For the French, it is almost surreal to see how the White House avoids using the phrase ‘radical Islam.’
By Laure Mandeville • The Wall Street Journal
In French, we have an expression: “Call a cat a cat.” Appeler un chat un chat. That is exactly what French Prime Minister Manuel Valls did after the horrific terrorist attacks that hit my country on Jan. 7, when he identified “radical Islam” as our enemy. In France, most rallied to this clear acknowledgment of the threat we are dealing with, because it is simply impossible to deny.
That is why it has sounded almost surreal when the Obama administration and many observers in the U.S., despite their heartening support for the French, go to great lengths to insist that the terrorist attack had nothing to do with Islam. The intention is good: President Obama doesn’t want to mix Islamist terrorists and the wider community of Muslims around the world. He is trying to appeal to Muslims, to prevent them from feeling ostracized. More than ever, the world needs Muslims who wish to live in harmony with non-Muslims.
But ask Flemming Rose how the Obama approach sounds to someone who knows too well the Islamist threat. Mr. Rose, now the foreign editor of the Danish newspaper Jyllands-Posten, was its cultural editor in 2005 when he had an idea for a series of cartoons lampooning the Prophet Muhammad. Their publication sparked deadly protests in several countries and has made him a marked man. “There is something nearly Orwellian in this refusal to call things by their names,” Mr. Rose tells me. “If we say that the terrorists are not radical Islamists, we might as well say that truth is lie, that right is wrong, that black is white.”
To put a fig leaf over the threat doesn’t make the problem go away, and doesn’t help us understand that the radical Islamist attacks are precisely about the House of Islam and who can speak for it.
Joshua Mitchell, a professor of political philosophy at Georgetown University, says: “This is a battle about who is going to define Islam: the radical Islamists, who try to convince the world that someone can be assassinated if he dares draw a mocking cartoon representing the Prophet, or who ridicules fanatics of all sorts; or the democratically inclined Muslims who accept that religion cannot be an encompassing whole that dictates all the rules of everyday life in the earthly realm.”
By denying that this is about Islam, “President Obama does us a disservice, because doing so deprives the Muslim community of its responsibility to fight this radical monster,” says Muslim democrat Naser Khader, a former member of the Danish Parliament, now at the Hudson Institute in Washington. “By doing that, the West fails to understand that the Muslims will be the most crucial soldiers to fight this Islamic terrorism.” Mr. Khader calls for a revolution in Islam that would reinterpret the sacred texts in a way that is “compatible with modernity.”
The same self-deceiving approach seems to be affecting the debate about the limits of free speech. Anxious not to offend Muslims, many in America and in France distanced themselves from Charlie Hebdo after its post-attack publication of an issue showing Muhammad in tears, wearing an “I am Charlie” T-shirt and saying, “All is forgiven.” The drawing seems hardly disparaging, but it alarmed those who think silence is preferable to the risk of offending. A fellow French journalist confided to me: “We should establish some kind of self-censorship, because we don’t want that a cartoon published in France leads to the burning of churches in Niger.”
That kind of thinking could jeopardize freedom of speech itself. Will this hard-won freedom, so precious to the West, be sacrificed because a village imam in the Middle East or Africa incites people to violence during Friday prayer? Many in the West seem tempted to capitulate, in the name of “peace.” They are allowing themselves to believe that it is our fault if the churches burn. That is what the radicals are betting on.
Where will we draw limits? Will we also give in when radical Islamists say they are offended to see European women wearing bikinis or going to swimming pools while men are present? The latter question is already being raised in some French cities.
The answer will define our future. Americans have some difficulty understanding the depth of the European challenge. Given the marginal size of the Muslim community in the U.S., Americans are not confronted by the same questions or urgency. In France, as in much of Europe, these daunting challenges are rapidly becoming existential, despite the fact that we have been promoting different models of integration, some as in Great Britain or the Netherlands much closer to those in the U.S. Only if we are sure of the values worth defending will we be able to convince our Muslim compatriots to fight for France, its liberal order and magnificent heritage.
That heritage includes Voltaire, our most cherished satirist and polemist, Montaigne, Montesquieu, Tocqueville and innumerable others to whom, in times of crisis, we turn for comfort and wisdom. They enumerated many of the freedoms that the modern world enjoys; and in this dark moment their lessons are worth remembering.
In France, or anywhere Islamism is taking root, we must renew our commitment to teach and inspire young people, particularly in the disenfranchised French suburbs, by explaining the complexity and beauty of freedom and tolerance. We must teach them to distinguish between the realm of God and the realm of Caesar, a distinction that has been one of France’s great achievements.
We must also instill pride in the French flag and anthem, much as Americans do. Otherwise, our children will be left to face the unbearable lightness of a postmodern and consumerist void, which could open the way to the most dangerous ideological attempts to “re-enchant the world,” as the saying goes. In the 20th century, the re-enchantment movements that nearly brought down the West were called fascism, National Socialism and Communism. In the 21st century, the re-enchantment movement that threatens us—from within and without—is called radical Islam.
Mrs. Mandeville is the U.S. bureau chief for the French newspaper Le Figaro.