Whatever motivated Omar el-Hussein to attack a debate on free speech in Copenhagen, it’s probably safe to say that neither he nor the murderers of the Charlie Hebdo cartoonists and the Copenhagen had spent much time thinking through issues around freedom of expression, secularism and the place of religion within the public sphere. It is also doubtful whether they are particularly concerned about Islam or blasphemy.
Apart from his Palestinian origins, the Copenhagen killer appears to be drawn from the same human material from which so many like him come; angry, dysfunctional and distinctly impious young men living on the margins of European society with a taste for violence, who move very quickly from a background of petty crime, drugs, gangs, and prison to the singular pleasures of holy war.
Exactly how and why this happens is a mystery, but those who shake their heads at the evils of religion or start quoting from the Qu’ran to ‘prove’ that such acts are only what you could expect from Islam are unlikely to shed much light on it. As the three young Muslims who were murdered in North Carolina last week demonstrated in their short lives, Islam offers many different ways of becoming socially or politically engaged.
For start-up holy warriors like el-Hussein, Merah or Coulibaly however, it’s the fighting, or rather the killing that makes Islam interesting in the very brief time in which they have thought about it at all. It’s jihad and nothing but jihad, and not for them the inner spiritual struggle of ‘greater jihad’. For them jihad is violence or it isn’t anything.
It offers the possibility of a heroic – in their eyes – exit from lives that have come to seem to them pointless and not worth living. Perhaps some of them actually believe that their actions will change the world for the better, but I really doubt it. On the contrary, their abandonment of any moral or humanitarian constraints and their gratuitous willingness to sacrifice their own lives and the lives of others reek of despair, vengeance and nihilistic destruction for its own sake.
To some extent these ‘lone wolf’ jihadists resemble the lone anarchist assassins who terrorized bourgeois Europe in the nineteenth century. They too emerged from poverty and marginalisation to throw a bomb, shoot a high-profile target, or stab a bourgeois and earn themselves a brief moment of notoriety before they made their ‘statements’ in court and went to their executions shouting ‘long live anarchy.’
Men like Francois Ravachol, August Vallaint or the Italian baker Caserio had little understanding of what anarchism was, but they generally directed their rage, despair and alienation at targets they held responsible for the society that had trapped and isolated them: kings, prime ministers, corrupt politicians, judges and policemen.
Here the resemblance ends. Because the targets chosen by Europe’s ‘lone wolf’ jihadists are different. It is nine years since the Danish cartoons were published. Omar el-Hussein would have been eleven years old then. The idea that he or the Charlie Hebdo murderers have been brooding all these years over the perceived insult to the Prophet does not bear serious scrutiny.
These targets were chosen – or more likely suggested by others – because they were most likely to support the current politico-military agenda of ISIS/ISIL, and because they had a superficial ‘religious’ legitimacy. As for the killings of Jews that now seem to be coming de rigeur in these episodes of mass murder/suicide by cop, let no one think that these actions were motivated by solidarity with the Palestinians or anti-Zionist zeal.
The Palestinians certainly need support, but they don’t need homicidal nihilists cloaking themselves in religion to murder Jews in a kosher shop or at a bar-mitzvah, or shoot Jewish schoolchildren in the head. These targets were chosen not because they represented the state of Israel but because they are Jews. The men who did this and the organizations that inspired or facilitated them don’t care if these actions play into the hands of the racists and Islamophobes and generate more hatred towards Europe’s Muslims.
They aren’t bothered if ‘national security’ governments take advantage of every attack to tighten the screw on Europe’s Muslim communities. If you asked them they would probably agree that ‘ conditions for Muslims in Europe must be made harder across the board’, as Douglas Murray once recommended from a very different perspective.
For these defenders of the faith, any persecution is good persecution, because Muslims who don’t sign up to their version of jihad are as worthy of contempt as the Jews, Christians and kafir unbelievers who they slaughter with impunity. Polarisation and division between Muslims and non-Muslims is the whole point here, and is in fact essential for groups like ISIS/ISIL/al Qaeda. What they are trying to do is reshape the European board through violence and murder, because the worse things get for Muslims the more they likely it is that they can get the great war that these and other groups have been dreaming about ever since the twin towers were knocked down.
The horrendous beheadings of Coptic Christians serve a similar purpose. On the one hand these murders were an act of pure bigotry and sectarian spite. But they also had a strategic purpose. Today some European governments are beginning to think about direct military intervention in Libya to stop it turning into ‘Somalia.’ ISIL’s decision to film and broadcast the murders in every detail was clearly intended as a provocation and also an invitation, because ISIL welcomes ‘intervention’ as much as the interventionists want ISIL.
Europe’s Muslims have become a pawn in this grim enterprise, and the European ‘offensive’ that is now taking place is aimed at poisoning community relations across the board and driving an irrevocable wedge between Muslims and non-Muslims. All the more reason to develop a broad political opposition to the endless ‘wars on terror’ and the ‘wars of terror’ waged by these unholy warriors that rejects the efforts of both ‘sides’ to foment division and promote the politics of the gun.
If young Muslims accept ISIS/ISIL’s invitation to fight for an ‘Islamic State’ they will be joining an organization that offers nothing but murder, desolation, death and tyranny. But ISIL isn’t the only organisation with a dog in this hunt. The interventions of Netanyahu are no less cynical and calculating. If Jews accept his invitation to live in Israel, they will become citizens of a colonial-settler state that has conducted a brutal and illegal occupation for nearly half a century, that is currently looking to expand its population and possibly to expand its territory as well.
So even in these bleak times, when one murder and provocation seems to follow another in dizzying succession, it’s more important than ever that we find ways to develop an oppositional politics that rejects the forces of hatred, division and exclusion, wherever they come from and whoever they are directed against, and that we redouble our efforts to construct a common European home where murderous ‘heroes’ like Omar el-Hussein will have no traction.
No one says that will be an easy task in the present climate, but the alternatives are too terrible for anyone to contemplate.