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Civil Rights

Au Revoir Charlie, Bon Jour Marine


Anger. Outrage. Indignation. Rejection. But not surprise. Those were my feelings last Wednesday[1] when I saw the initial reports and videos of the Charlie Hebdo massacre in Paris. Attacks against Western soft targets have become increasingly frequent, and Charlie was an obvious and appealing one for its always satirical and often sexually revealing or humiliating portrayal of Muslims and the Prophet Mohammed.

Not surprise: precisely because there have been so many attacks recently, it is difficult for yet another to catch one off-guard. Yet this attack was different from the most recent spate of attacks in Canada, New York, and Australia. The latter were “grassroots” efforts following the KIS[2] principle to avoid detection and interception by authorities. The Charlie Hebdo-Hyper Cacher attack was a far more complex operation: well-planned, with trained operatives, difficult to obtain equipment[3] and with divergent secondary objectives. To accomplish all of this in broad daylight in the heart of Paris is not the work of amateurs. The fact that the separate incidents played out over the course of three days also indicates that the attack had been planned to instill the maximum fear and terror into the French and European audience.

The #jesuischarlie meme went viral almost immediately in the aftermath of the attack; and a torrent of words has already been unleashed to describe and analyze the attack, the attackers, assign guilt, declare innocence and provide more flavors of opinion than Baskin Robbins does ice cream. I doubt there is anything new in this article: my purpose is to highlight what I believe to be most relevant.


Al Qaeda Retains Some Offensive Capabilities

Decimated, beat up and brutalized by US and coalition military and counterterrorism efforts over the past 13 years, Al Qaeda looked a shadow of its former self. Throughout 2014, the spectacular rise of the Islamic State in Syria and Iraq thrust its rival, parent organization even further into the shadow. ISIS promised to accomplish what Al Qaeda had not: a real Sunni Islamic Caliphate in the heartland of the Middle East.

Their methods differed sharply: Al Qaeda had always emphasized the need to strike at the “far enemy” (the US and Europe) before attempting to destabilize their regional client regimes. In contrast, ISIS has been all about the here and now: focus on creating the Caliphate on the ground, in Iraq and Syria, expanding from there, and using the immense population and energy resources thus conquered to deal with the Franks and Crusaders if and when they come.

In large part, this was driven by the different elements constituting the two groups: Al Qaeda “HQ” had been very much a Saudi-run show, with a leavening of Egyptians and other Arabs. ISIS sprang up from the experience of fighting the Americans and Iraqi Shia during the US occupation. It consisted of a hard core of radicalized Baathist military officers and Iraqi Sunni tribesman: hard, because all the soft core were killed off in the half decade of fighting. Those that survived moved to Syria and took up the Sunni cause when that country erupted into civil war. There they gained strength, recruits and room to maneuver free from Iraqi and US interference. When the time was right, they counter-invaded back into Iraq.

Because of these differences, the two organizations have taken a very different approach towards terrorism. ISIS has focused on terrorism as a tool of state policy: to terrorize opponents, intimidate subjects, demonstrate their brutal resolve, and inspire those most inclined to violence and their message to “join up”. Beheading prisoners and gunning down civilians requires no particular tradecraft; there are probably few bomb-makers or espionage experts in the ranks, while those that ISIS does have are not given the tools, training and resources they need to operate effectively. For this reason, when the Islamic State decided that it needed to strike back at the US and allies in retaliation for the coalition air campaign, their recourse was to ask for help of local Muslims to rise up and strike at the enemy using the simplest of methods.

Meanwhile, Al Qaeda has been all about the “big plan”; the spectacular coup that would demonstrate their capabilities as well as making it plan that they were the favorites of Allah. The 9/11 attacks succeeded beyond their wildest expectations; but the USS Cole bombing, the Nairobi embassy attack, bombings in Bali, Pakistan, Istanbul, Riyadh, Mombasa, Tunis and many other locations were more in line with their operating profile and capabilities. During the US occupation of Iraq, Al Qaeda played a much more local and active role – but this was mostly through local Iraqi fighters moving under the mantle and taking the name of Al Qaeda rather than any fundamental shift in strategy by “Al Qaeda HQ”. And these were precisely the forces that split off from Al Qaeda to form the Islamic State.

