The shootings at Charlie Hebdo and at the kosher market in Paris, it seems to me, are not really helping France and the west as a whole to focus on the problem we face. We are suffering from an excess of over-confidence, a failure to understand the place of western civilization in world history, past, present, and future. Indeed, the whole West is suffering from the Hegelian disease they I have blogged about several times here. Too many of us insist on believing that our values are so transparently correct that the world has a duty to obey them. This is however a misreading both of the past and of the present. A large and increasing part of the world does not share those values--and we have no means of imposing them upon them.
Let us look at two particular problems: the killings in Paris, and the rampages in the interior of Nigeria by Boko Haram, now reported to have killed thousands of people. Regarding the situation in Paris, we can say that tens of thousands, if not hundreds of thousands, of Muslims around the world now believe in theocracy and reject western notions of tolerance. Such people are now actively holding power in parts of Syria and Iraq, and are contesting for power in many other places within the Muslim world, including nuclear-armed Pakistan. Indeed there is no real evidence that the Saudi government, one of our leading allies in the Muslim world, shares our values, but they do keep order within their own territory. And they have inspired some thousands of Muslims in the west--French, Belgian, Britain, and even American. A few thousand of these people have gone to Syria and Iraq and Yemen to fight, and some have returned to their home countries They are a serious security threat. I honestly believe that some consideration should be given to laws decreeing that citizens of these nations, including our own, who go abroad to participate in Jihad forfeit their citizenship and their right to return. But with or without such laws, we probably have to accept the loss of some dozens of lives in the west every year from Islamic terrorism. Britain lost 47, 36 and 14 people to IRA terrorism in the 1970s, 1980s, and 1990s, respectively. It takes very few committed terrorists to kill some people, particularly if they do not care about their own fate. We have tried the alternative of imposing our values on Muslim nations with armed force, and it does not work. Air power has halted the ISIS advance in Iraq, but it has not won back any territory. I am afraid that more attacks in the west will provoke calls for more drastic action, which will only make things worse.
In the case of Charlie Hebdo, militant Islam came across another late twentieth-century belief: the idea that offending traditional values is, in and of itself, a good thing. Do not misunderstand me: I believe in the right to free speech as much as anyone. Rights, however, do not exist to be abused, or to incite hatred. The cartoonists had the right to do what they did, but that does not make it noble or wise. It is no accident that some of them were veterans of the struggles of 1968 in Paris: that was the moment at which the mockery of the older generation's values became not merely a right, but a sacred duty. We would not suffer if we gave up that particular legacy.
As for Boko Haram, it is, I feel sure, the first of a series of political crises in Africa. The reason is simple: it is now more than half a century since most of the African nations won their independence. That means that their initial post-colonial arrangements are dying off, along with the people who remember them, and that their future is up for grabs. Already some elements of the western media are complaining that we are paying less attention to several thousand deaths in Nigeria than to a relative handful in Paris. But Paris belongs to our civilizatin in a way that Nigeria does not, and in any case, what can we possibly do? Dispatching western troops to restore order is called imperialism. The West tried this 150 years ago or more, but gave it up in the 1960s. The African populations are now much, much larger than they were then, and the task of imposing order is way beyond any coalition of western nations. The Africans are in charge of their own destiny, and they will have to work things out.
Back in Western Europe and the US, it seems to me, the only way to reduce the appeal to Jihad--which is not large, but large enough to kill dozens of people a year--is to renew the meaning of citizenship at home by enlisting the young people of the nation in some common enterprise. I do not see that happening in any major western nation. The Boom generation and its somewhat younger European counterparts have been taking their inheritance for granted for too long. Their leadership needs to do something about unemployment and economic inequality at home, too, to secure the active allegiance of the population. We did not get where we are by accident, and there is no automatic mechanism to keep us here.