The three goals of the Charlie Hebdo killers


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.

Comments

  1. bmiller says

    Can I just say, Manu, that this is one of the clearest explanations of the issues, and the clarity is helped by something lacking in most commenters and shouting heads…personal experience!

    Thank You!

  2. md says

    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.

    And what would a mistake of this caliber look like, Mano? Debating mass immigration? Because Id like to. I’d like to specifically because I wonder what the wisdom is in allowing mass immigration of a people some non trivial portion of which can be radicalized into violence by mere debate, and some other non-trivial portion of which will approve of it if not actually participate (Remember that when popularity of Osama bin Laden was at its lowest he was still approved of by some 20% of populations around the muslim world), if its debate over immigration that you imply is a mistake. So that’s my question, Is that your point here, that if FN gains 15% in the polls or something ‘the goals of the killers and their backers’ are furthered?

  3. Rob Grigjanis says

    Very well said.

    I’m extremely lucky in that the educational opportunities open to me allowed me to meet and interact with* people from all over the world. It’s a lot harder to support or ignore policies that harm people, near or far, when you can attach a name or a face to the ‘target’.

    * Mostly playing soccer!

  4. Great American Satan says

    md – I can’t speak for Mano, but the answer I’d give is absolutely yes. Persecution of muslims can radicalize them, the same as persecution of Irish catholics can radicalize them. FN’s name clearly states their goal: Nationalism, or state boundaries drawn and enforced on ethnic lines, which is racist as hell. *

    There are already attacks on mosques (and incidentally synagogues) throughout France, on the increase. Racist public discourse fostered by nationalist politicians fuels hatred in the streets, leads to mosques burning, gives the Taliban a recruitment boost. This is patently obvious.

    *Just googled nationalism and found it’s a bit more abstract and weirdly defined than I indicated here, but it is noncontroversial in mainstream discourse to say nationalist parties are cesspits of racism. UKIP anyone?

  5. md says

    Racist public discourse fostered by nationalist politicians fuels hatred in the streets, leads to mosques burning, gives the Taliban a recruitment boost. This is patently obvious.

    That’s a nice and pat formulation of causality you have there. I think I’ll add ‘Shooting up a satirical magazine leads to’ + ‘Racist public discourse fostered by…’ in front of it. Or is it only FN politicians to whom you attribute agency?

  6. Glenn says

    Since most Americans approve of torture AND consider themselves to be Patriotic, this joke should be well received:

    Prisoner is getting a rectal feeding. Patriot asks if he would like some
    coffee. Prisoner nods yes. Funnel up the ass, the coffee is poured in
    and the prisoner screams.

    Patriot asks if the coffee is too hot.

    Prisoner screams, NO! TOO SWEET! TOO SWEET!

  7. tecolata says

    How often is it demanded in the US that “moderate Christians” condemn Eric Rudolph or Scott Roeder? Or that “moderate whites” condemn the bombing at NAACP?

  8. aashiq says

    Excellent post Mano! Clear and to the point.

    I would add that this type of violence is actually a desperate attempt at stimulating recruitment among Muslims…most of whom are simply not interested in violence. By attacking Western targets are trying to stimulate a harsh response, which would then be used to recruit marginal disaffected individuals. This is what bin Laden did with 9/11, to draw us into war.

  9. steffp says

    Beautifully put, Mr Singham. For the last year, I’ve retired to Germany, and I live in a part of Hamburg that’s predominantly populated by rather secular second-generation immigrants from turkey, most of them Sunni and Ahmadija. So they are my neighbors, they will accept deliveries from Amazon if I’m not at home, and I have configured my computer to act as a voice-controlled translator in case complicated issues need recourse to their native language. Their wives have their own jobs, but will wear headscarves when out on the street, it seems to save hairdresser costs. And there are pretty cute ways to wear a headscarf. None of those neighbors feels any connection to IS or the pressure-cooker Boston bombers or, now, the people who massacred Jews, media publishers, draftsmen and police officers in Paris.
    They look upon those killers in exactly the same way as Christians worldwide looked upon that Norwegian bomber and kid-killer Anders Breivig a few years ago. “Why apologize? Isn’t it clear that I’m not condoning murder at all, regardless of the motives?”
    Demanding an apology is furthering the insinuation that not only all Muslims are alike, but that they are represented by guys with a very problematic grasp of the Qur’an.
    My Turkish vegetable vendor keeps telling me the joke about the Coptic Christian couple that is stopped at gunpoint, and asked to prove they’re Muslim. The Husband boldly recites a few verses from the bible, and they’re allowed to pass. The wife, when they’re securely away from the roadblock, says “But that was not the Qur’an you cited! Why did you go such a risk?” Answers husband: “because I knew he wouldn’t know the difference – he’s ISIS”.

