The targeted assassinations at Charlie Hebdo are triply repellent. Being planned, they are the product of considered decisions, not a moment of folly. Being aimed at journalists, they have deliberately chosen the vulnerable heart of the freedom that is fundamental to our values. Being gratuitously cruel in casually murdering an already wounded policeman, they display a chilling depravity. As such, attacks like this are intolerable: they must be stopped, and therefore they must be understood.
The assassinations follow the random car-crash terrorism of December and the Syrian beheadings of November. All were perpetrated by young Muslim men. But what we are experiencing is not the product of a religion: it does not deserve to be so dignified. Rather, we are in the midst of a new culture of violence. Occasionally, throughout history, such cultures have perpetrated viciousness. Previous European excrescences have been fascism in 1930s Germany, and the Red Brigades in 1970s Italy. A culture of violence is a vile and self-perpetuating belief system, but it can be crushed.
In all societies, a significant minority of young men are hormonally predisposed to violence. A core task for a community is to restrain them by means of its culture. Over the centuries Europe’s communities have succeeded so well that our region has become by far the most peaceful society that has ever been known. Yet against this background of peace, Europe’s Muslim communities have manifestly failed to build sufficiently powerful cultural restraints.
Behaviour of any group is described by a frequency distribution. The Muslim community must take responsibility not just for behaviour in the middle of the distribution, where Muslims are as peaceable as anyone else, but for behaviour at its tail. Those young men predisposed to violence have found in Islam a convenient norm which enables them to reconcile their desires with their conscience: killing infidels for Allah is justified. Of course, this is a misinterpretation of modern Islam, but it is evidently a feasible one. Violent youth are not able to find an equivalent misinterpretation in modern Christianity.
Many of these young men from across Europe have gone to Syria to try to kill people. This is not even a political phenomenon, let alone a religious one. It is best thought of as ‘conflict tourism’: a real-life version of a video game. While humane youth with a sense of adventure go off to Africa to do good, violent youth go to Syria to posture with guns and pull besotted girls. This, I think, is why about a quarter of the young men who go to fight in Syria are converts. They are not exceptionally religious people driven by their faith into foreign violence: indeed, if they were, Islam as a faith would stand condemned. Rather, they are exceptionally self-indulgent people, needing to reconcile their lust for excitement with their conscience, and so adopting what they can mistake for Islamic norms.
Conflict tourism, like all tourism, has the triviality of entertainment. Yet it is evil because, like the worst form of colonialism, it lets foreigners with guns impose their lifestyles, uninvited, on others. A blond Swedish conflict tourist in Iraq is reported as saying, ‘I’m having the time of my life.’ In the process, he is providing his Syrian victims with the time of their death.
Unsurprisingly, Europe’s conflict tourists are hated by their unwilling hosts. Quite obviously, we must stop these dangerous idiots from returning to Europe. Apart from our own security, discouraging the outflow is the least we can do to help the Syrian victims. To block return we urgently need to change the law. But the fundamental task is to break the culture of violence itself.
German fascism is dead because a subsequent generation of German youth decisively repudiated the one-time beliefs of their parents. The Red Brigades and Bader-Meinhof are dead because young Italians and Germans came to see them as spoilt brats playing at violence, rather than as the vanguard of revolution. In crushing the current culture of violence, Europe’s Muslim community will play the vital role.
Although repression makes a necessary contribution, cultures of violence are only broken by mockery: the Kouachi brothers recognised a potent enemy. But to be effective, the mockery must come not from those whom the violent hate, but from those they esteem.
An example from history is the rapid disappearance of the culture of duelling. The practice had been endemic in Europe for decades when governments began to punish it. But the decisive factor was that a rising generation started to see their elders’ duels as ridiculous. Instead of being honoured, duellists were mocked, as the young embraced Enlightenment values. This is the task now for Muslims. Success will be when the young relatives of terrorists such as Saïd Kouachi see them as clowns rather than martyrs. Only the Muslim community can do that.
Unfortunately, it is quite clearly necessary because, to date, Islamic discourse has been sloppily capable of misinterpretation. All the paraphernalia of violence must be mocked away. A fatwa (the idea that a cleric can legitimately threaten or license violence), jihad, and death for apostates, must all become as preposterous to European Muslims as inquisitorial torture now is to Christians. European Islam must decisively and repeatedly repudiate all the doctrines that violent European youth are finding so convenient.
Fortunately, it is easy to do. European Islam has at its disposal a very effective social network of mosques and religious leaders. Nobody converts without going to a mosque. Parents can better police the networks of their teenagers.
This is the responsibility that can legitimately be placed on Europe’s Muslims. Neither they nor their religion stand accused. But nor can they stand aside. They cannot in good conscience say ‘It’s nothing to do with me.’ By failing to act unprompted with sufficient vigour to suppress the norms and narratives of violence that circulate on the fringes, Muslims have allowed their culture to be twisted. For all our sakes they must make it manifest to all young wannabe warriors that modern Islam is as distant from providing an alibi for violence as is modern Christianity.
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Paul Collier is a professor at the Blavatnik School of Government at Oxford University and an invited distinguished professor at Sciences Po in Paris.
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