How the French Face Terror

A demonstrator with an issue of Charlie Hebdo at the march against terrorism, Paris, January 11, 2015. The cartoon on the cover shows a Jew, a Catholic, and a Muslim demanding that ‘“Charlie Hebdo” must be veiled!’
Abbas/Magnum Photos
A demonstrator with an issue of Charlie Hebdo at the march against terrorism, Paris, January 11, 2015. The cartoon on the cover shows a Jew, a Catholic, and a Muslim demanding that ‘“Charlie Hebdo” must be veiled!’

Intellectuals, no less than politicians, respond to crises based on what they think they learned from earlier ones. It is difficult to see what is genuinely new in an emergency, harder still to admit ignorance in the face of it. Our instinct is to assume that the unforeseen confirms our picture of the world rather than the necessity of altering it. The temptation to settle old scores is particularly hard to resist. The response of American intellectuals to the terrorist attacks of September 11 and the wars that followed was a case in point. Looking back, one senses that the arguments between neoconservatives, liberal hawks, and the wars’ opponents were more about what lessons were to be drawn from the Vietnam War than about understanding the novel challenges posed by al-Qaeda and potential repercussions for the region.

The immediate response of French intellectuals to the January 2015 Islamist terrorist attacks in Paris was similar.1 For decades they had waged a bitter argument, occasioned by the growing Muslim presence in the country, about what kind of society France should be: a classic republic based on a strict separation between religion and the public sphere, or a more multicultural society that recognized, if not celebrated, “difference.” The mass killings by French-born Muslims of Jews and journalists were immediately framed in these terms, as the consequence either of abandoning the principle of laicity or of the social exclusion of Muslims. It is significant that the books that best captured the mood in the months after the attacks had been written well before them: Éric Zemmour’s scathing polemic The French Suicide and Michel Houellebecq’s best-selling novel Submission, which was published the day of the Charlie Hebdo killings.

The highly coordinated massacres this past November by a team of European terrorists inspired by ISIS have shifted the debate radically. It is simply no longer possible to ignore the fact that international jihadism is a phenomenon in its own right, not the spontaneous result of abandoning secularism or religious prejudice. Nor is it possible to act as if France’s continuing integration into a European Union with weak external border controls and nonexistent internal ones has not increased the threat of attacks. Nor can it be denied, for that matter, that the sudden, enormous immigration from Muslim countries as a result of the Syrian civil war and the military advance of ISIS further increases the risk. While there are sharp political…


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