It will be a month on Saturday since the murderous attacks on the offices of the French satirical magazine Charlie Hebdo and the kosher supermarket in Paris took place. These were not the first such attacks by fanatics on western countries, nor the most deadly – that distinction belongs to the Sept. 11 attacks on the World Trade Center. However, they will not be the last such attacks.
The terrorist threat has become everybody’s problem. In Paris soldiers with submachine guns patrol airports, railroad stations, the metro, schools and other likely targets. Security assessment has been heightened. France plans to hire more than 3000 people just to monitor potential suspects.
Of necessity the re/insurance industry also has solutions to offer. “On the whole terrorist insurance has done fairly well,” said Willis Re International’s Chairman James Vickers in a recent interview. He described the formation of “pools,” notably Pool Re in the UK, and the formation of “active cover,” – similar to the pre-event analysis common to K&R coverage – as being the most important contributions the industry has made to mitigate terrorist threats.
Although some of those threats may come from isolated individuals, the real threats originate with organized terrorist cells, where the people involved aren’t solitary lunatics, but dedicated fanatics with a plan and a purpose. The slaughter at the Charlie Hebdo offices, which took place only a few blocks from where I lived for 9 years, was a methodical mass killing, carried out by two men, who knew exactly what they were doing and why they were doing it.
Their act wasn’t akin to the shooter(s) or bomber(s) who have killed people in U.S. schools, movie theatres or post offices. It was a plan of action conceived by the killers, as revenge for cartoons Charlie Hebdo published over the years that they considered blasphemous mockeries of the Prophet Mohammed.
The killers were directly inspired by socio-religious beliefs. Without those beliefs the act might have been viewed as certifiably insane. It also took place in Western Europe, rather than in one of the world’s “trouble spots,” where westerners have become rather used to hearing about murders, kidnappings, suicide bombs and other forms of mayhem.
When the entire picture from Pakistan through Afghanistan, Iraq, Syria, Yemen, Libya, Somalia and other parts of Africa and the Maghreb is taken into account, however, their acts have to be seen as evincing the further spread of militant fanaticism into the western world’s own back yard.
Revenge killings in the western world may have become less socially acceptable, but they have long been a major component of nearly every civilization – expressed in politics, business, works of art and society in general. Revenge killings are by definition brutal and violent, although the murder of the Jordanian pilot by fire was exceptionally so; however, they are usually based on the absolute conviction of the vengeful that their actions are justified.
For the French people, and to a greater or lesser extent people in other western countries, these attacks are linked to the monumental violence that has been a fact of life in the in the countries and regions where Al Qaeda, the Taliban, ISIS, Boko Haram and other militant groups are active.
The attacks in Paris, however, weren’t the first to extend that violence into other countries. After Sept. 11 there were murderous attacks on the London underground and in Spain, the Boston Marathon bombing, the lone gunmen who killed people at a Jewish Museum in Brussels, the gunman who killed seven people in Southern France. These and similar incidents have all given warning that the violence will no longer be confined to the world’s trouble spots. Many disaffected young men and women have become radicalized. Some have joined ISIS, Al Qaeda and similar groups, and have gone to the Middle East for military training. Their fanaticism signals a new and more dangerous pattern of increased violence that threatens everyone.
Their targets are both random and precise. They attack soldiers in France and the UK, police forces across the globe, symbols of western culture – schools, embassies, aid workers – as well as anybody they see as “unbelievers,” and they seem to enjoy it. They also plant bombs in crowded places where there’s no selected target, only the aim to kill a maximum number of victims. This is true terrorism.
The problem with fundamentalists of any stripe is that they are utterly convinced of their rightness – their “godliness,” if you will. When “God is on your side,” any deed is possible and can be rationalized as fulfilling God’s will – even mass murder.
The two men who attacked Charlie Hebdo and their colleague who murdered four people in Paris took the law into their own hands in deciding that certain people had to die, and were therefore rightly guilty of homicide. French police ultimately inflicted society’s maximum retributive justice by killing the three of them. Did they see themselves as committing homicide? Probably – did they care? Not a bit.
Why did this happen? Why will it continue to happen? The killers and others like them are “fanatics” – in the sense of having become “true believers” – people whose faith in whatever cause they espouse transcends all rational thought. This is a distinction common to many religious cults and political groups, and to a larger extent revolutionary movements, including communism, or fascism – Bolshevism, Maoism, Nazism, etc. – that tore apart the first half of the 20th Century.
The people who join such movements are searching for answers and direction, often as a means of escape from a bleak and sometimes violent environment, where they have no power and no hope. When they find answers to their plight they cling to them tenaciously – even to the point of committing and condoning criminal acts. These believers aren’t insane in the strict legal sense, but they are nonetheless so psychologically damaged that they are all the more dangerous.
Although they profess to be acting in the name of Islam, their actions have little or nothing to do with traditional Muslim religion. All revealed religions have their faults, but traditional Muslim teaching neither advocates, condones nor supports killing innocent people.
Terrorism in most of the world, including France, is no longer generated mainly by politico/economic motivations. Its underlying cause is alienation, which stems from poverty, social and economic discrimination and a feeling that no change in the situation can be achieved under present conditions.
