The Charlie Hebdo atrocity has ended in more terror and more blood.
Even before the killers and hostage-takers met their end, voices were raised to warn against the danger of an anti-Muslim “backlash.” Lately, these warnings have been issued even before the completion of the terror attack that might supposedly provoke such a backlash. Australian bus riders were tweeting "I’ll ride with you” this past December even as a gunman held 17 people hostage in a chocolate shop. The New York Times posted its warning as the Charlie Hebdo killers still roamed northern France and their apparent confederates murdered a policewoman and seized Jewish women and children in a kosher supermarket on the eve of Shabbat.
The good news is that more than 13 years after the 9/11 terror attacks, anti-Muslim violence remains a rare phenomenon in Western democracies. In the United States, for example, the FBI tallied 165 anti-Muslim hate-crime offenses in 2013, or about one-tenth the number of offenses targeting gays, lesbians, bisexuals, and transgender people. Only about one-third of anti-Muslim crimes involved violent attacks on people. Comparable statistics for Europe are more difficult to come by. (In 2014, the U.S.-based Anti-Defamation League published a sharp critique of the deficiencies of hate-crime record-keeping in European countries.) Yet in Europe too, violence against Muslims seems mercifully rare. A day after the Charlie Hebdo attack, French prosecutors reported three probable anti-Muslim hate crimes, all of them carried out against buildings rather than people: blank grenades hurled at a mosque in Le Mans, west of Paris; shots fired at an empty Muslim prayer hall near Narbonne, in southern France; and an explosion at a kebab shop in eastern France. None of these attacks resulted in casualties.
Ugly incidents of intimidation do occur. In the days after the horrifying murder of British soldier Lee Rigby in May 2013, six British Muslims had objects thrown at them and up to 11 more suffered attempts to pull off their veils or other forms of Islamic dress, by one count. In the summer of 2013, a Muslim woman had a miscarriage after two skinheads allegedly assaulted her in the suburbs of Paris. Mosques have been damaged by suspected arson attacks in Germany and Sweden. Any and every one of them is an outrageous offense against law and the equal dignity of persons.
Yet while every crime is an offense, the aggregate numbers matter. Many of the most horrific hate crimes in Europe in recent years have been carried out by Muslim perpetrators, not inflicted upon Muslim victims. Consider, for instance, the shooting at a Jewish school in Toulouse, France in March 2012 and the deadly attack on the Jewish Museum in Brussels two years later. In 2014, NPR reported that a large majority of anti-Semitic attacks in France were carried out by youths of Middle Eastern or North African origin. The deadliest of all recent European terrorists, Anders Behring Breivik, was motivated by an ideology of anti-Muslim hatred. When he opened fire in his 2011 mass slaughter, however, he killed indiscriminately, with more of the victims bearing old Scandinavian names than those of recent immigrants.
Nothing can be ruled out, but the massacre at the French satirical magazine Charlie Hebdo seems no more likely to incite lethal retaliation than any of the past Islamic terrorist attacks against European targets. The theme of the intensely moving rallies that have filled the streets and squares of Europe in recent days has been mourning, sympathy, and compassion. The most frequently reproduced of the Charlie Hebdo cartoons depicts the cartoonist himself in an open-mouthed kiss with a man in Islamic dress, under the title: “Love is stronger than hate.”
So let it be proved.
Yet European Muslim communities do have something to fear. Squeezed by high unemployment, frightened by violence and disorder, European electorates are turning to xenophobic and nationalist parties: anti-immigrant, anti-European Union. These nationalist parties are often described as “far right.” That’s not a very helpful description, especially for Americans who associate the “far right” with radical economic individualism. The European nationalist parties—like France’s National Front—combine a defense of the existing welfare state with attacks on newcomers whose demands are perceived as overwhelming that welfare state.
Terror attacks by European Muslims strengthen the hand of these nationalist parties, but the parties owe their success much more to the painful deflation enforced across Europe to sustain the euro currency. France and Italy are suffering unemployment over 10 percent, Spain over 20 percent. Youth unemployment soars higher yet. No respite seems in sight. As The Economist reported at the end of 2014: “There are now serious worries that the euro zone will succumb to a 'triple-dip' recession. Only Lithuania—which joined the euro zone on the first day of 2015—and Ireland are forecast to see strong growth next year.” Only outside the eurozone do things look a little better: The United Kingdom grew at a rate of more than 2.5 percent over the past year; Poland at more than 3 percent.
