By now you might feel that you have read all you need to about the events in Paris last week that triggered worldwide sympathy for a France absorbing the shock of terrorist attacks. Nevertheless, to discuss ways of fighting back against this latest form of terrorism we may still need to put the event in some context.
Looking for a shorthand analysis, some commentators branded the event as the latest example of the “clash of civilizations” foreseen by Samuel Huntington two decades ago. We are told that the assassination of cartoonists and the murder of Jewish shoppers showed Islam, as a civilization, challenging the Christian civilization, its rival for more than 15 centuries. There are at least two problems with that analysis.
The first is that Islam and Christianity, in their many varieties, are religions and can hardly be regarded as “civilizations.” There is a European civilization which has, in the name of the Enlightenment, progress, human rights, and more recently democracy, helped reshape the whole world. However, that civilization traces back its origins to ancient Greece and Rome. If anything, Christianity, once it had become the state religion under Emperor Constantine, tried to de-Europeanize the European civilization but ended up becoming one of its many ingredients.
On the Islamic side, one could speak of Arab, Iranian and Turkish civilizations, among many others, of which Islam is a major component. However, in every case, none could be understood with exclusive reference to Islam. The Arabs had developed several civilizations of their own, long before Islam appeared, as had the various Iranic and Turkic peoples. In the same way that reducing Chinese civilization to Buddhism or the Indian to Hinduism is reductive, suggesting that all 57 Muslim-majority nations belong to a single bloc at war against a Christian bloc is misleading.
The second problem with the “clash of civilizations” analysis is that even the various groups and countries that use Islam as a political ideology rather than a religion cannot be regarded as a monolithic bloc with a common strategy. We are already witnessing an inflation of pretensions towards Caliph-hood. The Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS) has its caliph just as the Taliban have their own Amir Al-Mu’mineen (Commander of the Faithful). Al-Shabaab and Boko Haram have also named their respective caliphs. Iran has a “Supreme Guide” who claims to be the religious leader of all Muslims, while branches of Al-Qaeda have retained their own fatwa-issuing “sheikhs.”
All those caliphs, commanders of the faithful, sheikhs and “Supreme Guides” have killed and continue to kill many more Muslims than Christians, and that is not to mention a string of peaceful pirs, imams, sheikhs, murshids, and qutbs that reign over millions of people in the name of their competing versions of Islam. In Pakistan, for example, the Pir (Elder) of Pagara has more followers than the Iranian “Supreme Guide,” but less money to promote himself.
Does all that mean that the Paris attack had nothing to do with Islam, as President François Hollande suggests? No, it is not up to Hollande to decide who is Muslim and who is not. And it is foolish to deny that trees grown in a forest bear no relation to it. While admitting that the killers were Muslims by religion, just as they were French by nationality, what matters is what they did: terrorism. Didn’t Aristotle suggest that character is action, that you are what you do?
This is not the first time that Europe has experienced terrorism. In fact, in its modern history, the old continent has often suffered from terror used as a means of seeking power. This is partly because it is easier to practice terrorism in a democracy than it is in parts of the world under autocratic and/or totalitarian rule. In those places, the terrorist is quickly caught and wiped out along with his entire family, clan and tribe, or would have to flee abroad to save his life. In Iran, the Shah’s regime, trying to imitate a democracy, never took off the kid gloves and thus failed to eliminate Islamist and Marxist terrorists. Ayatollah Khomeini took off those gloves and all terror groups ended up in graveyards, prison, exile, or (for the more opportunistic ones) in cabinet seats.
There were no terrorists in Nazi Germany, or in the Soviet Union, or under Saddam Hussein in Iraq. Sometimes, the terrorist even comes to power, as happened in Russia in 1917, Germany in 1932, Cuba in 1959, Iran in 1979, and Afghanistan in 1995, which again means the end of private sector terrorism. Terrorism is one of the many parasites that feed on democracy while trying to kill it. European democracy faced a terrorist challenge, in many different shapes and on different scales, from the earliest stages. In the 19th century, it coped with Anarchists, Narodniks, Nihilists and separatist movements.
In the last century, European and American democracies had to fight Marxist groups operating under different labels: Trotskyites, Leninists, Maoists, Castroists, and so on, just as Islamist terrorists now claim to represent “true Islam,” those leftist terror groups pretended to be heirs to “true Socialism.” It was foolish to claim they had nothing to do with Socialism, but even more foolish to believe that Socialism started and ended with them.
The general perception is that terrorism directed against the US started with Al-Qaeda, or at least Islamist groups. However, three US presidents have been assassinated by homegrown Christian terrorists. In the 1960s and 1970s, the US was struck by a range of terror groups, including the Black Panthers, a Puerto Rican liberation army, and smaller armed leftist gangs, all of them composed of people of Christian background, at least in theory. In the 1970s and early 1980s European democracies were wondering how to cope with groups such as Baader-Meinhof, the Red Army Faction, the Red Brigade, the Communist Combatant Cells, and Action Directe, not to mention Corsican, Basque, Breton and Irish nationalist groups.
Unlike the Kouachi brothers and Amedy Coulibaly, who were French citizens, the jihadist terrorists who carried out attacks in France and other European countries in the 1980s and 1990s were foreigners often sent by the Khomeinist regime in Tehran or Palestinian organizations. A democracy cannot apply “surgical solutions” to terrorism. The families of the Kouachi brothers who killed the Charlie Hebdo editors were released after a few hours of questioning. Their “religious guide,” a Franco–Tunisian nursing student, wasn’t even questioned though he walked into a police station on his own accord.
The long-term and most effective antidote to terrorism is democratization. This is borne out not only by the European experience but also by the success of Latin American nations in defeating their homegrown terrorists. The more democratic they became, the more successful they became in fighting terror.
Terrorists see democracies as soft targets. Provided you are not suicidal, like the Kouachi brothers, the worst that could happen to you is a prison sentence, which, in time, is cut by half for good behavior. What terrorists do not understand is that a democracy does not think like them. A democracy does not want to kill the individual terrorist but to defeat terrorism. This is why, for the past 150 years, terrorism has always lost and democracy has always won. This time will be no different.