here’s an inadvertent dollop of old school Marxist-Leninist militancy in the brutal attack on the Paris office of the French satirical weekly Charlie Hebdo.
Between 1970 and 1980, extreme left wing terrorists staged countless attacks in France, Germany and above all Italy, the latter notorious for hosting the precise and lethal Red Brigades. What these groups and their factions sought through violence was a disproportionate response by authorities, leading to systematic repression, which would — they believed — expose so-called democracies for what they were, fascist machines, and thus create the conditions for revolutionary public upheaval. The murders and explosions were less political statements than hard shoves to unhinge the “corrupt” status quo. Time and again, Red Brigade propagandists insisted martial law was around the corner. But their exposé ultimately failed.
The French parallel, as filtered through Islamist extremism, is tied to two considerations. The first is growing public resistance to the flow of immigrants, mostly African and Middle Eastern Muslims, lumped into a single menace by the country’s increasingly popular and xenophobic National Front. The second is a pre-existing population of Muslim moderates and have-nots, many parked on the fringes of French working society, some absorbed into French life, some less so. Much of urban France accepts them in their secular guise but has little affection either for their religion or for its potential cultural infringements — often satirized or criticized by the pull-no-punches French press, which loathes Islamic pretensions as much as Jacobins loathed the French Catholic crown ahead of the revolution. France has banned chador use in public — again flexing secular muscles — and sent its military to challenge Islamic advances in Africa while supporting American resistance to the advance of Islamists in Iraq and Syria (among the sources of illegal immigration).
Islamic terror theorists are no strangers to strategies, even those on paper inimical to its beliefs. Here, the terrorists — intentionally or otherwise — are pushing French racist buttons by attacking a newspaper whose satirical leanings step on religious toes. The attack would seem intended merely to “avenge” an offense, namely insulting the prophet.
Indirectly, however, it also helps shove middle class French toward more hardened anti-Islamist positions (with the National Front ready to reap the whirlwind) while also stoking a firestorm within the country’s police forces and security services, who from the days of the Algerian civil war have shown low tolerance for violent challenges, especially if perceived as the work of anti-secularists.
Just as the Red Brigades sought to rationalize their tactics by attempting to create repressive conditions in line with their fears, so Islamic terrorists are similarly playing with French social and institutional levers. Further National Front gains could push a tense French socio-religious reality into a more overtly menacing gear, eventually forcing even moderate, patient Islamists into demanding their rights, bringing them a step closer not so much to Jihadism but to the brink of a cultural and religious ravine unknown to France for a very long time.
Attacks like those against Charlie Hebo, more direct and lethal than the global protests that followed a Danish paper’s decision to publish caricatures in 2005, are intended to help flatten the European middle ground in immigrant-heavy states, provoking an us vs. them urban stand-off that extends well past the military realm. This couldn’t happen in the United States, which has too few Muslims and too little history of colonization. Post-9/11 rage was strong, even vicious, but had nowhere to go.
It does in France, which is why moderate thinkers should be wary of the trap and limit over-reaction. Terror attacks are like circus acts. They are intentionally outrageous hoping to spread the big-top word, ratcheting up emotions.
After the Red Brigades kidnapped former Prime Minister Aldo Moro and killed six of his bodyguards in 1978, they brazenly announced the state would soon tip its hand, letting loose the military and condoning indiscriminate arrests. The Charlie Hebdo attackers won’t make the same claims or demands, but they do expect an unhinging result, one that now-poisoned France must resist at all costs.