By now there is a familiar, ritualistic quality to media coverage of homegrown terrorist attacks. Journalists, pundits, and terrorism “experts” pontificate on the religiosity of the perpetrators, explore their background, and wonder in total bewilderment as to how all-American boys could have been responsible for such ghastly acts. The more intrepid journalists try to identify the points at which their subjects transformed into callous terrorists willing to turn against their own country. Sometimes, the terrorists are put on a therapist’s couch while pundits reach into their stockpile of outdated Freudisms and explain their mindsets, taking care to mention one or another personal crisis. The pathological ideology of global Islamism is invoked, the government is blamed for not doing enough, and demands are raised for a strong response. The enemy, in these narratives, is shrewd and he is among us. We must be more vigilant.
At some 8,000 words Mary Anne Weaver’s recent article in the New York Times Magazine, “Her Majesty’s Jihadists”, is the most detailed attempt yet to “understand the pull of jihad” for Muslims in the UK. The subtitle boldly states that more British Muslims have joined Islamist militant groups than serve in the British military. Why this is so is worth asking, I suppose, though one could alternately ask why so few British Muslims are willing to serve in a military that has, quite literally, been at war in one place or another for more than a century. As Guardian reported last year, “Next year may be the first since at least 1914 that British soldiers, sailors and air crews will not be engaged in fighting somewhere – the first time Britain is totally at peace with the rest of the world.” That belated peace was not to be as the British Parliament “voted overwhelmingly” to authorize air strikes against the Islamic State in Iraq. In our political culture we are not supposed to ask why individuals would willingly risk their lives for geopolitical or corporate aims. Their heroism has to be mindlessly celebrated.
In any case, Weaver’s article does not address that question. It wants to “understand the pull of jihad” for British Muslims. Her article is perhaps less interesting for what it says than for what it leaves out. There are interviews with scholars belonging to the International Center for the Study of Radicalization (ICSR), a man whose three son left to fight in Syria, and Moazzam Begg–an activist and a former prisoner at Guantanamo Bay. Weaver begins her investigation by asking Shiraz Maher, a senior research fellow at ICSR, if he could draw a “typical jihadist profile” for her. Maher explains that the “average British fighter is male, in his early 20s and of South Asian ethnic origin” with “some university education and some association with activist groups.” Some go for humanitarian reasons and others are adventure seekers, “students of martyrdom,” and the “die-hard radicals.”
Since the attack on Charlie Hebdo a few writers have offered to explain the uniquely French context of the magazine. Voltaire and Diderot are invoked, as is the spirit of May ’68. Those who think the cartoons are racist simply do not understand the French political context, the argument goes. Charlie Hebdo follows a distinctly French tradition of anti-clericalism and laïcité, as is evident by its far-left and anti-authoritarian history. While they may appear racist to those outside of France the cartoons in fact lampoon racism. I have explained my own misgivings with Charlie Hebdo in a previous post (also worth reading is this 2013 letter from a former Charlie Hebdo staffer). Here I merely want to see if the enviable history volunteered by those explicating Charlie Hebdo‘s cartoons has any bearing on its obvious racism.
Reading commentaries on the massacre in Charlie Hebdo‘s office I have learned that there is a correct way to respond to the tragedy. One is supposed to immediately condemn the attack, defend the right to blaspheme (some, like Jonathan Chait, would ask us to defend blasphemy itself), and angrily denounce any conversations about the cartoons regularly published by Charlie Hebdo. There are additional comments the inspired and politically astute among us can make: assert the universality of our freedoms, claim that they are under attack by fundamentalists, and applaud the distinctively French tradition of irreverence and “anticlerical spirit that goes far back in French history.”
President Obama and Secretary of State John Kerry’s statements following the attack are fine, eloquent examples of this required response. According to Kerry, “No country knows better than France that freedom has a price, because France gave birth to democracy itself.” The terrorists, continues the Secretary of State, “may wield weapons, but we in France and in the United States share a commitment to those who wield something that is far more powerful. Not just a pen, but a pen that represents an instrument of freedom, not fear.”
These sentiments were echoed by President Obama: “France is America’s oldest ally, and has stood shoulder to shoulder with the United States in the fight against terrorists who threaten our shared security and the world. Time and again, the French people have stood up for the universal values that generations of our people have defended. France, and the great city of Paris where this outrageous attack took place, offer the world a timeless example that will endure well beyond the hateful vision of these killers.”