In the aftermath of the worst terrorist attack in France in more than half a century, French Prime Minister Manuel Valls has declared France at war with radical Islam.
It’s déjà vu all over again – potentially another 9-11 moment, and not just for France or Europe.
There are an estimated 5-6 million Muslims living in France (population 66.6 million) or about 7-8% of the total. (France’s constitution proscribes census questions about religion, so the precise number is unknown.) Paris has the largest Muslim population of any city not only in France but also in the entire 28-nation European Union (EU).
Estimates put the number of Muslims in Europe as a whole at about 44 million. That seems like a large number but considering that the population of the EU is over 500 million and that more than half of Europe’s Muslims live outside the EU (in Albania, Azerbaijan, Bosnia-Herzegovina, Cypress, Kosovo, and a little piece of Turkey) it’s clear that Europe is NOT being over-run by Muslims or Arabs or Arab-Muslims.
On the other hand, Islam is the faith of some 1.6 billion people – close to one-fourth the world’s population. Islam isn’t just a religion. In many Muslim-majority countries, it’s also a culture and a sociopolitical system that does not separate church and state the way the Western world does.
Islam is literally a world apart, one we in the West don’t understand any more than most Muslims understand Western post-modern marketing strategies.
We live in different worlds, but we occupy the same planet which, paradoxically, means our two different inner worlds exist in one outer world from which there’s no escape. In that world, we have common ground. And where there’s common ground there’s hope for co-existence.
Normal people everywhere have the same basic needs – food, clean water, shelter. Normal people everywhere love their kids. Mourn their dead. Want to live in peace. Normal people don’t hate the people they don’t understand. They just don’t understand them, probably wouldn’t like them if they did, but don’t want to kill them.
Fanaticism is a plague in both our worlds. It’s like oxygen for terrorists everywhere. Without it the mass murderers among us can’t breathe, plot, or reproduce.
The attack on Charlie Hebdo and France’s new-found resolve to wage war on radical Islam puts Europe front and center in the war on terror. It’s potentially Europe’s 9-11. It takes the United States out of the spotlight, at least for the time being. It makes France and the United States soul mates in an amorphous war without end or exit, one that pits Western Civilization against Islam and the Arab World. It feeds extremism everywhere, from individual nations (Syria and Iraq, Israel and Iran, Afghanistan and Pakistan) to whole continents (sectarian terrorism in Africa is a cautionary tale too often overlooked and under-reported in the U.S.).
It’s a dangerous moment for France, Europe, and the world. Defending freedom of expression does not obligate us to condone incendiary rhetoric. The latter is never in short supply and there are times when it’s tantamount to courting catastrophe. This is one of those times. Whatever our beliefs and traditions, we are all duty bound to do what we can to encourage calmer voices and cooler heads in the coming days.