Free Speech vs Extremism

Juan Cole has a thought-provoking post on his blog about the recent terrorist attack in France. His post surprised me, really.

Ever since I first heard about the attack, I just assumed it was carried out by crazy Muslims who are among the type that get super pissed off about cartoons. I just kinda assumed they were an invisible subset of young males among the Muslim population, teetering on the edge of sanity for various reasons. They exist, they are out there, and we almost never know who they are until someone draws a cartoon and they snap.

But I'm wrong about that.

No, they don't exist in a vacuum. Of course Islamic culture plays a role in the disproportionately huge representation of Muslims in terrorism (it's stupid that this factoid is almost considered hate-speech).

Yet they aren't remotely representative of (at least) Western Muslims. Else we wouldn't be talking about attacks here and there, we would be discussing the latest news from the front lines in World War III.

So we've got a small group of people that keep popping up from within a large Muslim population that not infrequently kill innocent people. This has not changed since 2001. Actually before then.

I see two solutions to this kind of problem:
  • (1) Get rid of all the Muslims (preferably by deportation); or 
  • (2a) Vigorously engage in an expensive, long, drawn-out campaign against the cancer that keeps popping up while 
  • (2b) winning the hearts and minds of the rest.
There are problems with both approaches, but #1 looks especially icky, is illiberal (to put it mildly), and may prove counter-productive.

I think we tried option 2a at first without much of 2b--well, mostly the U.S., Britain, and a few other allies in the months and years after 2001. I don't think 2a works without a lot of 2b. It seems, I hope, the world caught on sometime between then and now. It's still expensive, long, and drawn out though.

But I don't know if this new and improved war on terror has been remotely successful. I don't even know how to define success here. No more terrorism? That's like trying to achieve light-speed: The closer you get to the cosmic limit, the more energy you will need, increasing to infinity. It would require an infinite amount of resources to utterly stop all future acts of terrorism. I admit my analogy is terrible--insurgencies have been put down, revolutions squashed, seiges overcome, wars both cold and hot were won, so it seems entirely likely Islamist terrorism can be reduced to a satisfactory extent. But, and answer honestly, do you see light at the end of this tunnel?

I'm not sure what the answer is.

It's just that it finally dawned on me why national leaders' early reactions to Islamist terrorist attacks are to defend Muslims and Islam. It's it's ham-fisted, condescending, insulting and borderline offensive--as if we were all on the verge of forming a lynch mob--but I understand it now.
The operatives who carried out this attack exhibit signs of professional training. They spoke unaccented French, and so certainly know that they are playing into the hands of Marine LePen and the Islamophobic French Right wing. They may have been French, but they appear to have been battle hardened. This horrific murder was not a pious protest against the defamation of a religious icon. It was an attempt to provoke European society into pogroms against French Muslims, at which point al-Qaeda recruitment would suddenly exhibit some successes instead of faltering...
My first reaction was wondering how the hell Juan Cole knew these murderers were 'professional' terrorists. Is he sleeping with François Hollande too? But he's probably right: the cartoon-hating murderers had MACHINE GUNS, methodically wiped out their targets, then shot everyone else they could, and successfully (so far) fled.

So these aren't random Muslims who just snap at an offensive cartoon; these are guys who are trained, have a support network, plan in advance, and may have just been waiting for an excuse (or opportunity).

If they truly hate us, or "hate our freedom," or "hate infidels," or whatever you want to define their motivation as, why are they targeting cartoonists and journalists? Why shoot innocent civilians, or blow up public spaces? I mean, if you want to deliver a blow to your enemy, wouldn't you rather hit some important industrial or government building?

They did that on 9/11 and since then I assume it's probably a bit more difficult to pull that kind of an attack off. I'm sure they try, but for a 'professional' attack, Charlie Hebdo seemed a relatively mundane and sort of Pyrrhic target. Maybe they are so sensitive they feel murder is the only way to deal with blasphemers.

Maybe it's a morbid marketing strategy:
Al-Qaeda wants to mentally colonize French Muslims, but faces a wall of disinterest. But if it can get non-Muslim French to be beastly to ethnic Muslims on the grounds that they are Muslims, it can start creating a common political identity around grievance against discrimination.
And that is how terrorists fight option 2b. So I get it. Howard Dean says of the terrorists, "they're about as Muslim as I am" despite them actually being Muslim. The media hypes #illridewithyou during the jihadist-wannabe hostage situation in Australia, without much fact-checking. Obama says "ISIL is not Islamic." Not once do you see the words "Muslim" or "Islam" in national leaders' responses to the attack unless they are used to demarcate the religion from the violence. We love the Muslims, but we hate the terrorists.

