February 25, 2020

Is Islam to blame for the Paris attacks?

Right after the Paris attacks, still reeling from the cruelty of it all, I emailed a friend.

“Why Paris?” 

“The terrorists will always focus on liberal democracies where they can operate freely, exploiting the very freedom and liberty that they want to annihilate,” he wrote back. “Under the cover of political correctness which prohibits racial profiling, they can organize, arm themselves and prepare without fear of pre-emptive action, even though everyone knows where to look for them and where they come from.”

At first it made sense. But then I thought, the day before the Paris attacks, terrorists carried out a double suicide bombing in Beirut, Lebanon, killing more than 40 people, most of them Muslim, and injuring hundreds more. A few weeks before that, a Russian plane exploded over Egypt’s Sinai desert, widely believed to be the work of related terrorists who planted a bomb. 

So, with Paris, yes; liberal democracies and their innocent, secular civilians are in grave danger across Europe and the world. But so are countless moderate Muslims and others who refuse to adopt jihad. 

Why had the bombing in Beirut gone largely ignored not 24 hours earlier? What really happened to that Russian jet? And what about the endless terror that plagues Iraq, Afghanistan, Pakistan and Syria? And, finally, that very prickly question: Who is to blame?

Some are convinced it’s increased Muslim immigration to France.

Today it is estimated that 12 percent of France’s population is foreign-born. Because of its colonial history in Algeria and other parts of North Africa, roughly 5 million of these immigrants are Muslim. 

Although the right and the left tend to agree that immigration has played a role in increased radicalism, when it comes to the blame game, they each point the finger in different directions. The right tends to engage in other-blame — saying the terror emanates from the immigrants; they don’t belong. The left tends to engage in self-blame, over France’s failure to better integrate immigrants into broader French society.

The French-based Iranian sociologist Farhad Khosrokhavar has developed an illuminating theory to explain how, out of 5 million Muslim immigrants, certain individuals become radicalized. Khosrokhavar spent three days a week for three years interviewing inmates in French prisons for his book “Radicalisation.” 

 “The typical trajectory of most French Islamist terrorists follows four steps,” Khosrokhavar wrote in The New York Times. “[A]lienation from the dominant culture, thanks partly to joblessness and discrimination in blighted neighborhoods; a turn to petty crime, which leads to prison, and then more crime and more prison; religious awakening and radicalisation; and an initiatory journey to a Muslim country like Syria, Afghanistan or Yemen to train for jihad.”

Although there are myriad reasons why an otherwise nonpracticing or moderate Muslim might become radicalized, it is almost always the case that those who do feel marginalized or alienated in some profound way — from Osama bin Laden, who was rich, to Amedy Coulibaly, the French-born Muslim of Malian parents who massacred Jews at Hyper Cacher, who was poor. “Muslims had described themselves as unloved children of the [French] republic,” The New Yorker’s George Packer wrote.

Boo-hoo, some are thinking. Yet, it matters if you want to rout out Islamic terrorism. Europe can become a police state or it can address systemic causes. Historically, police states have not had much success solving problems; they have merely constricted them. 

Radicalization is a phenomenon that indeed stems from Islam, but is it inevitable within it? After all, moderate Muslims, more than anyone else, have been the targets of Islamist terror. The Islamic State and its offshoots have massacred thousands of Muslims throughout the Middle East and Central Asia, beheading, executing and raping those who do not submit to their ways. And let’s not forget how many bombs have gone off in Iraq, Pakistan, Afghanistan and Syria in the last decade.

To lay blame fairly, it should be an act as precise as a medical diagnosis so that what you cut out is the malignancy and not the healthy tissue. Not all Muslims are alike, and it’s not true that none condemn and fear terror themselves. In Los Angeles, Salam Al-Marayati, president of the Muslim Public Affairs Council, sent a powerful message to his community and colleagues immediately after last week’s attacks. 

“The attacks in Paris were horrific and despicable, and taking innocent life violates the principles of every faith. The orchestration of multiple locations and maximization of casualties shows a sinister disregard for life that is grossly at odds with any and all of us as human beings and as American citizens.

“Our country must be united in this time of crisis; unity will enhance our efforts to fend off any violent extremism and preserve the values of our society.”

Al-Marayati also added a practical measure: “To mitigate any attempt by ISIS in their recruiting efforts in the U.S., we are promoting programs to build resilience against its terrorist ideology.”

Even author Ayaan Hirsi Ali, the Somali-born former Muslim who has declared that Islam needs to be “crushed,” has begun to change her tune. In her latest book, “Heretic,” she shows her belief in the potential for change, calling now for a Muslim reformation. 

“Must all who question Islam end up either leaving the faith, as I did, or embracing violent jihad?” she writes.

“I believe there is a third option. But it begins with the recognition that Islamic extremism is rooted in Islam itself. Understanding why that is so is the key to finding a third way: a way that allows for some other option between apostasy and atrocity.”

After an injustice occurs, it is natural — perhaps even necessary — to lay blame. After all, the administration of justice requires a victim and a perpetrator. But must we blame the world’s nearly 2 billion Muslims for the horrific acts of a few? 

In the Torah, God promises Abraham he will spare the depraved cities of Sodom and Gomorrah if there are just 10 good people there. In a world of bad, the Torah demands we spare just 10 the cruelty of our suspicions. 

On Sunday afternoon, I took a break from the madness of it all and went to the Modern Orthodox shul B’nai David-Judea, where former Yesh Atid Knesset member Ruth Calderon, now a resident scholar with the Shalom Hartman Institute in Jerusalem, was teaching Talmud. 

Calderon addressed the Paris attacks before she began her shiur with another powerful lesson. Over the summer, she said, she had been asked to teach a group of visiting Muslim leaders, intellectuals and clergy on the topic of particularlism and universalism. She ended up choosing what she believed to be a “radical, particular” text — about Rabbi Akiva’s final words before his execution. Moments before his skin was flayed, he famously recited the Shema, sounding out the word “echad” — God is one — in one long, melodic, drawn-out breath.

To Calderon’s surprise, one of the Muslim leaders recounted the story of Islam’s Bilal Ibn Rabah, a black slave, who was chosen by the prophet Muhammad to become the very first muezzin — prayer leader.  When a member of the royal class in Mecca challenged Bilal’s faith, he proclaimed “Ahadun Ahad” — the oneness of God. Like Rabbi Akiva, he, too, was dragged to his death proclaiming this belief. 

“The [Islamist radicals] do not own the sound of Allahu Akbar,” the Israeli Calderon said with defiance. She doesn’t believe the world should demand that Muslims abandon their religion, become secular and democratic “and then we’ll make peace …” 

 “I don’t believe we can stop this third world war by turning away from our heritage, but by turning back into it, both in Judaism and Islam.” 

From Ruth Calderon’s lips, to God’s ears.