The attack Wednesday against the French satirical publication Charlie Hebdo that killed 12 people has understandably sparked a massive outpouring of support around the world for the publication and the wider issue of freedom of press and expression, alongside many condemnations of the attack by Muslims in Europe and around the world. This kind and intensity of reactions has happened before in other circumstances, such as Salman Rushdie’s work or the Danish cartoon controversy, in which the Western commitment to absolute freedom of expression conflicts with Islamic sensitivities about depictions of the Prophet Mohammad that are deemed offensive and blasphemous.
The fact that we seem to replay this difficult drama over and over again every few years suggests to me that the prevailing strong views on freedom/blasphemy have prevented us from focusing on the deeper causal issues involved here and in other cases. Criminal violence against Western targets by enraged Muslims in response to what they see as unacceptable behavior towards the Prophet Mohammad is clearly criminal behavior that cannot be tolerated for any reason. Derisive Western press depictions of the Prophet Mohammad are equally offensive to most Muslims, though only a handful respond with criminal violence.
Repeating these basic points every time violent incidents has simply perpetuated the cycle of violence. I suspect the reason is that the offensive depictions of Islamic faith values in the eyes of Muslims, and the fierce Western commitment to freedom of the press and expression only address the surface issues at hand, without touching on the deeper elements of what has become a global cycle of sentiments, discontentment and actions by many actors around the world.
The best place to start appreciating some of these key underlying issues is presented to us in the persons of the two French citizens of Algerian descent, Cherif and Said Kouachi, who are the principal suspects in this latest crime. Their life experiences and recent actions capture nicely the complex web of underlying forces that have brought us to this point where a relative handful of Islamist fanatics carry out criminal attacks against targets in the West and mostly in the Arab-Islamic region, and the global response is predominately anchored in police and military actions alongside ringing defense of personal freedoms. In the meantime, we have to deal with the tide of anti-Islamic sentiments among many people in the West — which are rising sharply this week — alongside fears among many Muslims that they are being increasingly seen as security threats and cultural aliens.
The lives, attitudes and actions of the Kouachi brothers reflect many other elements beyond freedom and blasphemy that make it so difficult now to find the path to reducing the tensions and incidents of violence in this universe that broadly comprises Western societies and Arab-Islamic ones. We must probe deeper to understand why we seem to repeat these episodes of tension, extremism and death every few years, despite the trillions of dollars that have been spent on security measures in the last few decades, not to mention well-meaning but (sadly) mostly marginal inter-faith initiatives.
I doubt the killers of the Charlie Hebdo staff were thinking about the Western democratic freedoms they allegedly so hated that they would assassinate French journalists. I suspect rather that they were motivated by a grizzly combination of influences and experiences whose center of gravity comprises a problematic combination of forces and actions in several continents. These include mainly the rise of violent Islamist organizations like Al-Qaeda and ISIS; the mismanagement of many Arab and Muslim-majority countries (Pakistan, Afghanistan) by corrupt and dysfunctional family-led and military regimes; the marginalization and criminalization of some immigrants in Western countries (where most immigrants have adapted nicely, but pockets of desperate and alienated youth have not); chronic military operations by Western countries in various Arab-Asian lands, especially the Iraq and Afghanistan wars, and some other related factors that fall under these broad categories.
This web of forces helps us understand why political or psychological phenomena like the violent Kouachi brothers come into being and continue spreading around the world, but they do not in any manner rationalize their crimes, which must be addressed in the first instance by using the full force of the law around the world. Waving the intensely emotional and absolutist flags of liberty and blasphemy seems only to deepen and widen the circles of anger, fear, and violence. Powerful emotional declarations of ’Je suis Charlie’ are understandable and genuine, but they will not do anything to prevent further deaths, because they ignore the central reasons why young men become crazed fanatics and assassins.
A much more sophisticated analytical process is needed to find that middle ground between global police actions to fight crime; political, military and diplomatic policies that bind Western and Arab-Islamic countries; sociological insights and remedial policies that address youth alienation in both regions; and, better governance systems in Arab-Asian countries that remain the fulcrum of this gruesome — and expanding — universe in which the Kouachi brothers, among perhaps tens of thousands of others, have lived, killed and died. It is time to get more serious, and more focused on the real drivers of tension and violence that plague the multinational, transcontinental universe in which the Kouachi brothers lived.
Rami G. Khouri is published twice weekly in the Daily Star. He was founding director and now senior policy fellow of the Issam Fares Institute for Public Policy and International Affairs at the American University of Beirut. On Twitter: @ramikhouri.
Copyright ©2015 Rami G. Khouri — distributed by Agence Global