In one of those eerie coincidences, the day of the Charlie Hebdo atrocity saw the publication of a novel by the grumpy French intellectual Michel Houellebecq (pronounced Wellbeck).
Entitled Submission, it envisioned a charismatic candidate from the Muslim Brotherhood winning the French presidency in 2022 and, in coalition with the other parties, gradually taking over the education system.
Readers hoping for a Bat Ye’or/Mark Steyn/Frank Gaffney style takedown of Islamism were disappointed. The president, Mohammed Ben-Abbes, is depicted more-or-less sympathetically, and Islam is portrayed as filling an emptiness in the soulless French state.
What is most striking, though, is the way in which, in the run-up to the 2022 election, French citizens take for granted a rising level of unrest – and take for granted, too, that it is going unreported. Riots, bombs and shootings have become a natural background to life, and when the narrator says that “the civil war has begun,” it is almost a casual observation.
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“The civil war has begun.” Since the Nice abomination, those words keep coming into my mind. When the Charlie Hebdo attack took place last year, I wondered whether it might be a one-off, an epochal, never-to-be-repeated enormity.
But it was soon surpassed by the horror of the Bataclan massacre – over which the authorities now stand accused of having covered up details of torture and mutilation. Now Nice.
The traditional comment-page debate that follows these attacks is starting to sound miserably tired. The two most common articles – “Nothing To Do With Islam” and “All Muslims Are Potential Terrorists” – are equally silly.
I wrote in this space last week about how absurd it is to treat deranged killers like Dylann Roof or Micah Johnson as representative of white or black America, and it is equally absurd to treat Mohamed Lahouaiej-Bouhlel, the Nice killer, as representative of more than a billion Muslims.
Nothing in the man’s background suggests religious observance: He was a drinker, a sex addict and a petty criminal.
The only group Bouhlel may fairly be said to represent is other Islamist murderers. They, too, tend to have led strikingly immoral lives, and to be motivated less by faith than by narcissism.
As the leading U.S. expert on radicalization told the Senate, “What inspires the most lethal terrorists in the world today is not so much the Koran or religious teachings as a thrilling cause and call to action that promises glory and esteem in the eyes of friends.”
At the same time, though, it would be idiotic to claim there is no connection between these murderers and the religion they avow. Try a little thought experiment. Suppose you were sitting in a bar, and saw another customer leap to his feet crying, “Jesus is Lord!” My guess is that you would glance away in embarrassment. Substitute “Allahu Akbar!” and you’d be diving for cover.
Yes, the murderers are irreligious. Yes, they can fairly be described as blasphemers against the faith they claim to hold. Yes, imams around the world have pronounced fatwahs against them. Yes, Muslims are their main victims.
Still, “nothing to do with Islam?” Many Crusaders were also brutal and irreligious men, who carried out what were, even by the standards of their own age, war crimes. But would we say that the Crusades had “nothing to do with Christianity?”
We are dealing with a minority of alienated young men – they are mainly young, and overwhelmingly men – who have found, like other alienated young men in other ages, an ideology that justifies their violent inclinations.
The one way to ensure that their numbers grow is to take them at their own estimate. To treat them not as deranged losers but as soldiers in a higher cause. To vindicate their contention that there is an incompatibility between being a practicing Muslim and a loyal citizen in a Western democracy.
In Houellebecq’s novel, Ben-Abbes wins because all the main parties back him against Marine Le Pen, the National Front candidate. I fear Madame Le Pen will be the chief beneficiary of these killings, just as I fear Donald Trump will be the beneficiary of the killings in Dallas and Baton Rouge, La.
The threat of violence flicks switches in our brains, making us behave – and vote – differently. Just as these terrorist outrages will push French voters to Le Pen, so her rise will push more French Muslims to radicalism. From where I’m standing, there are few good outcomes.