  10. Great American Satan says

    md @ 5 – I’ll accept that plus. But that just makes the French fuckfaces burning mosques and equating muslim immigration with the holocaust in response to terrorists complicit in the terrorist agenda. And good times were had by all.

  11. EnlightenmentLiberal says

    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.”

    I don’t understand by what process or method you categorize things as “proximate causes” or “ultimate causes”.

    (Tangent: There is this IMHO rather stupid man named Scott Atran, who has done lots of work interviewing Muslims who almost became suicide bombers, their friends, etc. He was asked if there was ever a single Muslim suicide bomber who blew themselves up expecting paradise, and he answered “no”, which is ludicrous.)

    When I hear “proximate” and “ultimate”, I think of silly things like “guns don’t kill people, bullets kill people”. Of course the bullet fired from the gun is the immediate cause (or “proximate” cause), but the underlying cause of that is the person who pulled the trigger (“ultimate” cause).

    I don’t see that parallel in this situation. I don’t see the standard non-religious grievances as being a whole explanation of Muslim extremism, and religious extremism in general. Unless you are making the argument that the whole of Muslim extremism is the result of anger from colonization, western exploitation, wars from western countries, Palestine, etc.?

    On the contrary, I see both 1- Muslim religious beliefs, and 2- anger from colonization, western exploitation, wars from western countries, Palestine, etc., as important and equal causes in some cases of violence. Equal in the sense that one is not the underlying cause of the other, but not equal in the sense that both play an equally important or strong causal role in all cases. In some cases, a person who does violence does so primarily because of anger about colonization, western exploitation, wars from western countries, Palestine, etc., and religion is just a convenient excuse or label or some such. In other cases, a person who does violence does it primarily because be believes that his religious beliefs demand that he does so, and his behavior is not the result of any personal anger towards the west regarding colonization, exploitation, war, Palestine, etc.

    I think this is a very reasonable position.

    I think you go too far when you assert that religious beliefs are never “ultimate causes” and are always “proximate causes”.

    We see all over the world, Christian, Muslim, Jew, etc. – we see religious people who really do believe what they say they believe, and who act rationally on those (irrational) beliefs. I think it is a folly of some of the western left when they seemingly refuse to believe that some religious people really do believe some batshit crazy things, and who instead want to blame it all on colonization, exploitation, war, Palestine, etc. – anything but the batshit crazy religious beliefs. (Again, of course, there are plenty on the other side who wrongly blame it all on religious beliefs or blame religion to an unreasonable degree. I’m looking at you Sam Harris.)

  12. Mano Singham says

    Enlightenment Liberal,

    While religions have been around for a long time and their belief structures are pretty stable, religious conflicts vary with time and place, suggesting that other factors (like the ones you name plus other issues involving borders and water and land and many others) bring these differences to the surface and are used to inflame people against those on the other side of that particular issue. Religious feeling is something that is easily aroused (as is race and language and nationality). When that happens, some inflamed individuals do act on religious grounds as I said in the post and this can be said to be the proximate cause.

    In the many, many conflicts in the subcontinent, it is not hard to see how religion was exploited to serve political ends. The Catholic-Protestant battles in Ireland are similarly political in origin though many of the individuals who killed each other undoubtedly did it out of the religious fervor generated by the struggle.

  13. EnlightenmentLiberal says

    @Mano
    No disagreement. I agree.

    I just think the motivation from the religious belief is greater than 0, and it’s causal role is more than just a convenient “us vs them” identifier. I think you do too.

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