The bastion of Western liberalism on this side of the pond opined that the massacre in France today was “motivated by hate.” No it wasn’t. The goal of the Islamic militants in this dastardly undertaking was not to traumatize the French people or undermine the French state. It was not meant to extract political concessions from the regime. Nor was the goal to highlight the plight of a persecuted minority; or secure vengeance for wrongs committed by French forces against Muslims. No. The goal was to intimidate the media into showing deference to sacred symbols of the Islamic faith. This is not your run-of-the-mill terrorism.
Politically motivated violence has its own logic. Terrorism is usually the weapon of the weak. More often than not, the psychological message of terror is: “You think you can keep crushing us without consequence? No, we will spill your blood until you recognize the injustice you are doing to us.” The goal is quite clearly political. In modern times, terrorists have usually been motivated by nationalism. Their terror is mostly directed against occupying powers. A Serbian terrorist famously assassinated the Archduke of Austria; Irish militants bombed British targets to secure an independent Ireland; Indian extremists carried out assassinations of British Raj officials; Tamil Tigers attacked the regime in Colombo; ETA carried out attacks against the Spanish regime; and so on and so forth. The solution is usually simple: the government must reach some sort of a political accommodation with the nationalists.
A more virulent form of politically motivated violence is one that is driven almost purely by ideology. The goal is to upend the existing order and replace it by some sort of utopia. Marxist-Leninist and Maoist groups want to not only bring down the government, they also want to dismantle the state and the property relations that go with it. Theoretically, the goal is to replace the existing social order with a much more egalitarian one. But in practice, it means the dictatorship of the party. Most Islamist militants are really nationalist agitators—think Chechens or Palestinians—whose nationalist struggle is thinly veiled by Islamic ideology. On the other hand, Salafist-Jihadists are almost purely ideologically driven—it is only to them that the term “Islamo-fascist” can be faithfully applied. These guys want to establish a caliphate; some immediately, others eventually. ISIS has already prematurely proclaimed one in the heart of the Middle East. When ISIS militants and their fans raise their index finger—which for regular Muslims just means tawhid or a commitment to strict monotheism—they are proclaiming the global supremacy of their literal interpretation of God’s law. Their goal is nothing short of the establishment of a Salafist-Jihadist world state. The solution to ideologically-driven terrorists is simple again: they must be conclusively defeated; no government can compromise with groups that espouse unlimited aims.
So where do these Parisian Islamists fit in? They may be inspired by the success of ISIS, but they are likely to be self-radicalized. Their goal is not the establishment of an Islamic state in the heart of Europe. Their goal is intimidation. This is the psychology of the bully: “How dare you insult the Prophet? We will kill with such brutality that no one will attempt such insolence again.” This is not an attack on the French. This is an attack on the Enlightenment. Unfortunately, in this case there are no simple solutions: attempts to root out home-grown Islamic terror usually end up undermining the very values we are trying to defend. Brutal crackdowns promised by the hard right are likely to backfire. There is no substitute for diligent intelligence work and the cultivation of sympathetic contacts by law enforcement inside the Muslim community.
This is a time for us—the children of the Enlightenment—to recommit ourselves to the defence of the freedom of speech. What does that mean? It means this: You do not believe in the freedom of speech unless you are willing to defend the right of the person who you disagree with to speak without fear. More pertinently it means that whether or not you think that the Charlie Hebdo cartoons were in good taste, they had a right to publish them; irrespective of what France’s 5 million Muslims feel about it.
And Islamists: Do you want to know why the Islamic world has failed to keep up with the West since the eighteenth century? It was then that the West discovered the principles of open society. That is to say, the values of the Enlightenment. And it all started in Paris. Call us when you have caught up with France circa 1751. Meanwhile, get this once and for all: You will not be able to intimidate us.