John Keane | The European Fear of Islam, from Paris to Dresden
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The European Fear of Islam, from Paris to Dresden

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On the day I left for home after an extended research stay in Europe and the Persian Gulf, news broke of the terrible attack on the staff of Charlie Hebdo in Paris. I suddenly felt sickened and shaken, but I was not surprised. A violent media event of this kind – calculated, cold-blooded, daringly simple and staged in the heartlands of the secular West, for a global audience – has been on the cards for some time.

The Paris violence is part of a wider pattern, the latest phase in a longer string of attacks that were misinterpreted by French politicians and journalists as the work of ‘lone wolf’ and ‘disturbed’ individuals. It’s worth remembering that in late December, in Dijon and Nantes, more than 20 citizens were injured when men drove vehicles into crowds of pedestrians. In Joué-lès-Tours, a 20-year-old Muslim man armed with a knife and shouting praise to God entered a police station and wounded three officers before another shot and killed him. Then the violence hit Charlie Hebdo and the Hypercasher supermarket near Porte de Vincennes. More attacks are surely on the way.

Making sense of the violence is imperative for citizens who care about our world. At a minimum, this requires a measure of detachment from the language of outrage and disapprobation that has swept through France and the rest of Europe during the past week. What the world has witnessed is without doubt savage acts of criminal violence. Barbaric they are. But, contrary to the prevailing media narratives, the acts of violence are neither simply ‘inhuman’ (as if ‘humanity’ has a perfect track record in the field of non-violence) nor best understood as an ‘attack against France’, as François Hollande and many politicians have chanted in recent days. Contrary to the dominant media narratives, the violent incidents are also not ‘lone wolf’ events. Nor is the violence to be understood in the terms of clinical medicine, as ‘jihadist cancer’, as Rupert Murdoch says, or as the work of mentally ‘unstable’ people, as the French Interior Minister Bernard Cazeneuve has repeatedly claimed.


The barbarism of our times is different. It is political, and it must be understood as such, beginning with the chilling fact that what we are witnessing are acts of revenge by Muslim radicals angered by the rise of a new global bigotry: the fear and dread and despise of Islam. In many parts of the European Union, where more than 20 million Muslim people now dwell, Muslim baiting has become a popular sport. The cold truth is that organised suspicion and denigration of Islam is the new anti-Semitism.

Most of my European Muslim friends and colleagues are disturbed and upset by the trend. They point out that rapturous praise of the sacred principle of freedom of expression – fiercely defended by French intellectuals in recent days – is regarded by most peace-loving Muslims as an alibi for insult. They accuse the champions of free speech of muddling the difference between speech that unsettles the powerful and speech that vilifies the powerless.


A careful genealogy of the principle shows that these Muslims are on to something. Think of John Milton’s insistence, in Areopagitica (1644) and other writings, that ‘the Turk upholds his Alcoran, by the prohibition of printing’, and therefore has no taste for liberty of the press. Then consider the Danish newspaper Jyllands-Posten, which discovered, to its cost, that liberty of the press is not just liberty of the press. There is no such thing as free speech without social consequences and political effects. And cartoons are not just cartoons. Parading as ‘free speech’, they can easily function as weapons of prejudice and denigration of the powerless.

Little wonder then that in 2012 much upset was triggered among European Muslims when Charlie Hebdo published a series of cartoons of the Prophet Mohammad, including one showing him lying naked on a bed, being filmed from behind, saying ‘My ass? And you love it, my ass?’ Pornography and brickbats of that kind cast doubt on the claim made by Philippe Val, former director of Charlie Hebdo, who told the BBC last week that the magazine was run by people ‘devoid of hate, of prejudice and was respectful of others’. That may be so – but many thinking European Muslims, for good reasons, don’t see things that way. For them, the doctrine of secularism, with its roots in the French Revolution, is an ideology of state power, just as it was throughout the period of European colonialism. For these same Muslims, the secularist insistence that ‘reasonable’ men and women must leave God not for other gods, but for no god, is a species of bigotry. It is a power move, an excuse to round on people of faith who refuse to let religiosity wither or be pushed away, into the obscurity of private life.

