An Icy Wind

An icy wind blew off the Elbe at seven in the morning. It was pitch black, and people rushed by, huddled and hooded, dodging the driving rain. It had been getting colder since Wednesday, a band of weather sweeping across Northern Europe.

Icy winds blow too across an insecure and perplexed Europe, which doesn’t comprehend its new realities. In France, Britain, or Germany, politicians are increasingly lost in dealing with homegrown terrorism, the enemy within.

A golden opportunity for the extreme right, with the perfect recipe of xenophobia and muscled authority.

Charlie Hebdo—what kind of name is that anyhow? Well, Charlie is simple (and meaningless) enough, and Hebdomos means ‘the seventh’ in Greek. Basically it’s just another way of saying ‘weekly.’

Freedom of speech means exactly that, and it is a precious gift. But like other precious gifts, it can be misused. A Ferrari might be driven over a cliff, or a rare bottle of malt whiskey consumed until alcoholic stupor—combine both, and the probability of misuse rises sharply.

The Hebdo cartoons can be found on the net, and after viewing a number of them, I confess two things. First, that I didn’t find them funny—this is not due to religious inclinations, it’s just that they weren’t particularly amusing. second, H pokes fun at various religions—guaranteed to get pretty much everyone pissed.

Islam, and all religions, for that matter, are not celebrated for their sense of humor. In the U.K., France, Germany, Holland, and most other West European countries, Muslims in general feel they have a raw deal. They do mostly menial work, live in the poorer parts of town, and particularly since the September 11th attacks, consider themselves increasingly marginalized.

Like everyone else, I condemn the attack last Wednesday without hesitation. I lived one quarter of my life without freedom of speech, and I treasure that gift.

But I understand that if you attack the core beliefs of people who think the wealthier and more powerful segment of society not only marginalize them but mock them, sooner or later some fuckhead will grab a Kalashnikov and start shooting.

The problem is that radicalized young men and women attack their own nations, because their nationality counts for less than their religion. This is a relative novelty in Western nations, but it’s a long-established reality in the Arab world. The defense of Islam, Holy War, or Jihad, has seduced Arab youngsters for centuries, and lured them into a never-ending mire of conflicts.

The variations among the many flavors of Islam are often perplexing to an outsider. I turned to al-islam.org in an effort to look at what might be considered the major split. You can avail yourself of their lengthy explanation, or go for the simplest definition I could find.

In essence, that boils down to one key difference. Sunnis believe in a leadership based on merit, and Shia on a ruling structure based on kinship. Put into a Christian perspective, it seems to me that Catholics equate to Sunni, through the papal electoral college, whereas the Church of England, whose leader is the monarch, follows the Shia model.

Within both Sunni and Shia there are numerous sects, and I for one have always found it extremely difficult to grasp how the nuanced differences between them can lead to such fevered hostility. In Oman, for instance, the people are Ibadi, neither Sunni nor Shia—the Ibadi believe you do not see god on judgement day, and sinners rot in hell forever—this is enough to create a sect.

The West is globally incapable of understanding such images, and cannot relate to this strength of feeling, which leads to a disregard for death itself. From the Muslim perspective, we are often thought of as kufar, or unbelievers, but there is some contradiction on this.

In the Qur’an 29:46 we read:

And dispute ye not with the People of the Book, except with means better (than mere disputation), unless it be with those of them who inflict wrong (and injury): but say, “We believe in the revelation which has come down to us and in that which came down to you; Our Allah and your Allah is one; and it is to Him we bow (in Islam).

But then we see the following:

The word kafir is used in the Qur’an not only for Jews and Christians but also for those who periodically rejected their prophets.

The word kafir can also be used to imply a rejection of Islam.

Confused? I am. And I’m in extremely good company—most of Europe, it seems.

European politicians are at pains to point out that this is not a Muslim problem, because they don’t want to encourage the radical right. But it’s certainly not a non-Muslim problem.

Does it have a solution? Within the range of choices available in democratic societies, I think not. In a totalitarian system, state-instigated violence, imprisonment, and murder contain threats like this. Egypt and Iraq did exactly that for decades, with great success.

As soon as Iraq was liberated, the old hatreds surfaced, like a crocodile desperate for air. The oxygen of faith (I’m tempted with a ‘free radicals’ pun here) ignites violence like a splint in a glass.

What can help? Vigilance, gun control, and perhaps a little more common sense. Can education help? What do you teach, love thy neighbor? The same guys who drive BMWs while you ride the RER are the crusaders who attack your faith using the Western military-industrial machine.

When radicalized British or German youths become ‘freedom fighters’ in Syria, Iraq, or Yemen, should they be banned from returning? Should their nationality be revoked, like some advocate? Then what about companies that provide mercenaries to African dictators, or security forces to the Mid-East? There’s a whole discussion awaiting on double standards and islamophobia.

In this morass, a couple things seem obvious to me.

Any person who betrays their country is a traitor, and this is how the ex-brothers Kalashnikov should be viewed. French nationals attacking French values on behalf of a third party.

Although free speech allows it, bad taste and gratuitous offense will draw fire. It’s also good publicity. Hebdo will hit the stands this week with a print run of one million, slightly more than its regular sixty thousand.

These lone wolf acts will increase substantially—a couple of madmen brought the city of light to its knees for the best part of a week. I suspect Al Qaeda and ISIS consider that value for money.

Atmos Fear and The India Road. Quick links for smartphones.

Atmos Fear and The India Road. Quick links for smartphones.

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One Response to “An Icy Wind”

  1. Lourenço Says:

    Indeed this is pure gold for ISIS and AQ. But the appearance of these “Lone wolfs” or most likely of small organized cells seems to me a statistical inevitability when it concerns France. With 5 to 6 million Muslims residing there, even if a very small percentage (let’s argue 0.01%) is permeable to fundamentalist ideas and to act upon them, then it means that you can have 500 to 600 persons that can be organized in multiple cells across the country. If the AK brothers (plus one) laid siege on Paris for a few days, imagine what 30 couldn’t do? Or 300?

    The same reasoning is valid for any group that feels discriminated and oppressed by society…

    I would even argue that a 0.01% is optimistic in terms of “lunatics” in the population; a number which I think is rather independent of nationality, religion or football club (but not politically party). For instance, the Front National had 4.7 million votes in the last European elections – and I have my suspicions that the percentage of lunatics there is well above the 0.01% mark.

    Caught between a rock and a hard place?

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