ACTS of terror are all about consequences. Even if these are
hard to predict fully, the broad outlines can be foreseen. They can
therefore help to guide our response to the horrors unleashed in
Paris, and the true intent of those who planned them.
Counter-intuitive though it may seem at first, the highly
negative backlash against Muslims and Islam was fully factored in
by those behind the attacks, who want to shatter the global status
quo in their quest for enhanced power, for themselves and for their
brand of Islam. Fear and suspicion create exactly the environment
they desire. Provoking Western nations into actions that can feed
the narrative they are forging for Muslims - of the West laying
siege to Islam ever since the Crusades - can help, too. So, to
them, it was well worth the suffering and bloodshed along the
They hope that Muslims in Western countries will come under
growing suspicion of harbouring terror, and so feel ever more
alienated in their turn.
More widely, a global story of faiths and civilisations in
conflict is exactly what the extremists want to foment, at any cost
to others. Yet the cost to them of these attacks - which, for three
days, terrorised an entire capital and nation, and commanded the
attention of the whole world - was simply a few guns and bullets,
together with the lives of the only too willing perpetrators. They
needed no complex bombs, or planes, or sophisticated apparatus.
So, sadly, we can expect more such raids in the future: they are
very high-impact, and hard to detect and prevent. All this will
fuel insecurity, and the demand for ever greater surveillance
measures in the West, paradoxically to protect our freedom; and may
even lead to military action overseas.
THE real conflict is not between Islam and the West, but between
Muslims themselves: it is an intra-Muslim fight for domination of
the Islamic world, and for who defines Islam. The West is being
sucked into this as a means of changing the balance. If Western
nations can be provoked into more interventions in the Middle East,
this can be used to urge all Muslims to make common cause with
extremists against the infidel invaders.
If, on the other hand, the West holds aloof, it appears to be
compromised morally by permitting humanitarian catastrophes; and
new Islamist powerbases can arise in the vacuum of failed states,
such as Libya and Syria. Either way, the Islamists can play the
West's role to their advantage.
Against this background, the precise issue of blasphemy, and
sacrilege against Islam and its Prophet Muhammad, was deftly chosen
to frame the initial attack in Paris. It is a hugely powerful wedge
issue. Freedom of belief and expression are central to the
self-understanding of Western democracies; but any kind of insult
to the Prophet is hard to bear for Muslims, even though few would
normally resort to violence.
This conflict of values can thus be used to open a wider doubt
about whether it is possible to be a good Muslim in the West, or to
share Western values in the Islamic world.
DESPITE all the dynamics of seeking worldly power which ultimately
drive the architects of terror, there are, therefore, truly
religious aspects woven in to their strategy. This makes the West's
response hard to get right, given that most of our experts and
policymakers tend to view religion reductively - as being always,
in the end, about something else, such as poverty, identity, or
Only Muslims themselves can resolve the question who defines
Islam, and what being an authentic Muslim entails. This is
particularly hard for Sunni Islam, because of its diffuse and
largely personal structures of authority.
Historic initiatives have lacked traction. In 2005, for the
first time, 200 representatives of all eight Islamic Schools of
jurisprudence, both Sunni and Shia, gathered in Jordan to set out,
in the Amman Message, authoritative guidance defining who is a
Muslim; the impermissibility of denouncing a fellow Muslim as
apostate; and the rigorous criteria to be met if a religious ruling
(fatwah) is to be of standing.
This vital work passed largely unnoticed, but it is exactly the
kind of groundwork for defining authentic Islam which needs to be
known and understood at grass-roots level, especially among young
people. Ignorance of it enables false interpretations of Islam to
seem legitimate; and allows a ruthless quest for power by al-Quaeda
and the Islamic State to grow unchecked, cloaked in an Islamic
When we in the West urge moderate Muslims to "tackle the
extremists", many ordinary Muslims unsurprisingly wonder what this
has to do with them: they would never dream of attacking anyone; so
why should they be held responsible for those who do?
Yet the extremists are a danger to all Muslims, and moderate
Muslims do need to unite to invalidate the extremist
interpretation. Specifically, those with religious authority in
mainstream Islam must be enabled to do this, and be seen to do it
definitively, for the wider good of all.
If, a month ago, it had been suggested that three men with guns
would bring more than three million people on to the streets of
France, no one would have believed it. Yet this has now
Rather than demonstrating the power of those guns and jihadist
terror, however, it was a vast declaration of shared resolve to
uphold fundamental human values and freedom; and a contest which
the terrorists lost by more than a million to one. We may be sure
that this was one consequence of their actions that they had not
God is great indeed.
Canon Alistair Macdonald-Radcliff is Director General of the
World Dialogue Network.