic group is an arbitrary distinction at its root, and it becomes a physical, religious, and geographic distinction as it ages and takes on the august mantles of tradition and antiquity. What defines a German is not bound to reason or logic, but what a German feels a German is. Hence Bismarck thought of the German as a citizen within a state, and so declined to include Austria within his demesne, but Hitler thought of the German as a volk destined by ontology to rule the world, and so expanded his realm accordingly. Islam is an Abrahamic religion, yes, but so is Judaism – and neither has been considered a part of the West for the majority of their interaction, despite their commonalities. Only recently has the Jew, and only that the Western Jew, been admitted to the white race, whether he wants to be or not.

      The Arab world saved the heritage of classical Europe, and the developments of medieval science and philosophy would have been impossible without the Latin translations of Arabic translations of Greek works, granted. But again, cultural debt and cultural connections do not make a case for inclusion within the West, because the West is only what the West thinks it is. Russia has been considered a part of Europe (at least west of the Urals) at various times, and it has been considered irredeemably Asiatic at other times, depending on the mood of Western culture – and the similarities between Russia and Western Europe are greater, I think, than between Western Europe and the Levant.

    • Yes I agree. Race/ethnicity, at least as commonly understood, seems to be based more on perception than actual biological fact. For my part I consider Arabs, Berbers, etc to be westerners based on their membership to an Abrahamic faith.

      If we’re using some criteria though ‘westerner’ becomes increasingly meaningless.

      *Note that I’m not saying biological races within the human species don’t exist. They may or may not, I defer to biologists on this regard.

    • The term “Western” is one of the most arbitrary terms out there. At this point, I don’t think it means anything at all.

      It’s odd to exclude Islam from “the West” for all the reasons you (Michaelangelo) give, but it’s equally odd to differentiate, say, the USSR or Putin’s Russia from “the West,” presumably on the grounds that Soviet socialism is non-Western, and Eastern Europe counts as “the non-West,” Both are still very common mental habits, though. People still think of places like Prague and St. Petersburg as if they existed outside of “the West.” Then they’ll turn around and describe Bosnian Muslims or Turkey as “highly Westernized.” Try to make sense of it.

      When I teach international relations, I invariably get lots of South Korean exchange students (my college has an arrangement with various South Korean universities), and they typically talk about how difficult it is for them to adjust to student life in the US. The difficulties are predictable. They’re not used to speaking or reading English; they’re not used to the lack of formal etiquette in ordinary interactions; they’re not used to discussion-based classes as opposed to large lectures; they’re not used to interacting with professors; etc.

      They describe the difference by saying that they’re accustomed to “Korean” rather than “Western” culture. The contrast to “Western” is not “South Korean,” not “East Asian,” and certainly not “Eastern,” but Korean. And the contrast to Korean is not “American” but “Western.” Amusingly, after five minutes’ conversation with them, it becomes clear that they feel like they have more in common with Americans than they would with, say, people from Japan. The outstanding cultural-political animus they feel is toward Japan, and the clearest political positions they take are anti-Japanese ones. The history that resonates with them is the history of Japanese imperialism toward Korea (not North Korean or Chinese aggression toward South Korea and Japan). Despite all that, they insist on thinking in terms of West/non-West as a basic category of thought–even if it doesn’t capture either dimension of their actual experience, the Korean/American or the Korean/Japanese one.

      By the way, I have an idiosyncratic take on Charlie Hebdo here:

    • Wow, that’s an excellent take on the Charlie Hebdo massacre.

      I do think that there is a case to be made for a categorization of “the West,” though. I agree with Said and with you (and with Michelangelo) that this is an arbitrary, hypocritical term, especially if you are committed to the freedom of the individual first and foremost.

      At the same time, I think Gandhi’s remark (at least it is attributed to him in popular culture) that the West would be a good idea is still an insightful and important one.