It's just so tiresome:
The “tiny minority of extremists” read on jihadism to the same end was a staple of Bush’s administration, but that concept implies that they do indeed function within Islam in some sense. That’s what it means to be a minority within a larger population rather than a population in your own right. Lately, though, that concept seems to have slid towards insisting that jihadis simply aren’t Muslim in any sense of the word. Sure, they may swear by the Koran, and sure, most of them come from the Middle East, and sure, they act with plenty of moral support from Salafist clerics based in the same country where Mecca and Medina are located, but hey — that doesn’t make them Islamic. ...

If you feel obliged to remind Americans for the thousandth time that it’s unfair to punish one individual Muslim for the actions of another — and if you do still feel that need after the first 999 iterations, you should probably reflect on your own prejudices — then just say that. Shifting into Imam Dean mode and issuing a fatwa rendering the Charlie Hebdo terrorists haram looks ridiculous...

The 2b rhetoric is, I think, getting better. Other than Howard Dean's inept comment and a few others, the race to defend ordinary Muslims and oikophobically preempt any 'Muricans from committing hate-thoughts is well, not as ham-fisted as it was, seems to me. An Islamophobic backlash would be bad, and undermine the 2b strategy. Just try not to be so condescending about it--not all non-Muslim Westerners are cavemen.

This attack was about religion. It was about free speech. And it was also about murderers being murderers. Despite what the politicians and liberal blogs tell me, I know those three are not mutually exclusive. I'm not going to speculate as to what goes on in a murderer's mind. And I don't want to get into the religious aspect, other than to say it's so obviously there that it must feel smart to ignore it, and even smarter to say that it's not really there at all--which is just stupid. I'm not ignoring it, I just don't have the expertise nor energy to go there.

Which brings me to free speech. Apparently some news organizations decided to censor out the cartoons Charlie Hebdo was famous for, cartoons which brought the explicit ire of the terrorists. Will Wilkinson says it better than I can:
It seems that satire especially riles those most ripe for it. Those who murder in the name of God, or other high ideals, are monstrous, but also, somehow, ridiculous. In the gap between the true-believer's moralising self-righteousness and the vicious reality of what he defends there is a fog of delusion. The satirist minds that gap, despises the fog and shines a merciless hot light on the nonsense. The wider the gap, the greater the sustaining delusion, and the more damaging, and dangerous, the satire will be felt to be.
Which is why it is so important for satire, the simple but powerful tool to shine on the ridiculousness, and reveal it for what it is. Ross Douthat makes a similar and equally salient point:
[W]e are not in a vacuum. We are in a situation where my third point applies, because the kind of blasphemy that Charlie Hebdo engaged in had deadly consequences, as everyone knew it could … and that kind of blasphemy is precisely the kind that needs to be defended, because it’s the kind that clearly serves a free society’s greater good. If a large enough group of someones is willing to kill you for saying something, then it’s something that almost certainly needs to be said, because otherwise the violent have veto power over liberal civilization, and when that scenario obtains it isn’t really a liberal civilization any more [emphasis mine].

These were silly cartoons! And people are censoring them! I don't know if it's more offensive to act like most Muslims are precious little snowflakes that we may or may not be afraid of, or to show the most blasphemous cartoon fullscreen! It's lose-lose, might as well err on the side of free speech and showing highly relevant news material. When the federation of united aliens sends a delegation to review our application for entry into the galactic community, they will ask, "Why were some of your people murdered in Paris?"

    "Because they drew some cartoons that ..."

    "They were murdered over cartoons?!?"

    "Well, yes, but the cartoons blasphemed a prophet, which ..."

    "Application denied. Please try again in 3000 years. Have a nice day."

Yes, a short sci-fi allegory about humanity. That's how ridiculous this is, that's how ridiculous most terrorism, especially the Muhammad cartoon-controversy is to the civilized world, and Charlie Hebdo kept pointing that out.

So I debated with myself on whether or not to post the cartoons in question here. I don't wish to offend anybody, but these are just cartoons. I think the world is grown up enough to handle blasphemous cartoons, and if not, a little push in that direction wouldn't hurt. The more these cartoons are spread, the more commonplace and expected they become. Repeated exposure desensitizes. Hopefully, in time, this tiny fig leaf of justification the terrorists are claiming will get even tinier.

From left: I think the bubble text says "Must not mock!"
The center cartoon says, "The Koran is crap. It does not stop bullets."
Cartoon on the right says "Love is stronger than hate."

There's a bunch more (translated) here.


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