If we take at face value the initial reports that the people who murdered twelve people in Paris were Muslims taking revenge on that satirical magazine for its caricatures of Mohammed and general irreverence, then it is likely that they, and any larger group that was behind them, had two other goals as well.
One is undoubtedly to intimidate others from similarly making fun of their religious beliefs. In this they have to be countered. The main way that this can be done is if other media, rather than shy away from drawing cartoons and other forms of irreverence against sacred cows, actually increase their efforts. Of course, this is easy for me to say, as one who does not have the visibility to be a likely target, but the safety here does lie in numbers.
But another more subtle goal of such groups may be to spark a harsh reaction and thus get most Muslims in France (and other western nations) to feel a sense of being an oppressed group. As Juan Cole says:
The problem for a terrorist group like al-Qaeda is that its recruitment pool is Muslims, but most Muslims are not interested in terrorism. Most Muslims are not even interested in politics, much less political Islam. France is a country of 66 million, of which about 5 million is of Muslim heritage. But in polling, only a third, less than 2 million, say that they are interested in religion. French Muslims may be the most secular Muslim-heritage population in the world (ex-Soviet ethnic Muslims often also have low rates of belief and observance). Many Muslim immigrants in the post-war period to France came as laborers and were not literate people, and their grandchildren are rather distant from Middle Eastern fundamentalism, pursuing urban cosmopolitan culture such as rap and rai. In Paris, where Muslims tend to be better educated and more religious, the vast majority reject violence and say they are loyal to France.
Al-Qaeda wants to mentally colonize French Muslims, but faces a wall of disinterest. But if it can get non-Muslim French to be beastly to ethnic Muslims on the grounds that they are Muslims, it can start creating a common political identity around grievance against discrimination.
Al Qaeda had spectacular success with this with this strategy in the US with the 9/11 attacks where the US reacted by starting unnecessary and never-ending wars against Muslim nations and France has been part of that effort. As a result, we see expressions of hostility towards Muslims in the form of profiling and targeting for harassment. If France makes the mistake of turning against all the Muslims living in France and thus radicalizing them, they will be furthering the goals of the killers and their possible backers.
There is a curious debate going on even in atheist (or at least non-believing circles) about the proper stance to take against Islam. Is it an exceptionally evil religion because of the atrocities that groups like ISIS/ISIL/IS, the Taliban, Boko Haram and others have committed and the appalling restrictions on women, gays, and non-Muslims in many Muslim-majority countries? Or is it a result of a confluence of factors that have enabled a small fraction of religious extremists to take advantage of?
As a general rule, I think it is unwise to issue blanket condemnations of any large population group based on the behavior of a subgroup, as such generalizations are invariably unsustainable. I feel that my own experience may shed some light on the complexity of the issue and defuse some of the general hostility towards all Muslims that I have seen expressed in some skeptical circles.
I am an ethnic Tamil from Sri Lanka. People of my ethnicity, not Muslims, were in fact the pioneers in suicide bombing that was developed in the course of their separatist struggle by the Tamil Tigers against the Sri Lankan government. If you go back just one or two decades or so, the phrase ‘suicide bomber’ would immediately conjure up the image of a Tamil just like me, not a Muslim, showing how transitory these stereotypes can be. If profiling had taken place then, I would have been one of those profiled.
The Tamil Tigers were driven by nationalist, ethnic, and political motives, not primarily religious ones, though there were religious overtones to the conflict. The Tamils felt that they were being treated unjustly and repressed by the majority Sinhala government and community, and the Tigers used suicide bombings as a tool to wage war. Those suicide bombers did what they did for largely secular political reasons, not out of religious motives, and did not need bizarre promises of virgins in heaven and the like to commit their acts of severe destruction. So the idea that it is only supposed religious rewards that drives people to suicidal acts of terror is not generally true.
While I think that all religions are forces for evil and we would be better without them, I feel that in the current conflict, people seem to be attributing too much to religious causes. Religion has undoubtedly served as a potent rallying cry to energize people and is the proximate cause for much of the carnage but is usually not the ultimate cause. If we think that the people doing these acts are doing it only for religious reasons, we are grossly oversimplifying the situation.
It is undoubtedly true that things like the recent murders at Charlie Hebdo have a proximate religious cause. Similarly the recent murders of schoolchildren in Pakistan were done by groups that are religiously motivated and hostile to women and education for religious reasons. But that proximate cause could not have been the ultimate reason since these kinds of mass killings are a fairly recent phenomenon in Pakistan that was once set to become a modern state, although its people have always been Muslim. There are real, non-religious grievances at the base of the conflict that have enabled the religious fanatics to dominate the discourse and drive events. The particular evil of religion is that it is often the easiest way to drive people to commit evil acts because, as Voltaire presciently pointed out, “As long as people believe in absurdities, they will continue to commit atrocities.”
But apart from that general reluctance to issue blanket condemnations of Muslims or any other large group that happens to share some common characteristic, another is due to my personal experience with being at the receiving end of this kind of broad-brush demonization. I lived in Sri Lanka during the beginning of that ethnic conflict. I strongly opposed the killing of civilians by the Tamil Tigers but I also deeply resented the implication that I was somehow at least partly responsible for any acts that they committed, merely because they shared my ethnicity. I also deeply resented the fact that in order to evade that implicit responsibility, I was expected to ‘prove’ my opposition to civilian deaths by publicly denouncing every killing of civilians by the Tigers, when the members of the majority community were under no obligation to prove their own ‘moderation’ by denouncing every act of killing of civilians by the government troops. This mock interview of a Muslim illustrates the bind that ordinary Muslims face now and what I faced back in Sri Lanka then.
Now in the US, so-called ‘moderate Muslims’ are expected to repeatedly prove their ‘moderation’ by denouncing every outrageous act of groups like ISIS or Taliban, but ‘moderate non-Muslim Americans’ are under no obligation to denounce every act of drone killing of civilians by the US government or every act of torture that it commits. In fact, polls find that the majority of Americans actually support torture and think that the deaths of civilians in drone attacks are justified. But I am sure that we would be resentful if the entire nation received a blanket condemnation of being torture apologists and the murderers of innocents, and that those of us who did not share that feeling had to repeatedly prove our bona fides.
Maybe my ability to see Muslims as individuals arises from the fact that I grew up in Sri Lanka having a large number of Muslim friends, with their families and my families being close, with my going in and out of their homes and they in mine, and seeing them as people just like me. Muslims certainly believe crazy stuff but so do all religious people, including me when I was younger and a Christian. This makes it hard for me to demonize them as a group and tar them all with the same broad brush used to paint ISIS, the Taliban, Boko Haram, and the like.
Since coming to the US, I still maintain my contacts with my Muslim friends in Sri Lanka but have not made a single new Muslim friend here (except for one who is a Sufi, a tiny branch of Islam that is considered to be heretical and not ‘really’ Muslim by the orthodox) because they are so rare that I don’t meet many. I suspect that many non-Muslim Americans have not met a single Muslim, let alone have them as friends. When you don’t know members of some group personally, it is easy to perceive them as some exotic other, a monolithic group who are not like you in some fundamental way.
But if we treat all of them harshly and indiscriminately based on who they are and not on what they do, we will end up making the problem worse.