Reflections on Paris

By Matt Corden

The immediate response to any tragedy of this sort should be a profound sense of grief for the fallen. Despite the ferocity of the attack and the agonisingly innocent victims, inspirational resilience has been shown by the citizens of Paris.

After President Hollande declared war on radical Islamism, it didn’t take long before we were lectured about the dangers of “escalating the conflict,” “giving them what they want” or “the narrative of us and them.” But the conflict has been going on for over two decades now, they already have what they want and they’ve already made it about us and them. Throughout the 1990s, the Armed Islamic Group were attempting to set up an Islamic State in Algeria; al-Qaeda were still running their global network of jihad from a safe haven in Afghanistan; and regular attacks were happening not just on American and European targets, but as far away as India, Indonesia and the Philippines. Islamic jihad – that has absolutism, supremacism and a cult of death at its core – had already succeeded in making coexistence with it impossible a long time ago. Today its hyperactive militancy is being felt around the world every single day, from Nigeria to Somalia to Syria. Events in Paris were a timely reminder that people cannot expect a cosy life of liberal democracy in their own European cities under the pretence that this is “none of our business.” If Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi and his followers are going to be internationalists, then we’re going to have to be too. As Alex Massie has eloquently put it: you may not be interested in war, but war is interested in you.

Those looking for peace for our time will have to get used to the fact that it will be on al-Baghdadi’s terms. The world will have to get used to the idea of a Caliphate empire; women will have to get used to covering themselves if they don’t want acid thrown in their face; homosexuals will have to get used to being thrown off buildings; and anybody else who doesn’t submit to their absolutist religious demands will have to get used to being raped or put to death at any time. Anybody who thinks these are acceptable conditions for peace better get ready for their demise.

I have the feeling that some on social media missed the irony of their outrage when they pointed out excessive media coverage of Paris in comparison to the attacks in Beirut or Baghdad. The wake-up call is welcome, but if the Parisian attack was what was needed to draw their attention to the global nature of this conflict, then they should at least have the decency to question their own parochial attitudes too.

It’s ironically Eurocentric to insist that jihad is simply a product of Western imperialism; it’s obvious in the language of their sermons and communiques that it’s inherent in the ideology of religious absolutism. Paris was ridiculed by the attackers as “the capital of prostitution and obscenity;” alienation, economic hardship, colonialism or any of the other usual apologia you hear wasn’t mentioned once. To pick just one example: the slaughter of the Yazidi Christians – dug up from a mass grave last week after the liberation of Sinjar – was not the result of their unrelenting imperialism or their drone warfare.

The question looms over us all as to how much security we’re willing to sacrifice for liberty or how much liberty we’re willing to sacrifice for security, forever searching for that happy medium between the state of nature and Hobbesian absolutism. I think history will be unkind to Theresa May in her attempt to police the free exchange of ideas by banning fundamentalist opinion on the airwaves and on University campuses, citing the painfully vague principle of “protecting British values.” Aside from negating moral universalism by nationalising principles, it will also drive a very serious ideological crisis underground. It removes the impetus to discus why democracy and pluralism are worth having in the first place. This isn’t just for my sake; it’s for the sake of the ongoing dialectic and debate within Muslim communities on this urgent issue. By extension, commonly held illiberal views regarding homosexuality, blasphemy or the role of women need to be confronted head on.

It should go without saying that Muslims or migrants should not be collectively blamed for these atrocities; freedom of religion and the assumption of innocence is an inseparable part of pluralist society. The refugees from war-torn Syria are escaping the same violent theocrats who rendered their ugly faces at the Stade de France. It’s becoming more apparent that sexually frustrated European-born teenagers are the problem, as the perpetrators in Paris have so far shown. The shooting at Chapel Hill or thuggish nationalist groups like PEGIDA highlight that the assumption of innocence is not yet universally appreciated. The French Front National is the one of the largest extreme-Right parties in Europe, receiving funds directly from Mr. Putin.

Most of the victims of armed jihad are Muslims. Innumerable sacred monuments of Shi’a Islam have been blown up by Sunni gangsters. Huge sections of the Kurdish resistance against Islamic State in Iraq and Syria are Sunni Muslim by confession. In fighting the Taliban, the Northern Alliance of Afghanistan – led by the heroic Ahmad Shah Massoud – consisted almost entirely of pious Muslims. Meanwhile, the youth of Iran have unanimously agreed that a holy book is no guide from which to run a society, choosing instead to look towards the secular American model. All of this points to an ongoing war of reformation between the peace-loving modernists and the militant medievalists. The reformation within the reformation is between the secular Muslims and the politically-motivated Islamists.

For this reason, it’s facile – even if it’s well meaning – to pretend that militant jihad isn’t an Islamic issue. By denying the religious connection and insisting that that these attacks are mutually exclusive, you deny the power of the liberal reformists in the Muslim world to challenge and destroy the extremists. Progressive Muslim commentators are leading the campaign to drop the faddish notion of “this is not Islam.” David Cameron – on the advice of the exemplary reformist Maajid Nawaz – is one of the few world leaders to explicitly recognize the religious aspirations of terror. I don’t know whether violence is inherent in Islamic teaching, and neither do those who declare with such conviction that it isn’t. I can only have a vague suspicion that stories of Muhammad ordering the death of Asma bint Marwan for blasphemy hadsomething to do with the Charlie Hebdo attack, or that stories of Muhammad expelling the Jewish Banu Qaynuqa tribe from Medina has something to do with the the rampant anti-Semitism within Islamist circles. This makes it all the more important to engage with dissenting voices in the Muslim world, as they will ultimately be the ones to prise out this fundamentalist tendency.

In the end this is not a war between civilizations, this is a war for civilization. The French traditions of liberté, égalité, fraternité and laicité are always worth defending against those who wish to destroy them.

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