The Muslim rejection of secularism explains why French school officials who refuse to provide dinner alternatives to pork meat for Muslim pupils, or ‘kebabphobes’ who insist that ‘foreign’ grilled fast food is disappearing the baguette, are perceived by many Muslims as bigots: as hypocrites who pride themselves on ‘choice’ but dish out insult. Muslims in France and elsewhere in Europe similarly feel insulted by the whipped-up controversies centred on the burqa and niqab and hijab and chador. They are dishonoured when people (who usually don’t know the difference among them) say these garments are incompatible with the modern way of life because they oppress women, whose weakness (oddly) makes them potentially dangerous accomplices of ‘terrorism’.

For most Muslims in Europe, even the most free-thinking among them, such talk is more than absurd, or weirdly contradictory. To them it smacks of political prejudice, which itself is the carrier of discourtesy. The resulting denigration produces a sense of felt humiliation. From here, they point out, revenge is just a few steps away. They are surely right, for when pushed to the limits, intimidation and humiliation can turn murderous. That’s a standard axiom of psychoanalysis, championed by respected practitioners such as James Gilligan and Adam Jukes, who have shown convincingly that vilification and disgrace are always the fuel of murderous acts. Murder is a crime, but it is rarely straightforwardly the un-political doing of ‘madmen’ or ‘crazy loners’.

Civil Society

Last week’s murderous violence is political in yet another sense. It’s a reminder that civil society and its rules of peaceful civility and the public embrace of difference are highly fragile constructions that have no historical guarantees. The Je suis Charlie solidarity rallies that have sprung up in France and elsewhere show that these precious civil society values are alive and kicking. But they also show just how gossamer-thin they are, especially when confronted by the darker sides of European civil societies, which are less than civil, not only in their maltreatment and humiliation of Muslims, but also in the way, through unregulated black markets and freedom of movement of people, they facilitate access to Kalashnikov rifles and rocket launchers, for just a few hundred euros.

War and Terror

Armed men dressed in black balaclavas are the new symbols of a shameful fact: the global light arms trade is potentially the killer of civil societies everywhere, in Ottawa, Sydney, Mumbai and Peshawar, and now in Paris. There’s another political fact that shouldn’t be overlooked. It may be unpopular to put things this way, but the bitter truth is that barbarism of the Paris kind is the poisonous fruit of the so-called war on terror. Just a few hours after the attack on Charlie Hebdo, Bernard Cazeneuve, again quick off the blocks, said that the attacks confirmed the need for a widened ‘global war on terror’. A few days ago, at an ‘international meeting against terrorism’, he repeated the point: the ‘fight against terrorism’, he emphasised, requires a ‘global approach’. This way of thinking contains an inner flaw that is literally fatal. It stirs up feelings among many hundreds of millions of Muslims world-wide, for whom the war on terror includes American-led military violence of a frightening kind: drone attacks and B1-B strikes that kill innocent civilians, torture and humiliation at Guantanamo and Abu Ghraib, dragnet surveillance, support for brutal dictatorships in Egypt and Saudi Arabia.

Put bluntly, the terrorism we witness is the twin of the war on terrorism. That’s why talk of a global war against terror should be refused, countered by the brave remark scripted by Sasha Baron Cohen in Borat (2006), a comedy film that says it well in just a few biting words: this permanent war on terror is more like a war of terror, drone-led hostilities that are experienced by many Muslims as an all-out war targeted at all Muslims, regardless of whether they live in Gaza or Cairo or Kabul, or Copenhagen, Hamburg or Paris.


There’s a final and much more depressing reason why the Paris attacks matter politically. The violence we witness represents a black swan moment when democratic values and institutions are being challenged frontally by the spread of militia thinking and militarised politics, into the heartlands of what was once known as the secular West.

