How to react to this latest outrage ? The immediate French response seems to have been rather noble, mixing a determination not to be cowed with calls for unity and restraint. But there will be many who conclude that we can no longer ignore the challenge the extremists have thrown down – that it is time to fight back against an alien ideology that feels free to slaughter those who think differently.
Liberals will urge that this alien ideology has nothing to do with Islam. Sadly, this is not necessarily true. For Islam suffers from the lack of recognised spiritual authority – the absence of a ‘pope’ to say what Islam is and is not. So evil men like Abu Bakr al Baghdadi can claim such authority for himself, and attract adherents.
So, yes, we in Europe have a real problem with Islam. But not as big a problem as the Muslim world has. Religion is destroying much of the Middle East. Generations are growing up with one foot already in the after-life. Only they can fix it. But we can make the task worse-to-impossible by unnecessarily feeding the jihadist narrative of a Western ‘crusade’ against Islam.
So ‘fighting back’ may actually require the exercise of self-restraint – a disciplined demonstration of the tolerance and openness that are every bit as central to our values as is freedom of speech. Tolerance and openness, that is, to all who are prepared to live amongst us according to our rules – but less tolerance than we have shown in the past to those who equivocate on, for example, the inadmissibility of violence in ‘defence’ of a religion or ideology.
Self-restraint will be required in foreign policy, too. We should not be deterred from military intervention where we can hope to make a material difference. But that was never the case for those Western governments who chose to participate at the margins of the US air campaign against IS in Iraq. Their intervention has been symbolic – and has been duly followed by an upsurge in IS recruitment, and terrorist attacks in Ottawa, Sydney and now Paris. To be clear – there is no moral equivalence here, or basis for arguing that the bombing justified the terrorism. But the bombing was bad policy.
We are right to value our way of life – and should be tougher on insisting that those who enjoy it should not undermine it, actively or passively. But the value of our way of life resides in a set of values which we must live, even when it is hard to do so. We are better than the fanatics, and must show it ; to do otherwise will simply be to play into their hands.