The most recent spate of attacks seem to be more related to ISIS than to Al Qaeda, even though the latter organization has tried for years to provoke “grassroots jihad” with relatively little success. It is possible that Al Qaeda simply doesn’t attract this type of jihadist, but rather those that would prefer something more in line with 9/11 – and these are more easily detected, penetrated and foiled at an earlier stage. The attack on Charlie Hebdo, which has long been on the Al Qaeda hit list, seems to be the first successful foray by this group in the West since the Arkansas recruiting office shooting in June 2009[4]. The assailants, Saïd and Cherif Kouachi and Amedy Coulibaly, were part of the Buttes-Chaumont network which had been active in sending French Muslim recruits to fight for Al Qaeda in Iraq. Saïd Kouachi also spent time in Yemen and had links with AQAP[5]. Thus, while focus of the West has been on the menace of the Islamic State and “grassroots jihad”, this incident is an important reminder that Al Qaeda still retains relevant operational skills to pose a terrorist threat to the EU and US.

France Has a Racism Problem

It was certainly inspiring to see more than a million French citizens march peacefully in support of the murdered cartoonists and their right to free expression[6]. Less impressive were some of the political leaders in the march: people who are eager to suppress freedom of expression in their own countries but see no conflict in showing up for the photo op. Or perhaps they simply love the food in Paris. Even less impressive was a response of the French government against comedian Dieudonné M’bala M’bala, who posted an ambiguous statement on Facebook that authorities took to be “support for terrorism”[7].  Mr. M’bala M’bala is notorious for his stand-up routine which regularly includes anti-Semitic humor, holocaust denial and a Nazi-like salute; yet it is nonetheless ironic that the government should choose underline in this fashion what appears to be a hypocritical double-standard in free speech.

N.B. I am not taking a position regarding Mr. M’bala M’bala’s humor nor his claim to be “like Charlie”.


A few French radicals have gone much further: since the Wednesday attack, there have been 21 attacks on property and people and 33 threats[8]. The big difference, as some might argue, is that no one has been injured in these events versus 17 dead in the terrorist plot.

This is an impressive surge, triggered by the religious and ethnic character of the attackers, but it is by no means an isolated or uncharacteristic event. According to France’s National Consultative Commission on Human Rights[9], racism and intolerance are on the rise and not just against Muslims. Anti-Semitism and violence against Roma (gypsies) has also been increasing, though to a lesser extent.


Although these attacks are undoubtedly the work of a few die-hard extremists, the general population has also experienced a hardening of attitudes against non-European foreigners. The Human Rights report also tracks levels of social tolerance in the French population, using a scale developed by American political scientist James Stimson. Although it is predictable that tolerance levels should be falling among those who self-describe as “right wing”, it is disturbing to see that the political center and the left are also showing reduced levels of tolerance. In fact, the center tracks more closely to the right than it does to the left.


Once again, it is the Muslim and Maghrebi groups who have the worst perception and who have suffered the sharpest deterioration. This negative view extends not only to immigrants, but to their children as well, despite the fact that they are naturally-born French citizens. This is disturbing evidence of the failure to assimilate and accept these immigrants on the part of the “traditional” French population. It is hard to determine just how open the Muslim immigrants and their children are to becoming “French” themselves because there are contradictory studies that show both that they are very integrated (“Fully 75 percent of Muslims completely or somewhat agree that they feel French”[10]) whereas other studies cite wide differences in attitudes on social issues (such as the role of women in society[11]) that still set Muslim French apart from their countrymen.

There is also empirical evidence that France is racially divided, perhaps as much as the United States. There is a similar divergence in unemployment rates between French nationals and non-European immigrants as there is between US whites and African Americans:


French authorities[12] don’t use religion or race for their official statistics so it is difficult to differentiate results within the French national population; for example between French Muslims and French of other religious denominations. However, in this example we can see that immigration status is not the principal driver of the difference in unemployment, as immigrants from within the EU suffer a similar rate of unemployment to that of the French average while non-EU immigrants (mostly from Africa and the Middle East) are 10 points above this rate.

