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Immediate thoughts about the Paris attacks

November 14, 2015

A response to the November 13th attacks in Paris written in the immediate aftermath; it is apparent that the perpetrators were radical Islamists linked with Islamic State. I have a certain amount of difficulty trying to square my ideals of a tolerant, rational, multicultural, open society with the unhappy reality that such a thing is wide open to attack from those who don’t share such ideals. I don’t have answers, just thoughts and questions at the moment, some of which are here.

  1. It is extremely important to reiterate that only a tiny minority of Muslims are religious terrorists. The waves of general anti-Muslim sentiment that tend to be unleashed after events like these are not only unhelpful, but completely antithetical to the values of tolerance and decency that we ought to be upholding. They cannot be condoned by a civilised society.
  2. It remains the case that, to a reasonable approximation, all religious terrorists at the current time are Muslims. Note that this does not contradict point 1. It should not be taboo to wonder why this is and what, if anything, can be done about it.
  3. I would also like to emphases that I do not intend to be anti-Islamic. Although I view radical Islam as a bit of a problem at the moment, that’s a reflection of my general dislike and distrust of religion as a political force. If I lived in the US, I’d view radical Christianity as a far greater problem than I believe radical Islam to be in the UK.
  4. The dilemma of living in a society that strives to be humane, tolerant, secular and enlightened – how can one respond when a concerted effort is made by a religious enterprise to overturn this order and impose their own values (which would surely not involve showing to those they have overthrown the same tolerance previously extended to them)?
  5. Note that the only place where the problem raised in point 4 appears in practice is the US, where assorted Christian evangelicals are determined to attain political power to impose their anti-women, anti-gay views on everyone else. We don’t have those culture wars in the UK, so the only threat (such as it is) comes from radical Islam and this is currently not a big threat, though one needs to ask oneself how one would respond if it became so; see the next point.
  6. A question the sandal-wearing bearded lefty brigade might like to ask themselves (I certainly have) – how would you feel about things if a religious grouping (of whatever persuasion) were able to attain majority political power in the UK through the democratic process, and thus secure a mandate for imposing a deeply illiberal theocracy? Do you like to avoid this question and simply assume that it will never happen?
  7. I too assume it will never happen. But it has revealed, for me, the rather uncomfortable truth that I’m only really happy with democracy as long as it leads to an outcome that’s not to dissimilar to the one we have now. If it looked like it was going to lead towards a regime explicitly based around an interpretation of (any) religion, my views would change rather drastically. Particularly since, when you’re talking about the “mission from God” types (which applies both to Islamists, and the Christian right in the US), you’re dealing with people who have absolutely no interest in negotiating; to attain their rightful place in heaven they must go all-in, for if they compromise they lose for all eternity.
  8. The big question of the day – what to do about ISIS? Leaving aside the disquieting truth that their rise might not have happened had it not been for the disastrous and illegitimate intervention in Iraq (thanks, Blair and Bush), what are the options? Can we imagine ever having normal diplomatic or trading relations with whatever country they construct? Do we think there is an end to their ambitions, a point at which they’ll be happy with what they’ve got and cease causing trouble? It doesn’t seem, to me at least, as if they would have any interest in a negotiated settlement, not that they have earned the right to negotiate in any case.
  9. At the moment, I think that no good can possibly come of attempting to tolerate the existence of ISIS, but the only alternative seems to me to bring the hammer down with sufficient force as to make retaliation impossible – not a strategy with a proven track record of success, and also somewhat at odds with the ideals of humanity etc. Half-measures strike me as being the worst of all because they’ll just prolong and intensify the conflict. So we’re stuck with picking the least worst of two incredibly bad options. If we want to preserve the moral high ground, we have to grit our teeth, tolerate them (and the sporadic outbursts of Paris-style violence, wanton destruction of archaeological artefacts, brutality and repression etc. that will result) in the hope that sooner or later the wheels come off and they self-destruct on their own (they are, according to accounts, not terribly good at the day-to-day business of running a country). On reflection, I think this is the better option, but that doesn’t make it a good one.
  10. Also, for the record, climate change and rampant inequality remain the pre-eminent threats we face. Compared to them, any amount of religious thuggery is distressing, but will ultimately become the background noise of history.
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