The conditions in France offer a cogent framework for the creation of fanatics. Prime Minister Manuel Valls has described the situation under which a majority of French men and women of North African descent live (there are approximately 60 such “ghettoes” in France) as “social, economic and ethnic apartheid.” They have become so estranged from French society that they no longer feel French. Many of them are searching for another identity.
The search is mainly among young men, who do not feel they are part of the society in which they live, and where most of them were born, including the three killers in Paris. For them the French concept of “Liberté, égalité, fraternité” offers nothing, as it hasn’t helped their lives and it forbids most outward manifestations of religious belief.
Unlike the U.S. and the UK, France hasn’t really embraced multiculturalism. The laical framework of French society dates from the revolution, which was as much about abolishing the influence of the Catholic Church as it was about abolishing the monarchy and noble privileges. As such, people who are seen as “different” – in the sense they don’t seem wholly “French – are often ostracized and discriminated against.
Becuase they feel barred from being truly French, they often become vulnerable to being co-opted by the purveyors of religious intolerance, who work outside of the mainstream Muslim community, but whose rhetoric on easily influenced minds, leads many of them into a dedication to “jihad.”
Many aspects of Islam have counterparts in other religious organizations. Although there are recognized values and rituals, there is no overall central body that lays down precedents to be adhered to. Those seeking religious support can join existing mainstream congregations, or, as a commentator on Sky News pointed out, they can be attracted to often violent offshoots, as they have had little, if any, previous religious instruction.
In France, as well as other countries, the path from petty criminal acts – shoplifting, burglary, drug dealing – often leads to jail sentences, where more radical criminals are eager to influence young minds already filled with rage against the system that they feel has failed them. The three killers in Paris fit this description perfectly, they had committed criminal acts, they were imprisoned, and they became increasingly radicalized.
A number of Ayatollahs, Mullahs, Imams and itinerant preachers, professing to act in the name of Islam, have rushed to gather potential faithful adherents to their particular religious creed, and to form them into cancerous cults upon the main body of Islam. One such radical preacher, Abu Hamza, was recently jailed for life in the U.S, following his conviction on multiple charges, including hostage-taking and plotting to set up a terrorist training camp.
The role played by these charismatic preachers isn’t a new phenomenon. Religious zealots of all stripes have existed since the first tribal shamans. They have a marked predilection to gather adherents and to take control of their lives. When those lives are bleak and seem hopeless, a religious conviction can assume an all-important place for true believers. When their faith is seen to have been defamed, their reaction is often violent.
These true believers are the underlying actors causing much of the violence currently afflicting the world. They are no longer culturally integrated in western mainstream thought in any meaningful way. Islam is not the only problem, but right now its relatively few hate-mongering fanatics are the ones causing the most trouble in the world, so it has to be addressed.
It will be a long term effort to bring back some understanding and acceptance of rational behavior to people who have dedicated their lives to a violent cause. The essential way to mitigate the situation is to offer more rational solutions in order to reduce the creation of new fanatics.
Religious belief in itself is not evil; however, when it is sought as a refuge from all of the problems of the modern world – globalization, instant communications, the accumulation of great wealth, dictatorial power, depressed economies, joblessness and general poverty – particularly in countries where religious faith remains strong – it has resulted in offering a license to kill anybody whom the believer feels has threatened or denigrated what he/she has come to believe in. This is true even if that religious faith masks deeper causes for their alienation, mainly the desire for power.
You cannot, however, just fight fire with fire, which appears to be the preferred response of the western countries to the outrages committed in the name of Islam. Drones and bombings kill innocents as well as militants, and thereby augment the supply of would be jihadists, willing to fight for their cause. Terrorism can only be controlled when one stops the creation of new terrorists.
Clashes of faith have often produced some of the most violent clashes. As an example, Europe went through a similar phase to the current upheavals in the Arab world in the 17th century with the destruction caused by the 30 Years War. The only lesson to be learned from that experience, however, is that when most of the combatants are dead, peace will follow.
The real lesson is to make sure religious belief doesn’t mandate following certain conclusions that are inimical to peaceful cooperation. The Ottoman Empire – firmly Muslim – managed to govern large parts of the Middle East and North Africa with some success for 500 years.
Re-establishing the peaceful cooperation once practiced in the Middle East and elsewhere today requires assuring a meaningful education for all of its inhabitants – especially women – as well as improvements in their living conditions, and addressing discrimination. These aren’t easy tasks. It means reforming some societies and taking on the preachers of hate directly. It would require studying how other people think; how they can find ways to get along, and inculcating a respect for their beliefs, as long as they don’t conflict with the beliefs of others.
Education alone, however, isn’t enough. Addressing the long standing economic and social factors that are the seedbeds of radicalism, where the preachers of hate find new recruits, also has to be tackled in a meaningful way.
In France the mines are gone, agriculture is mechanized, the cars are made by robots, and the textiles and shoes, while still designed in the country, are made elsewhere. Unemployment in France has hovered around 10%-11% for years. Among the young and the Muslim population it’s twice that and more. Unless that figure is significantly reduced, and those living under these conditions are genuinely included as part of society, all the education in the world won’t matter.
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