Incarceration statistics are also difficult to use in this manner, for the same reason, but numerous studies conducted by French sociologists and NGO’s show that France has one of the highest rates of incarceration of Muslims in Europe, making up 60% of prisoners but only 7.5% of the general population[13]. This incarceration ratio of 8 times greater than the ratio in the population is far in excess of the Netherlands (4x), Belgium and the UK (3x) or even US African Americans (3x)[14].


France has not yet assimilated the large wave of Muslim immigrants that have flocked to the country over the past 25 years, nor their children. The question is if the native French will ever fully accept them, or if they will continue to be relegated to second class status. It is not obvious that they will: we Americans have had 150 years to get over our prejudices and see how well that has gone. The relationship between France and those of Maghrebi descent is as complicated[15] as that of America with the children of her forcibly displaced Africans.

Fear and distrust of the “other” has gripped France; it is not a coincidence that “Submission”, the controversial book by Michel Houellebecq, was published on the same day of the attack on Charlie Hebdo[16]. The novel imagines France electing a Muslim President in 2022, who then goes on to convert the country to Islam and establish sharia law throughout it. The award winning author denies that his book is “Islamophobic”, but he may have captured the zeitgeist of his countrymen better than intended. The book has shot to the top of Amazon.fr’s top sellers.

France Has an Even Bigger Problem Called Marine Le Pen

Immigration, cultural friction, unemployment, political crisis and austerity: all these have been feeding into the growing support for the National Front (FN). From an obscure, extremist fringe group founded by Jean-Marie Le Pen in 1972, the party has become a major force in French politics thanks to voter disenchantment with scandal-ridden and ineffective traditional parties. Thanks to the weakness of the bland Mr. Hollande and the “moderating influence” of Marine Le Pen, who took over in party leadership from her father in 2011, the National Front placed a historic first in the European Parliamentary elections.

“Moderating”: Ms. Le Pen has indeed purged the FN of its most blatantly racist and anti-Semitic elements. But for all of her charm and make-over, it remains stridently nationalist, aggressively xenophobic and increasingly Eurosceptic. The daughter is much more cautious than the father in her speeches: she is careful to single out radical Islamism for her diatribes. But it is difficult to forget the ambiguous stance of the National Front on issues concerning French Muslims at home or on immigration in general. Her recommendation to President Hollande in the wake of the terrorist attack was brutally direct: suspend the Schengen Agreement, re-impose border controls, strip terror suspects of their dual citizenship and reinstitute the death penalty[17]. All of those suggestions are either unlawful or unconstitutional at this time and President Hollande didn’t deign to reply to Ms. Hollande or even invite her to the unity march on the 12th of January. But the National Front’s “get tough” message is resonating with more and more of the French electorate, including moderates who are simply fed up with the bumbling ineffectiveness of the Hollande administration.

If the French President can ignore Ms. Le Pen’s unwelcome intervention now, he might not be able to in 2017. That is when the next general election is due to be held. Ms. Le Pen is already far more popular than Mr. Hollande, but that’s not really saying much; Attila the Hun is more popular than the hapless Socialist at the nadir of his fortunes. Mr. Hollande may gain a very temporary respite by his talk of national unity in the face of fundamentalists; but he is not going to “out tough” the National Front, or turn the economy around in short order. An IFOP poll from October 2014 puts Ms. Hollande firmly in the running for first or second place during the first round of voting:


France’s two-step voting system ensures that unless a candidate gets an absolute majority in the first round, there will be a run-off vote between the two candidates who received the most votes. Here Ms. Le Pen still falls short:


Only against Mr. Hollande does the National Front leader have a decisive margin of victory. Both center right candidates, Nicolas Sarkozy and Alain Juppé, would comfortably defeat her in a head-to-head contest. But this poll was taken last year and massacre in Paris is likely to harden French opinions on many of the issues that the National Front is foremost in advocating. Furthermore, both Mr. Sarkozy and Mr. Juppé are tainted by scandals from their past; and this is precisely the sort of grist that Ms. Le Pen is expert at milling.

