January’s murderous attacks in Paris on the satirical magazine Charlie Hebdo and the kosher supermarket Hyper Cacher evoked not only fear, indignation, and defiance from Western leaders and publics, but also a second stream of reactions: anxious assertions that the killings bore no relation to Islam and expressions of worry that the Muslim identity of the killers would stoke the flames of “Islamophobia.”
French President François Hollande declared that “these terrorists, these fanatics have nothing to do with the Islamic religion.” German Chancellor Angela Merkel echoed him, saying that the perpetrators “have nothing to do with Islam.” Secretary of State John Kerry opined that “the biggest mistake we could make would be to blame Muslims for crimes…that their faith utterly rejects.” President Obama’s spokesman, Josh Earnest, evinced reluctance to conclude that the Paris gunmen even believed they were acting for Islam. On the evening of the first attack, he declared that despite the perpetrators’ widely reported cries of “Allahu Akbar” and “we have avenged the Prophet,” the White House “was still trying to figure out exactly…what their motivations were.” And at a subsequent briefing he would go only so far as to acknowledge that having committed an act of terrorism, “they later tried to justify that act of terrorism by invoking the religion of Islam,” as if they might have contrived the invocation merely as a post-hoc rationalization.
A week after the attacks, Hollande declared an “implacable struggle against racism, anti-Semitism, and Islamophobia.” This, according to French news reports, was the first time he had used the latter term, which is more freighted in French discourse. He repeated it more than once over the next days, whereas previously he had used only the more anodyne expression, “anti-Muslim.” In the British press, according to a roundup by Brendon O’Neill, the Guardian warned against “Islamophobes seizing this atrocity to advance their hatred,” while the Financial Times saw a threat to Europe in the form of “Islamophobic extremists.” There was more along these lines.
In the United States, New York Times editorials reverted to this subject again and again. “This is…no time for peddlers of xenophobia to try to smear all Muslims with a terrorist brush,” it declaimed immediately after the first attack. Four days later, with four Jewish victims at the kosher market having been added to the original death toll at Charlie, the Times opined, “Perhaps the greatest danger in the wake of the massacres is that more Europeans will come to the conclusion that all Muslim immigrants on the Continent are carriers of a great and mortal threat.” Two days after that, the sole editorial during this period to lament anti-Semitism contained the reminder that “there have been more than 50 anti-Muslim episodes across France…French Muslims, too, are afraid.” A few days later, the editorialists returned to this theme:
French Muslims, who are as scared of terrorists as everybody else, also have to fear anti-Islam prejudice and attacks. There were 60 recorded threats and attacks against Muslims during the six days following the Jan. 7 attack onCharlie Hebdo. There is a real danger the right-wing National Front will seek political advantage by fueling anti-Muslim hysteria.
Is it true that the Paris attacks have nothing to do with Islam and that “the greatest danger” embedded in them is the dread specter of Islamophobia? It is easy to understand why Western leaders propound the former thesis. In Obama’s case, it might be attributed to his solicitousness toward Islam. (“The future must not belong to those who slander the prophet of Islam,” he solemnized before the United Nations in 2012.) But in fact, his predecessor, George W. Bush, made similar statements after the attacks of September 11, 2001. Islam’s “teachings are good and peaceful,” he said. “The terrorists are traitors to their own faith.”