In the aftermath of last month’s rampage in France—17 people died at the hands of three Muslim terrorists, who were subsequently killed by French police—many strident supporters of Western civilization turned their anger and fear on the Muslim world as a whole. In Germany record numbers came out for demonstrations against immigration; in France retaliatory attacks struck mosques and Muslim-owned businesses; and in the United Kingdom politicians seized on the violence to issue sneering rejections of multiculturalism.
After enduring years of terrorist strikes by Islamic extremists—from Sept. 11, 2001, to Jan. 7—the West appears now trapped in a reactionary loop, defaulting to military and rhetorical responses that do little to terminate this unwarranted and increasingly perilous clash of civilizations. In the wake of the Paris attack, shaken citizens and leaders are calling for deeper scrutiny and control of Muslim communities in the West and an immigration blockade that would presumably end any further weakening of Christian and secular hegemony in Europe. Those ambitions neatly dovetail, of course, with the aims of Muslim extremists, whether on the front lines in Syria or operating behind the scenes in Saudi Arabia. They would like nothing more than a mindlessly vigorous reaction from the West to buttress an ideology whose life-breath is conflict.
A more promising response to this latest outrage was a national examination of conscience of sorts undertaken in France, where the persisting isolation and deficit of opportunity of Muslim communities have become a blight that crosses generations. Indeed, such self-reflection would prove a benefit elsewhere. While Western media focused almost exclusively on the hostage drama in Paris, hundreds, perhaps thousands of people were being slaughtered by Boko Haram militants in Nigeria’s northeastern Borno State. The imbalance of coverage suggests an inequity in the valuing of news—and people—that has implications extending far beyond editorial offices.
Pope Francis has frequently condemned the invocation of faith as a justification for violence, and he did so again in the wake of the attacks on the staff of the French satirical weekly Charlie Hebdo. But the pope took a step back from a full-throated defense of free expression, suggesting that some subjects, religion for example, should be off limits. While his off-the-cuff remarks may have been insufficiently nuanced, it is not hard to be sympathetic to the pope’s concerns. Freedom of expression is an absolute right, but it does not come without obligations. Communal harmony is also a social good worth protecting.
Charlie Hebdo relied heavily on blunt provocation as a rhetorical and stylistic device, to the point that its staff acknowledged and accepted the possibility of a violent reaction. Should the state have intervened, for their protection and out of sensitivity to France’s Muslim communities, to restrain the magazine’s cartoonists and editors? Despite the senseless violence that terrorized Paris, America continues to believe that restraints on speech should be set through dialogue and civic consensus, not by government or religious edict. Any insistence that journalists, filmmakers, cartoonists, etc., bend Western norms of free speech to the expectations and sensitivities of specific communities to the point of snapping those norms should be rejected. But plenty of room remains for the mutual respect and sensitivity sought by the pope. Still, there will always be outliers whose views require not acceptance but protection.
“Political correctness” was one of the labels applied in the effort to identify a cultural debility that somehow encouraged this violence, the sociopathy of the terrorists themselves being deemed insufficient explanation. But is it mere political correctness to say that it is irrational and unjust—as well as counterproductive—to treat all members of the Islamic world as a threat because of the actions of a minority among them? Most victims of Islamist extremism, after all, are other Muslims, just as are most of the people fighting—and dying—to put down Islamist terror.
A more mature reaction to such violence is required. Extremism and hopelessness are the enemies that must be contained, not a faith or a people. There are extremists in every culture and every nation, who must be pursued as criminals, not treated as cultural or ethnic types that justify widespread suppression. And not every incident of terrorism, no matter how outrageous, amounts to an existential standoff between the West and Islam.
Outreach and sensitivity to likely allies in the Islamic world, whether they make their homes in the Middle East or the Middle West, cannot be denigrated as self-flagellating political correctness. Today, on the contrary, they may be strategically the wisest path forward. Just now, extremism is a plague on both our houses—the West and Islam—and the best way to delegitimize it is through more dialogue and cooperation, not deeper recrimination and resentment.