A National Front Presidency in 2017 does not yet seem likely; but it is no longer improbable. That ought to be a very scary thought. France is a constitutional democracy, with a separation of powers, but Charles de Gaulle made a very strong executive when he helped create the Fifth Republic. Ms. Le Pen might very well be able to push through many of her central immigration reforms; while to push others, like the death penalty or the stripping of citizenship from suspected terrorists, she has promised to organize popular referendums. After all, she has the example of neighboring Switzerland, which has passed to measures in similar fashion limiting immigration and banning the construction of minarets.[18]

That is how it begins: sealing off France from non-European immigrants and stripping French citizenship from those of Arabic or Maghrebi descent who travel abroad under “suspicious circumstances”. Then the rigorous enforcement of laïcisme[19], secularism, to include the banning of burkas in public places and perhaps the banning of minarets. But banning immigration will not deal with the 5 or 6 million French Muslims already living in the country; and the other measures will only ratchet up tensions between the communities. And so when the next terrorist act strikes France, what will Ms. Le Pen argue? That the failure of integration demands and oath of conformity? Or mass deportation? For a continent that has all too much experience with “final solutions” this is an awful scenario to contemplate and one that is far more probable than the one proposed by Mr. Houellebecq.

Yet to many Americans, Ms. Le Pen’s may not seem like a big deal and my mistrust in her exaggerated. After all, we control immigration to the US and set quotas, we have the death penalty, and Congress does apparently have the power to strip citizens of their nationality under special circumstances[20]. She seems to me making France “more American” – which is as sure a way as any of losing votes in that nation.

Nevertheless, there are important differences: America is a continent of immigrants, whereas Europe has not been so since the Dark Ages. The notable increase in European nationalism complicates an already difficult situation, for nationalism in Europe is more parochial than the equally unpleasant US version. The national identity is tied to the terroir, to a distinct culture, race and history that makes it difficult for a non-European to accept and to be accepted. Difficult, though not impossible: there are many examples of immigrants or their descendants who have whole-heartedly embraced the values of their adopted nation and France is no exception. But immigration is a numbers game, and the assimilation rate is important, not the anecdotal evidence that a few successful second generation citizens might provide.

Europe Has an Immigration Problem

It is not only France that is struggling with an immigration and racism problem. The phenomenon is widespread[21]: the aforementioned Swiss have their xenophobic SVP; the UK has both UKIP and the fascist BNP; Greece has the by now infamous Golden Dawn; Norway’s Progress Party, to which Anders Behring Breivik belonged; the Netherlands with the Freedom Party; Italy has the Lega Nord, which views even Southern Italians as mongrel aliens and wants independence for the northern party of the country; Hungary has not only Fidesz, the ruling party, but Jobbik, which is far enough to the right to make Fidesz look almost respectable. The rise of these far right parties in so many countries is not coincidental, nor even recent, and a map of the growth of European extremism overlays very well on a map of the growth of Muslim populations: the countries with the fastest growth and the greatest absolute number have generally responded with a rise in extremist politics:


But extremist politics respond to many forces, only one of which is Muslim immigration. The rise of the European Union as a project of “ever greater union” requires that some national and cultural boundaries be trampled; to be successful, it is a project that requires the creation of “Europeans” in the same sense as we are Americans first, rather than Virginians or Californians or Kentuckians. Just as globalization as provoked a localist, traditionalist reaction in many countries, so too has Europeanization.  Progress has been uneven and one might argue that it has gone into reverse: there is a greater degree of national identities in the EU member states now than 10 years ago. Those who dislike the project most are the social conservatives who see “Brussels” as wasteful, bureaucratic, intrusive, indifferent or hostile to their traditional cultural, yet welcoming to a flood of aliens who threaten European values (often framed in Christian terms).

Immigration from Muslim countries is the spark that is lighting fires across the continent; small ones so far. But the tinder is already well-stacked by the failure in the European project to create Europeans; or perhaps it is better said that it is the successful resistance of national governments to subsume their identities any further.

