A Challenge to Modernity

“First they came for the Socialists, and I did not speak out – because I was not a Socialist,” German pastor Martin Niemöller famously observed about his nation’s intellectuals during the Nazi rise to power. “Then they came for the Trade Unionists, and I did not speak out – because I was not a Trade Unionist. Then they came for the Jews, and I did not speak out – because I was not a Jew. Then they came for me – and there was no one left to speak for me.”

Niemöller’s observation comes to mind as the civilized world casts its eyes on Paris, the scene of twin Islamist attacks on free speech and religion. It comes to mind as one considers more broadly the brazen Islamist attacks on speech, religion, pluralism, tolerance, women and minorities that occur with greater frequency in not just the Middle East and Asia but in Europe and even the United States.

In the aftermath of Paris, all of us in the civilized world must shed our inclination to look away when others are targeted, our desire to find legitimate “root causes” of Islamist rage, and our hopes that our appeasement will assuage the anger and reduce the violence.

We must view the Paris gunfire at a magazine office and Kosher market not as isolated attacks on cartoonists and Jews but on a continuum of mayhem that has claimed thousands and thousands of lives – and that includes, for instance, the hacking of a soldier in London, an honor killing in Phoenix, murdered Christians in Cairo, slaughtered schoolchildren in Peshawar, Pakistan, and, yes, even suicide bombs in Jerusalem.

They are all attacks on civilization, and the civilized world should treat them as such rather than blame global politics, historical grievances or any of the other myriad excuses that modern-day apologists make for the bloodshed.

The attacks arise from the meticulous plotting of al-Qaida, Boko Haram, the Islamic State group, Hezbollah and Hamas as well as the derivative inspiration of “lone wolf” operatives. They’re all driven, however, by variations of a radical ideology that seeks a return to pre-modern Islamic values, Islamic rule and Islamic glory.

What should we in the civilized world do?

First, we should discard the double standard that we’ve long applied to Islam as compared to other religions. That means we should view Islam as an appropriate target for criticism and satire, as we do Christianity and Judaism. We should dismiss the silly notion that printing controversial cartoons of the Prophet Muhammad amounts to “gratuitous insult.” We should, relatedly, provide no “understanding” when Muslim leaders use such cartoons to promote deadly violence around the world. We have no such reluctance to let critics and satirists use sketches of Moses or Jesus to make points about Jews and Christians, so we should provide no separate treatment for the Prophet Muhammad and Islam.

Second, we should stop blaming the brutalized victims of Islamist ideology for bringing the truth to light. That means that we should stop condemning such Muslim critics as Ayaan Hirsi Ali, who has written extensively about the slavish conditions of women and girls in Islamist culture, for supposedly inciting Muslim rage. Instead, we should applaud her inspiring life story as an escapee from an arranged marriage, her extraordinary rise to political power in the Netherlands, her breathtaking bravery in writing graphically about genital mutilation and other abuses of girls, and her efforts to promote rights for females all over the world.

Third, we should stop looking for the roots of Islamist violence in the global politics of yesterday or today. That means that, in pondering the attacks in Paris, commentators should stop alluding to France’s colonial past or war in Algeria of many years ago. It means as well that, in pondering attacks on Jews in Paris as well as in Jerusalem and Sderot, Israel, we should stop blaming the Israeli-Palestinian conflict for the rage that supposedly fuels them. We should recognize that such attacks are fueled instead by an ideology that promotes the murder of Jews (not just Israelis) – and that, by the way, is little different than in how it promotes the murder of Christians.

In the coming days, the Paris attacks could force the civilized world to see the challenge more clearly. That’s because by attacking both cartoonists and Jews, Islamists made clear that their target is modernity writ large. Whether Jews, Christians, cartoonists or just citizens of the modern world, we must not forget Niemöller’s lament.

Lawrence J. Haas, former communications director for Vice President Al Gore, is a senior fellow at the American Foreign Policy Council.


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