Obama is taking heat for not rushing to Paris to preen besides other heads of state in the Je Suis Charlie march. The president was correct not to go. The jihadist murders were vile, horrific, and inexcusable, as the deliberate murder of civilians always is. France’s task of dampening (it will never extinguish) the terror threats it faces will be long and arduous, and hopefully will entail a shrewd combination of wisdom and tough measures, and the United States should and will behave as a steadfast friend and ally of France.
However the Je Suis Charlie march was too freighted with blatant hypocrisies. Sending an ambassador, visiting the embassy, (as Obama did) were appropriate gestures; so too is tighter coordination with France on monitoring jihadists. But as Christopher Caldwell pointed out in a smart column, the attack on Charlie Hebdo was not an attack on French values, it was an attack on the French state.
Terrorists could—and have—committed murder in Moscow or in China, and those attacks are not viewed as an attack on Russian or Chinese values. Neither country has any qualms about defending itself. France was attacked last week, in its capital. Because it counts among its inhabitants at least hundreds possibly inclined to commit similar murders, its domestic security agents will be busy for a long time. (It was reported that a twitter message expressing enthusiasm for the attacks received 18,000 retweets.)
But the French seem determined to interpret last week’s attacks as an assault on their values, foremost among them freedom of expression. This is a value today’s France honors quite selectively. Muslim inhabitants of the Paris suburbs have ample reason to believe that France is far more committed to the defense of free speech which insults them than it is to free speech in the abstract. Charlie Hebdo was free to plaster on newsstands all over Paris vivid cartoon depictions of Mohammed as an eager homosexual bottom, but five years ago when one of its cartoonists wrote an item suggesting that a son of the president was making a good career move by converting to Judaism he was summarily fired and put on trial for “inciting racial hatred.” Literally, put on trial. The country of Voltaire, yup.
Last summer, as Israeli tanks and planes were smashing the defenseless population in Gaza, France became the only country in Europe to ban demonstrations against the assault. Those who marched in, or even advertised anti-Israel demonstration on social media faced a year in prison and hefty fines—which virtually guaranteed that those who insisted on demonstrating nonetheless would be ready to engage in criminal acts. It is well known that the popular French-African comedian Dieudonne is forbidden to perform in France because many of his jokes are anti-Semitic. In a more elevated vein, last December the distinguished University of Tel Aviv post-Zionist Shlomo Sand was barred from speaking at the University of Nice, after he was invited to lecture there. Sand is part of a considerable list of academic anti-Zionists who have been barred from speaking at conferences in the French university system.
It is unlikely in the extreme that the killers of January knew or cared that Shlomo Sand was barred from speaking at a French university, but they could hardly have failed to absorb that the storied liberties of France are differently allocated according to what group one belongs to.
Adam Shatz noted that the Je Suis Charlie slogan expresses a “peculiar nostalgia” for 9/11, a time of Western innocence and “moral clarity” before the destruction of Iraqi state under false pretenses, the torturing at Abu Ghraib, the renditions, and all the rest which has tarnished the American self-image of utter righteousness. Le Monde actually ran a headline proclaiming that the Paris attacks were “France’s 9/11”—and one can only hope that that doesn’t mean France is going to go berserk as America did and invade countries that had nothing whatsoever to do with the attacks. Shatz observes that prominent liberal hawks have been quick to warn Americans against asking any questions about what might have radicalized the young men on their path to murder last week. (One of the Kouachi brothers was apparently set on his path to jihadism by outrage at Abu Ghraib, and initially tried to go to Iraq to fight Americans there.) Nope, they say, forget all that, it’s just radical Islam, the evil ideology.
Benjamin Netanyahu and his entourage are reinforcing this message. The task is complicated for the Israelis, and their American neoconservative friends—their primary wish is for a Western war against Shi’ite Iran, and Sunni radicalism is definitely a distraction. So Netanyahu (the Israeli left is having fun with images of him elbowing his way to the front of the Je Suis Charlie march, his bodyguards pushing aside French culture minister Fleur Pellerin so Netanyahu could get on the dignitary bus before her) is making a strenuous effort to conflate them, Shia, Sunni, groups which celebrated the attacks, groups which instantly condemned them. In his Paris speeches, Netanyahu stated that the Israel and the West’s common enemy consists of terrorists driven by an implacable hatred of our freedoms, and a desire to return the world to medieval darkness. (Surely it must be Iran’s hatred of modernity which requires Israel to assassinate Iranian scientists). In any case, this argument worked well enough in the aftermath of 9/11: Americans became convinced that secular Iraq should be destroyed to punish Al Qaeda radicals. Under the Je Suis Charlie banner we are supposed to go off to war again, against the Sunni extremists of ISIS and all radical Islam, and also the Sh’ites (Hezbollah in Lebanon, the Assad regime in Syria, and Iran) who collectively are ISIS’s primary enemy.
One can be critical of the Je Suis Charlie ideology and hope that it doesn’t become a 9/11-level galvanizing force for a new wave of futile invasions, and still recognize that France has an Islam problem. France’s freedoms were not attacked, but France was, and Parisians cannot feel comfortable knowing that quite possibly one in a hundred French Muslims—more than 50,000 people that is—harbor some degree of sympathy for the January killers. One can dispense with the talk about France’s glorious freedoms, and still realize that there is a France, a blood and soil country of shared history and culture—which is threatened by mass immigration, especially by immigrants who lack the means or will to fully blend into that culture.
The one party in France which seems fully to recognize that—the Front National, was not invited to participate in last Sunday’s Paris march, despite the fact the Front National’s leader, Marine Le Pen, leads or close to it in virtually all opinion polls for the next presidential election. This was a curious exclusion for a so-called national unity march. Still, Le Pen’s party—despite the many racist or unsavory remarks made in past years by her father—seems to be on to something important: there is a France which people don’t want to vanish (I fully share that sentiment), and that France is threatened by transnational commitments—such as the EU’s commitment to open borders—quite as much as it is threatened by jihadist murderers.
The way out of the French dilemma almost certainly involves some disconnection—far less Western military engagement in Muslim lands, far less Muslim immigration to what we can no longer call Christian lands. This recommendation unfortunately is the exact opposite of the liberal internationalist agenda, which if it can be boiled down, seems to be more immigration and more war. Early on in the crisis the blogger Steve Sailer wrote something which strikes me as quite true: an arrangement of 200 separate countries is not the worst way of organizing the world, in a world where different people have different cultures and needs. It is preferable to grand transnational and multicultural enterprises which have the almost impossible task of formulating cultural rules which make sense for everyone.
Despite serious efforts, France has been failing in that endeavor—though the failure is far from absolute. There are, it should be noted, millions of quite French, quite assimilated, and relatively secular French Muslims. The prospect of a French total war against “radical Islam” coupled with continued high levels of immigration cannot possibly make their lives any easier.
Scott McConnell is a TAC founding editor.