French soldiers on patrol at the Eiffel Tower in Paris
AFP/Joel Saget

The Cold War through which I lived my early years always felt strangely distant. Its gravest moment, the feverish Cuban nuclear missile crisis of October 1962, threatened planetary destruction, our way of life, but it did so from afar. Due to changes of weaponry and military tactics, and the advent of multi-media abundance, this new global war of terror is potentially everywhere. It feels as if it could swoop down onto any public space, any bus or train, or any business or public building, at any unexpected moment. The Paris events, we could say, confirm that wars of terror in faraway ‘foreign’ places are now coming home.

In responding to this trend, many French commentators have noted in recent days how the Paris murders are an assault on ‘democracy’. They are indeed, especially because the new barbarism robs innocent citizens of their lives and spreads fear and self-censorship throughout civil society. But the state antidote to violence is arguably just as threatening. Dawn police raids, red alerts and security checks are bad for democracy. So are helicopters hovering over our heads, troops on the streets, gun battles and, worst of all, the military siege mentality that is settling not just on Muslim minorities, but on the democratic rights of each and every citizen.

The way things are going, democracies in Europe and elsewhere will soon resemble garrison states. It must be noted that the trend sickens the stomachs of many European Muslims. From their point of view, the star of democracy no longer shines. Democracy means lying politicians like Tony Blair and double-standard hypocrisy (‘be kind to America’, reads one of my fridge magnets, a gift from a Muslim friend, ‘or else it will bring democracy to your country’). It stands for unemployment, job market discrimination, second-class citizenship, or no citizenship at all. Democracy is disappointment, a dismal affair, a codeword for Gaza, Libya, Syria and Iraq. At home, in Europe, it means hostile media coverage, street snubs, silence and suspicion, and growing state repression.

Tweeted cartoon by Qatar-based Sudanese cartoonist Khalid Albaih

It is exactly this trend the hooded gunmen want to strengthen. Contrary to what has frequently been said during the past week, jihadi actions do not prove that ‘Islam’ is humourless or that Muslims have a genetic dislike of satire and frank speech. Equally misleading are the claims that the Paris attacks are symptoms of a ‘clash of civilisations’ or a regression to the ‘Middle Ages’ (Xavi Puig, co-founder of El Mundo Today). The substance and style of the new violence are thoroughly twenty-first century. Its key aim is strategic: it is designed to trigger tougher anti-terrorism laws, tighter surveillance, the militarisation of daily life, more Muslim baiting.

The point of the Muslim radicals is to accelerate the decline of democracy by demonstrating to their uncommitted sisters and brothers that democracy is a dying sham. We could say that the ultimate aim of the Muslim gunmen is to finish off European democracies that are already in a parlous state. In this aim, they are strangely succeeding, thanks to the perverse fact that they find themselves twinned with populist movements that opportunistically take advantage of Europe’s civil and political freedoms, so as to press home their bigoted claim that Europe is being swamped by Muslims.

A protester holding a Christian cross alongside a German flag at a Pegida ‘evening stroll’ in Dresden, 5 January 2015
Jens Meyer/AP

We don’t yet know, but perhaps the most disturbing consequence of the Paris murders will be the way they fuel the growth of populist backlashes against Muslims throughout Europe. High on the opium of general discontent with the status quo, the new populism finds its multi-media voice in settings as dynamic and different as local newspapers and radio stations, Facebook and Twitter (where #KillAllMuslims is trending) through to quality television and high-brow literature.

Michel Houellebecq’s novel Soumission is a prime example of the new literary populism. Published just last week, it is the most talked about novel in Europe. Understandably so, since in literary form it captures the growing political disaffection with mainstream party democracy that is spreading throughout the continent. Soumission is a genre-bending dystopia, a middle class howl against Muslims, a literary anticipation of the year 2022, when a thumping majority of voters reject the French left and right. In a surprise move, in a second round of voting in the presidential elections, the good citizens of France throw their support behind Mohammed Ben Abbes, who becomes the first elected Muslim president of France. Ben Abbes legalizes polygamy, agrees trade deals with Turkey, and brings the veil and shariah law to secular France. The change of government triggers obeisance, toady submission like that of the principal character, a dreary academic who happily wins promotion at the rebranded Islamic University of Paris-Sorbonne and enjoys the pleasures of owning several wives.