Yet Europe desperately needs immigrants to stay economically relevant; the largest single market in the world is in danger of becoming a retirement home with a shrinking population in 20 years because not a single country in Europe has fertility rates above the population replacement level:


These fertility rates would be even lower if we looked exclusively at the “white, national” population and excluded all first and second generation immigrants (which helps boost the numbers in places like France, Ireland and the UK.

For reasons of geography and history, many of those migrant workers are going to come from North Africa and the Near East. Given the continued need for immigration and the high fertility rates of the immigrants, we can expect the Muslim percentage of the European population to continue to grow, particularly in the former “Imperial” powers. That is especially disconcerting when we look at Russia (outside of the scope of this article) for the Russians have an absolutely disastrous demographic situation among the Great Russian ethnic population but high fertility in the Muslim groups. Russia will soon top the 10% of population mark, which is not a magical number, but given Russia’s less than sterling reputation of dealing with Muslims, might provoke a backlash within the ranks of a resurgent Orthodox Church.

Until recently, these far right parties have been localized and uncoordinated, but that is beginning to change. During the last European Parliamentary elections, Geert Wilder’s Freedom Party made common cause with Marine Le Pen’s National Front, though the former performed poorly. These parties are increasingly coalescing at a transnational level around the twin issues of Euro-skepticism and anti-immigration (which really ought to be read as anti-Muslim immigration). In Germany, we have the rise of two parallel, but so far separate, phenomenon: the Alternative für Deutschland (AfD) which was formed by German economists and jurists who object to Germany bearing all the costs of supporting the Euro and reject the creeping loss of sovereignty to the ECB and other European organs. AfD went from complete obscurity to winning 7% of the German vote for the European Parliament vote in a year. They describe themselves as “anti-Euro rather than anti-EU” and they are not necessarily anti-immigrant.

However, Germany has recently produced PEGIDA, Patriotische Europäer, Gegen die Islamisierung des Abendlandes, or Patriot Europeans Against the Islamization of the West. Established in 2014, the group’s manifesto declares itself in favor of stricter immigration laws, similar to Switzerland or Australia, but in favor of taking in war refugees; in favor of preserving Germany’s Judeo-Christian heritage; opposed to parallel societies or jurisdictions, like “no go” banlieus with their own Sharia courts and “peace police”; against hate speech and radicalism of all type; not opposed to Muslim migration so long as the immigrants accept the German Basic Law and are assimilated and politically moderate. Those are all fine sentiments, difficult to argue with: but one is left wondering if all the membership is quite in line with the ideals of the leaders or if there might not be baser motives as well. When 25,000 to 40,000 people march around Dresden[22] shouting “Wir sind die Volk!” (We are the people) it sounds a bit too similar to “Ein Volk, Ein Reich” for comfort.


Islam Has an Intolerance Problem

If I’ve spoken strongly about the racism and xenophobia still deeply rooted in Europe, I don’t mean to absolve Islamic fundamentalism of its own share of responsibility. There is no questioning the fact that the Islamic world faces a very serious intolerance problem of its own, which it must confront and overcome as surely as Europe and America must face down their legacy of racism.

There are many apologists in Europe, America and the Islamic World that state that Islam is a religion of peace and that Islamic radicalism is a byproduct of Western imperialism and racism. That is far too facile an answer. Islam may very well be a religion of peace, but so is Christianity, whose central message is “love thy neighbor as thyself”: yet that did not stop Christian barbarisms. To say that Islam today has no intolerance problem is to say that Christianity was blameless while it was executing Pelagius, butchering Albigensians, or burning Huguenots, Hussites and heretics.

There are too many retrograde, intolerant, radical theological states in the Muslim world funding and spreading their extremist forms of Islam; particularly in the Persian Gulf. The religiously moderate and modernizing leaders, like Egypt’s Nasser and Sadat for all their faults, are mostly dead and gone. The most secular Islamic states are either broken and at war with themselves (Iraq, Syria and Libya), unstable (Egypt, Jordan, Lebanon and Pakistan) or actively sliding towards a less secular and less tolerant Islamism (Turkey). The most stable Islamic states, like Morocco and Indonesia, are simply too far on the fringe and too far from the cultural and religious center of the Islamic world to influence the rest.

