The blood of the victims of the Charlie Hebdo terror attack in Paris yesterday hadn’t yet been washed away from the floor of the newsroom before a persistent meme started working its way into the coverage of this atrocity. Even as people around the world reacted with shock and horror to the murder of 10 journalists and two police officers by Islamist terrorists, some in the media began speaking of a possible backlash against Muslims as the most important consequence of the crime. While such fears are not entirely unreasonable, it is important to understand that much of the discussion about a backlash has less to do with the actual plight of Muslims in the West as it does with an effort to reshape the narrative of this event to one in which political Islam is taken off the hook for what it has wrought. As much as we ought to condemn any actions that seek to target innocent Muslims, the impulse to treat Islamist beliefs as the victim rather than part of the problem is a terrible mistake.
Talk about a backlash should have a ring of inauthenticity to Americans. Many here rightly understand that the notion of a post-9/11 backlash is largely a myth that has been promoted by those who wish to change the subject from that of the very real threat from Islamism to a non-existent threat to U.S. Muslims from their fellow citizens. There is no statistical proof of a surge in attacks on Muslims after 9/11. If anything, both the country’s political leadership and those who guide popular culture have gone overboard in their attempts to disassociate Islam from those who kill in its name.
But Europe is very different from the United States. That is not just because the continent has always been fertile ground for hatred of minorities in a way that is not true of America. The huge influx of immigrants from the Middle East and North Africa has roiled societies that did not have good records in dealing with minorities (such as Jews) in the past. French society has been especially disturbed by the creation of large no-go zones for non-Muslims and immigrants who have created what may well be called “Islamist mini-states” in Parisian suburbs where neither police nor other Frenchmen dare trespass. In response, the rise of anti-immigrant parties such as the Front National led by Marine Le Pen (who succeeded her even more extreme father) have created a hostile atmosphere in which it is hard for Muslims from North Africa to assimilate into French society even if they wish to do so.
Thus, to dismiss fears of a backlash or at least a spike in anti-Muslim incidents in France or elsewhere in Europe would be foolish. But the immediate pivot from outrage about the Charlie Hebdo attack to even more vociferous denunciations of any effort to pin the blame for this crime on Islamist beliefs is about something other than concern for innocent Muslims. When writers like the New York Times’s Nicholas Kristof write a piece comparing the connection between Islam and the terror attack to one between Christianity and atrocities committed in the former Yugoslavia they are doing more than making a specious analogy. The purpose is to obscure the clear connection between a branch of Islam that has the support of tens of millions of people around the world. Contrary to Yale’s Jason Stanley, the Islam mocked by Charlie Hebdo is not, as he also wrote in the Times, that of an “oppressed minority” but of an aggressive worldwide faith that actively oppresses non-Muslims and seeks to eradicate the only non-Muslim majority state in the region.
While the vast majority of Muslims in the West may abhor terrorism, many living in the no-go zones or attending mosques with radical imams are not so fastidious. Even worse, large percentages of the population of Muslim and Arab countries, and the governments of more than a couple, actively subscribe to Islamism. The problem is that Islamist movements are clear threats to the security of many Muslim countries such as Egypt and in control in other places like Iran. To pretend that Islamist terrorists have beliefs that are not shared to a considerable degree by huge percentages of the populations of such countries is to engage in a deception whose goal is to distract us from a horrible truth and not to defend it.
Western governments and media figures that refuse to identify the Charlie Hebdo terrorists or al-Qaeda or ISIS killers as Islamist in nature are also making it harder for us to deal with a genuine threat. Their motive may be to rightly avoid casting the conflict as one between the West and all Muslims. But to ignore the fact that Islam motivates terrorists is to unilaterally disarm the West against a lethal foe.
We should by all means discourage any acts of violence or expressions of prejudice against individual Muslims. But at the same time we must not engage in a pretense that these crimes were not manufactured by a particularly noxious brand of Islam. Rather than cloaking themselves in the guise of victims, Muslims must finally embrace an opportunity to join the fight against Islamist killers that kill more of their co-religionists than Westerners. If instead they join efforts to preemptively recast the narrative of Charlie Hebdo to one about an anti-Muslim backlash, they will be giving the terrorists valuable assistance and discarding a chance to help isolate the killers and their supporters.