    • I think this just goes to illustrate my point, one which I have forwarded so many times, that language is meaningless unless terms are properly defined. No one knows what the West is, but we all have this vague feeling about what is and isn’t Western. Islam isn’t Western, but Muslims who drink and eat pork and fast on Ramadan are Westernized. St. Petersburg is an exotic foreign locale in the mysterious East, but was founded by Peter the Great to be his new Westernized capital, and was planted in its location on the Baltic specifically to distance itself from the backward, “Asiatic” Moscow. Koreans think in some sort of West/non-West dialectic, but only superficially, as their actual sentiments are against the Japanese, rather than the Americans – with whom, as you say, they often identify.

      I think I’ll write something on this topic when I have sufficient time and energy. It behooves me to really understand this term “Western,” which I bandy about all the time, if I am to continue using it.

  2. My post seems to have been cut.

    *Or rather, I think the Christian sects are themselves so different theologically that I find it weird that Islam is seen as being that strange relatively speaking. IMO, as a Catholic I find several Protestant sects to be stranger than Islam.

  3. This quote from a woman on the street in Paris says it all: “We’re Catholic, and we don’t do things like that in their countries.”

  4. An excellent post, Matthew.

    My thoughts on the broader trend in Europe vis-a-vis its Muslim minorities is a fairly standard libertarian one: It can be blamed on the governments of European states. The “precious little done” to assimilate Muslim immigrants that you so accurately pinpoint is to blame.

    I have two strands of thought related to this excellent point of yours. First is the fact that European states actually did too much when it came to assimilation, or better yet they just did the wrong things. They undertook efforts aimed at preventing assimilation, and this assimilation would have essentially eliminated the need for Islamism (but not Islam). By undertaking Jim Crow-esque policies towards its guest workers/immigrants, the governments of Europe created an oppressed minority. Within this government-created framework – which had to placate Right-wing nationalists and condescending Leftists in order to get immigrants into the countries to begin with – there is plenty of blame to go around, including at the mosques.

    This situation, if true, leads into my second strand of thought. I think there needs to be a simple dichotomy between multiculturalism and internationalism, for the sake of better understanding how immigration works and why it sometimes doesn’t. Multiculturalism is a case of governments doing too much by preventing assimilation. Internationalism (feel free to pick a better word or phrase) is a case of governments recognizing individual rights (including the right to movement) and letting everything play out on its own. I know this is simplistic but I am a simplistic bastard. Hopefully I can use it as a springboard in the future. (Sorry for hijacking your thread!)

    • Re your first thought: Europeans seem much more trusting of government intervention in general than, say, Americans, or so I have observed in my interactions with them. In the Netherlands, many of the native Dutch I met expressed disgust at their governments for the immigration policy they adopted apropos of the Moroccans, but then expected the government to deal with the Moroccan problem that the government created!

      Re your second thought: I agree that terms should be tighter in their meaning. Do you see an internationalist state anywhere, though?

    • Might I suggest Singapore as a modern example of the internationalist state? It has a fairly open migration policy, although it is much stricter when it comes to citizenship. It has a Chinese ethnic plurality, but I don’t think anyone considers Singapore a ‘Chinese’ state in the same sense as the PRC, Taiwan, or Hong Kong. It advocates a lingua franca in the form of English, but its education system allows migrants to retain use of their native language if so desired. Its housing policy aside, it has a generally hands off approach to economic affairs to boot.

    • Singapore is a good example, though I am forced on principle to point out that its treatment of Malaysian immigrants is far worse than the US’s treatment of, say, Mexican immigrants and seasonal farm workers. It is much better than Europe’s general treatment of immigrants (including of Western Europe’s treatment of mainly Slavic eastern Europeans but also Greeks and Turks), and it is waaaaay better than what Japan and South Korea currently offer migrants (South Asia and the Arab Gulf are even worse, of course, and I won’t even get into the details of India’s internal migratory problems vis-a-vis the post-colonial “federalism” currently in place there).

      I think there is a good case to be made that the United States offers a good (but certainly not perfect; see Delacroix) example of an internationalist state.

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