Charlie Hebdo, the French satirical paper that was attacked by Islamic terrorists last year, has published an editorial in French and English reflecting on the causes of the Brussels bombings. The paper suggests the answer is an unwillingness to insist on secular ideals for fear of being called Islamophobic:
The attacks are merely the visible part of a very large iceberg indeed. They are the last phase of a process of cowing and silencing long in motion and on the widest possible scale. Our noses are endlessly rubbed in the rubble of Brussels airport and in the flickering candles amongst the bouquets of flowers on the pavements. All the while, no one notices what’s going on in Saint-German-en-Laye. Last week, Sciences-Po* welcomed Tariq Ramadan. He’s a teacher, so it’s not inappropriate. He came to speak of his specialist subject, Islam, which is also his religion. Rather like lecture by a Professor of Pies who is also a pie-maker. Thus judge and contestant both.
No matter, Tariq Ramadan has done nothing wrong. He will never do anything wrong. He lectures about Islam, he writes about Islam, he broadcasts about Islam. He puts himself forward as a man of dialogue, someone open to a debate. A debate about secularism which, according to him, needs to adapt itself to the new place taken by religion in Western democracy. A secularism and a democracy which must also accept those traditions imported by minority communities. Nothing bad in that. Tariq Ramadan is never going to grab a Kalashnikov with which to shoot journalists at an editorial meeting. Nor will he ever cook up a bomb to be used in an airport concourse. Others will be doing all that kind of stuff. It will not be his role. His task, under cover of debate, is to dissuade people from criticising his religion in any way. The political science students who listened to him last week will, once they have become journalists or local officials, not even dare to write nor say anything negative about Islam. The little dent in their secularism made that day will bear fruit in a fear of criticising lest they appear Islamophobic. That is Tariq Ramadan’s task.
The editorial goes on to visualize a woman wearing a veil and a baker who refuses to sell ham or bacon as part of a continuum connected with the attack in Brussels:
None of what is about to happen in the airport or metro of Brussels can really happen without everyone’s contribution. Because the incidence of all of it is informed by some version of the same dread or fear. The fear of contradiction or objection. The aversion to causing controversy. The dread of being treated as an Islamophobe or being called racist. Really, a kind of terror. And that thing which is just about to happen when the taxi-ride ends is but a last step in a journey of rising anxiety. It’s not easy to get some proper terrorism going without a preceding atmosphere of mute and general apprehension.
The connection the editorial makes between the innocent academic or baker and the terrorists is probably best summed up in the conclusion:
From the bakery that forbids you to eat what you like, to the woman who forbids you to admit that you are troubled by her veil, we are submerged in guilt for permitting ourselves such thoughts. And that is where and when fear has started its sapping, undermining work. And the way is marked for all that will follow.
Naturally, the piece has already been attacked by Salon and the Guardian as Islamophobic, which proves at least one point Charlie Hebdo was making, i.e. some thoughts about Islam and terrorism are off-limits. To be fair, Salon points out that the editorial is less Islamophobic than it is more generically anti-religion. The solution, as the editorial’s author sees it, isn’t so much getting rid of Islam as rallying around a more militant secularism/atheism that would be less tolerant of all religious outlooks.
That distinction aside, Charlie Hebdo’s critics still seem eager to attack the piece for an argument it hasn’t really made. The point is not that the woman in the veil and the baker who won’t sell bacon are terrorists or responsible for terrorism it’s that they create an environment in which questioning or even outright mocking religious behavior is unacceptable. That social space, the presumption of good will enforced by the stigma of “Islamophobia” is then exploited by terrorists to carry out their plans unmolested.
The real problem with this piece is that it fails to make a concrete connection between that fear of expressing discomfort with someone’s religious practices and the attack in Brussels. And that matters because if there was no missed opportunity here then you really can’t say silence or the threat of being labeled an Islamophobe played a role in failing to prevent this particular incident. Perhaps someone, somewhere has made the case that there was such a missed opportunity but, if so, Charlie Hebdo doesn’t bother to recapitulate the details in its editorial.
Nevertheless, the failure to make the connection in this editorial does not mean no such connection exists. Recall what one of the neighbors of the San Bernardino terrorists said about their strange behavior before the attack and why she did not report it to authorities:
A man who was visiting a friend in the Redlands neighborhood on Wednesday said a local claimed to have witnessed suspicious activity recently, such as the couple working in the garage at odd hours and receiving several deliveries.
“Sounds like she didn’t do anything about it,” Aaron Elswick said. “She didn’t want to do any kind of racial profiling. She’s like, ‘I didn’t call it in … maybe it was just me thinking something that’s not there.’”
Similarly, the Pakistani men who turned young girls into sex-slaves in Rotherham, England seemed to have benefited from a similar discomfort on the part of authorities who were hesitant to note the racial aspect of the case. So there is a case to be made that fear of being labeled an Islamophobe has created an environment in at least some cases that led to real tragedies not being prevented. Charlie Hebdo’s editorial simply fails to make that potential connection clear with regard to Brussels.