Houellebecq has denied that he’s helping bellow the fires of anti-Muslim feeling yet, in the next breath, he confirms that the scenario sketched in the novel ‘is a real possibility’. At the street level, in neighbouring Germany, it is exactly this anti-Muslim sentiment that fuels the rise of the Pegida movement. Led by Lutz Bachmann, a convicted criminal and son of a Dresden butcher, Pegida (Patriotic Europeans against the Islamisation of the West) is much more than a Dresden or a German phenomenon. Pegida is many different things to many different people. Pegida is a rejection of the complacent post-politics symbolised by Angela Merkel. It speaks to the unsolved European political crisis and serves as a barometer of the growing public disaffection with mainstream parliamentary democracy.

Lutz Bachmann, prominent figure in the Pegida movement
Arno Burgi/dpa

Yet Pegida is much more than a protest against the dying party systems of Europe. It is also a Pied Piper of the new anti-Muslim bigotry, the feeling that Muslims are taking over Europe. Remarkable is the movement’s knack of plumbing the depths of civil society. The typical Islamophobe who attends Pegida rallies (‘evening strolls’ they’re called) each Monday evening is an ‘angry citizen’ (Wutbürger) drawn from many different walks of life. In the ranks of the movement are football fans, educated middle class people and opponents of factory farming. There are neo-Nazis, Christians, Putin sympathisers, street hooligans and the rich upper middle class.

Pegida supporters and sympathisers may seem a motley crew but they share important things in common. They are annoyed with politicians and the political establishment. They curse the ‘lying media’. They’re sure the prevailing party system doesn’t represent either their material interests or their gut feeling that their own nation is drowning in the rising tides of Islam. Pegida people see no need for a New Deal with Muslims, which is what the whole European region now so urgently needs. They don’t much like people of the Muslim faith. They say they’ve had enough of Muslim asylum seekers, including those who come from the war zones of Syria and Iraq. Pegida people like people like themselves: good, white, upright and hard-working citizens who now want their homeland back.

Surely the strangest political fact of all is that Pegida supporters consider themselves democrats. They think of themselves as people of The People, as champions of the shortest of short textbook definitions of democracy as self-government of the people, by the people, for the people. Pegida people seem wilfully ignorant of the historical fact that since 1945 the norms of democracy have been democratised. Democracy has come to mean much more than winning elections. It now stands for the refusal of grand ideologies (including the whole idea of the coming-to-be of the Sovereign People defended by Martin Heidegger in his Freiburg lectures of 1933/34) and opposition to arbitrary power, wherever it is exercised. Democracy nowadays ideally means the public accountability of power, political humility, respect for diversity and complexity, and the refusal of all forms of bossing, bullying and violence against flesh and blood people, wherever they live.

These democratic norms uniquely belong to our age of monitory democracy, but strange and striking is the way Pegida supporters and fellow travellers want to turn their backs on them, and to do so in the name of the old and discredited Sovereign People Principle. Never mind that their definition of democracy is exclusionary and potentially murderous, and that it has no room for Muslims. When these authoritarian populists speak of democracy, what they really mean is ‘you don’t belong here because you are not one of us’.

Pegida populists are in this sense recidivists. They want Europe to turn back the clock, to move forward by stepping back in time, into a world where The People supposedly once ruled. ‘Wir sind das Volk’ (We are the People), they shout at their Monday evening rallies. Just as bigoted people shouted on the streets in the years before 1933.

Pegida Rescues the West, by Slovak-born cartoonist Marian Kamensky

Earlier versions of this field note on the wider political significance of the Paris violence appeared at the ABC’s The Drum and the London-based Middle East Monitor and Middle East Eye. An Arabic translation has been published by Arabi21 News. Readers may also be interested in The World Today radio interview on the same subject.

The Conversation

This article was originally published on The Conversation.
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Image: Charlie Hebdo attack has another victim!
Carlos Latuff/MEMO