High unemployment hits the most economically marginalized hardest. And second-generation Muslim immigrants head the list of Europe’s most marginal populations. As the political scientist Robert Leiken has written, “[W]estern Europe now plays host to often disconsolate Muslim offspring, who are its citizens in name but not culturally or socially. In a fit of absentmindedness, during which its academics discoursed on the obsolescence of the nation-state, western Europe acquired not a colonial empire but something of an internal colony, whose numbers are roughly equivalent to the population of Syria.” It is from these populations that ISIS has recruited hundreds of jihadists for its war in Syria and Iraq; it is from these populations that radical imams recruit domestic terrorists. Many European jihadists, like the Charlie Hebdo killers, begin as delinquents and are radicalized in prison. The French government does not publish statistics on the religion or ethnicity of its prison population, but sociologists estimate that at least 50 percent of French prisoners come from the roughly 7 percent Muslim minority.
It’s obviously true that jihadists and terrorists constitute a tiny minority within the European Muslim population. But while their numbers are small and their actions extreme, their ideas are by no means marginal. A pair of Pew surveys in the mid-2000s, for example, found that substantial minorities of Muslims in every European country surveyed did not rule out violence against civilian targets perceived as anti-Islamic. Two-thirds of French Muslims said the use of violence in such a case was never justified, which is reassuring, but one-third felt that it was sometimes or rarely justified. Significant numbers—including an outright majority in Britain—refused to acknowledge that Arabs had carried out the 9/11 terror attacks. A plurality of French Muslims (46 percent) and a crushing majority of British Muslims (81 percent) considered themselves Muslims first, identifying with their respective European nations only to a secondary extent.
European Muslim populations come from many countries and bring with them many different cultures and modes of Islamic worship. In Europe, however, some have discovered a more common identity, in which zealous hatred of Jews and Israel provides a unifying bond. In every European country Pew surveyed—even those, like Spain, where the Muslim minority originated nowhere near the Palestinian territories—sympathy for Hamas ran strong. Half of British Muslims, who mostly come from the Indian subcontinent, wished to see Iran gain a nuclear bomb.
A survey of French Muslims in 2014 found a community seething with anti-Semitism. Sixty-seven percent said “yes” when asked whether Jews had too much power over France’s economy. Sixty-one percent believed Jews had too much power in France’s media. Forty-four percent endorsed the idea of a global Zionist conspiracy of the kind described by the Holocaust-denying French Muslim comedian Dieudonne. Thirteen percent agreed that Jews were responsible for the 2008 financial crisis.
Perhaps in the aftermath of the Charlie Hebdo attack, European Muslim leaders will more successfully challenge extremists in their communities; perhaps the toxin of anti-Semitism will be combated rather than condoned. I’m personally skeptical, but sometimes a shocking crime can give people the jolt they need to make changes. More likely, however, the attack will harden attitudes inside and outside European Muslim communities, strengthening the National Front and other xenophobic parties and alienating more European Muslims from their adopted societies.
Yet there are things European leaders can do. The most obvious, necessary, but alas unlikely thing is to redirect the EU’s economic policy away from currency preservation and toward job growth. As disastrous an idea as the euro was, it didn’t have to be this disastrous. At the risk of getting technical, European monetary authorities could as successfully defend the currency by accepting more inflation inside Germany as by imposing deflation on southern Europe. If they made that choice, more people would go to work in France, Italy, and Spain—and fewer would vote for parties like the National Front.
A less fundamental, but maybe more immediately helpful, move would be for European leaders to reduce the flow of migration into the continent from less-developed countries outside Europe. In the 2010s, that migration mostly takes the form of refugee flows, which have suddenly spiked as a result of the Syria civil war. An estimated 200,000 people sought asylum in Germany in 2014, some 60 percent more than did so in 2013—and seven times as many as in 2007. Germany now receives more asylum applications than any other industrialized country. France ranks third; Sweden fourth. Almost all these applications come from the Middle East and North Africa.
The refugees have been displaced by the same Islamic extremism that terrorized France this week. Their situation is intensely sympathetic. Yet resettling them within Europe is dangerous at a time of high unemployment and inter-communal suspicion, especially given the difficulties that will likely face the children of these resettled refugees. In the final month of 2014, tens of thousands of Germans protested against this sudden refugee surge. German Chancellor Angela Merkel rebuked these protesters in her end-of-year address to the nation: “It goes without saying that we … take in people who seek refuge with us.” She denounced the “prejudice, coldness, and even hatred” of those who oppose her government’s asylum policy.
German voters may hearken to that kind of language. French, Italian, and even British voters, however, are deserting the parties of the center for parties of the fringe. Accusations of prejudice and hatred won’t win them back. Moderates defeat radicals by stealing their issues and offering more effective and humane solutions. Moderates lose to radicals when voters are allowed to believe that only radicals sincerely care about their concerns.