I have no doubt that Islam is perfectly compatible with democracy, tolerance, laïcisme, and other fundamental Western values: my own experience and friendship with progressive Muslims in the US, Turkey, Lebanon and Syria – though anecdotal – nevertheless convinces me of the fact. They are no different from progressive Christians or progressive Jews in their open-mindedness. Yet it is difficult to see a solution to this conundrum so long as the Islamic heartland is dominated by reactionary theocracies at odds with each other: the religious and geopolitical conflict between Saudi Arabia and Iran dominates our time. This has been called Islam’s “Thirty Years War”: but there is no guarantee that at its conclusion, the Muslim states will produce a Peace of Westphalia, much less a Voltaire.


Sources and Notes

[1] January 7th, 2015

[2] Keep it Simple

[3] Kalashnikov rifles and ballistic vests are not easily obtainable in France

[4] The shooter in this incident, Abdulhakim Mujahid Muhammad, was directly associated with the Al Qaeda affiliate in Yemen, whereas latter incidents, such as the Fort Hood shooting, the Boston Marathon bombing, and the Frankfort Airport shooting were “inspired by” rather than orchestrated by Al Qaeda.

[5] Al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula. In fact, AQAP released a statement today from Yemen taking credit for the planning and organization of the attack: Griff Witte, Anthony Faiola and Brian Murphy, “Al-Qaeda in Arabian Peninsula claims responsibility for Charlie Hebdo attack,” The Washington Post, 14 January 2015

[6] “Paris attacks: Millions rally for unity in France,” BBC, 11 January 2015

[7] Anthony Faiola and Griff Witte, “In France, a growing debate over why some speech is protected and some isn’t,” The Washington Post, 15 January 2015

[8] Guillaume Souvant, “Anti-Muslim acts escalate after Paris terrorist attacks,” France24, 13 January 2015

[9] “La Lutte Contre Le Racisme, L’Antis’emitisme et la Xenophobie: Annee 2013,” Commission Nationale Consultative Des Droits De L’Homme, 2014

[10] Erik Bleich and Rahsaan Maxwell, “Some Good News About Muslims in Europe,” The Washington Post, 22 July 2014

[11] Claire L. Adida, David D. Laitin, Marie-Anne Valfort, “Muslims in France: identifying a discriminatory equilibrium,” Journal of Population Economics, 10 April 2014

[12] Institut National de la Statistique et des Études Économiques

[13] Molly Moore, “In France, Prisons Filled With Muslims,” The Washington Post, 29 April 2008

[14] Lauren E. Glaze, “Correctional Populations in the United States, 2010,” Office of Justice Programs, Bureau of Justice Statistics, December 2011

[15] The French Empire invaded, conquered and administered the territory of modern Algeria beginning in 1830. This process culminated in the Algerian War of Independence, between 1954 and 1962, resulting in a million to a million and a half Algerian dead.

[16] Henry Samuel and Andrew Marszal, “’Islamophobic’ Michel Houellebecq book featured by Charlie Hebdo published today,” The Telegraph, 7 January 2015

[17] “Marine Le Pen to Hollande: Suspend visa-free zone, strip terror suspects of French citizenship,” RT, 09 January 2015

[18] Alice Baghdjian and Albert Schmieder, “Swiss vote to set limits on immigration from EU,” Reuters, 9 February 2014
“Swiss Voters Back Ban On Minarets,” BBC, 29 November 2009

[19] I should note that I support secularism, for the most part.

[20] There is some legal ambiguity here. The Nationality Act of 1940 and the Immigration and Nationality Act of 1952 seem to establish this authority with the Congress.

[21] “Europe’s Right Wing: A Nation-by-Nation Guide to Political Parties and Extremist Groups,” Time, 29 July 2011

[22] Sabine Devins, “Inside Dresden’s 25,000-strong PEGIDA march,” The Local, 13 January 2015

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