Lessons From Paris — Is Islam the Problem?


More than two weeks after we collectively absorbed the shock of our Parisian brethren being gunned down while lovingly carrying out their sacred pre-Shabbos duties, the debate as to the causes of such terror continues unabated. In no place is the debate louder — or more pertinent — than in France.

As with every such incident, a clear line splits the opposing camps; instead of engaging in exchanges of genuine interest and inquiry, the sides merely fortify their existing positions and yell as loudly as possible, with each believing that they, and only they, are asking the right questions or have the right answers.

Since the massacre, there has been talk of nothing here in Paris but Charlie Hebdo, Islamic extremism, and the fearful Jews of France. Paris doesn’t look like a war zone, exactly, but any terrorist scouting out the next Jewish target would have no trouble finding a location, because each major Jewish synagogue, school, or organization has a cadre of well-armed soldiers guarding its premises. While the debate rages on as to how French nationals could have turned so violently against the country that gave them the liberties their immigrant parents only dreamed of, one thing is certain: for the next three months (the duration for which France has officially committed its armed forces to guarding “high risk” sites), France, and especially the Jews of France, will be safe (with Hashem’s help).

With the fear and angst slowly subsiding, important questions are now being raised, questions that the French — both Jew and gentile — are asking. How and why did these native Frenchmen become radicalized? Why was France their target? And, of course, why the Jews? What can be done to stop future attacks? What should be done to minimize the chance that impressionable youth will be radicalized to the same degree as the Kouachi brothers?

Everyone, it seems, has an answer here. Journalists. Government officials. French philosophers (most of them, interestingly, Jewish). Clergymen of all faiths. But in observing the media entanglement over the issue, the line of answers mimics the line of inquiry and immediately splits in two.

Let’s start with the most basic question being asked: why did French nationals, who grew up with the concept of Liberté, Égalité and Fraternité, choose to adopt an ideology of death over one of life?

The rationale of the left? “Because they’re disenfranchised. Because they’re impoverished. Because we failed to integrate them. Because we don’t give them opportunity. Because we’ve colonized them in the past seeking to ‘civilize’ them, and this is retribution. Because we occupied dar-al-Islam (Muslim lands — which ‘infidels’ may never dare step foot on).” Unsurprisingly, former president Jimmy “The Peanut Farmer” Carter threw his two worthless cents in and cited the Israel-Palestinian conflict as the cause (no commentary necessary — v’hameivin yavin).

Counters the right: “The Muslims refuse to integrate. They refuse to join the workforce or learn the language, and they shun ‘secularized’ education. They don’t recognize the jurisdiction of secular law, recognizing only sharia.” But at the top of their list of what caused these individuals to murder? Islam. A religion that lends itself easily to radical interpretation.

After the pointless debate as to why any Western national would commit such brutal crimes is argued ad nauseam, the conversation invariably turns to prevention. Here again, the wise pundits assume their accustomed sides, firmly entrenched in their positions.

To the left that believes that they — we — are somehow at fault, the solution is first to disassociate the religion of Islam from Islamic terrorism. Political correctness and leftist extremism allow them to ignore any connection between the terrorist who self-identifies as Muslim, who shouts All-hu Akbar! while shooting or stabbing and who fully expects to earn the heavenly reward due a shahid as he kills the infidel. After dissociation, their inner-apologist kicks in as they bow their heads in appeasement before those children of immigrants they benevolently allowed into their “free” country. And suddenly those liberals who preach laïcité (secularism) do what would be in any other case absolutely unthinkable: they embrace a religion. They’ll go out of their way to teach you about an Islam they know nothing about. The laïque secular left is now preaching loudest for Islam. In short, for the French liberal leftist, the distance from pacifist to apologist is je ne sais quoi.

The right, as expected, promotes the belief that Islam as a religion is the cause for all terror, and no change in the behavior of future terrorists will occur until Islam itself is fundamentally altered. The now-famous quip that encapsulates their angle, “not all Muslims are terrorists, but all terrorists are Muslims,” is faulty and exposes the fundamental limitations of their argument. True, there are too many terrorist attacks perpetrated by Muslims, but most of the African continent shifts between Christians persecuting Muslims and vice versa. So Islam, in and of itself, cannot be the source of all terror. Just look back into the last century for better examples of multifaith, multicultural terrorism.

So where to turn? Is terrorism a Muslim problem, as the right would have us believe? Or is it westernization and the values it seeks to impose upon the unwilling Orient that causes Islamic upheaval and retaliation, as the left surmises?

I’m personally dissatisfied with both sides. In the dichotomy between the perpetually feuding political right and left, neither side is in search of the ultimate cause. Both, instead, are content to mask their agendas behind superficial symptomatic diagnoses. The real question should not be why do people kill in the name of [insert dastardly purpose here], but instead — WHY DO PEOPLE KILL? If killing could be attributed singularly to Islam, then asking why these Muslims killed would be the correct question. But it isn’t. History has shown us that, sadly, no people can claim to have their hands entirely clean of bloodshed.

The earliest clue we have as to what leads people to kill one another can be found in the story of Kayin and Hevel. Jealousy. Not poverty. Not adversity. Not differences of religion or understandings of G-d. Not a language or cultural barrier. But jealousy — pure, simple and as old as human history.

So I rephrase the question that, in my view, should be framing the debate of why the terror in Paris occurred and what should be done to prevent any recurrence: what, or who, were the Kouachi brothers and Amedy Coulibaly jealous of?

Could it be that a tiny people, haplessly scattered across the globe, trounced and mercilessly abused by every kingdom and empire, a people who were very nearly exterminated in their recent past; this people, who, despite millennia of troubles, have kept their spirit, hope, and faith alive; could the majesty of this people be sufficient to incite a dangerous jealousy in their Kayin-like cousins? Jealousy of a level of existence these cousins fear they do not understand and cannot match; a jealousy so all-consuming that it leaves nothing but reverence for a death they believe they can control? If so, is a nationalistic rapprochement that seeks to embrace the “disenfranchised” minority the appropriate remedy to cure those cursed with this fatal jealousy? Moreover, can there be a one-size-fits-all solution to a problem that plagues people, in wildly differing circumstances and in wholly different manners? Surely, to some extent, jealousy exists in us all, or we wouldn’t be commanded “Lo sachmod.” But why are some more jealous than others, and why do some express it to ever more brutal extremes?

Now, back to the pointless right/left debate for a moment. To those on the left who aim to detach Islam from Islamic terrorism in the name of liberalism, I ask: What right do they have to take away an individual’s G-d-given right to act as he sees fit based on whichever teachings he wants? If a Muslim man says he has studied the Koran and has determined that his mission in life is to kill infidels, if he does so while shouting how great he thinks G-d is, and does so with the intention of martyring himself to gain welcome to some imaginary idea of paradise, who is the liberal leftist — or anyone for that matter — to tell him or me or you that this man is just a terrorist, and not a Muslim terrorist? The liberals, who claim to be Liberty Evangelists, are effectively removing this man’s liberty and free choice by retroactively and posthumously contradicting his stated motive. To better illustrate this point: if a soldier who went to battle, fighting in the name of freedom, was then killed — would the Liberty Evangelists have any right to say that the soldier and freedom have nothing in common? That the soldier was just a cog in the army and that his belief in freedom played no part in his actions? Clearly, while Islam cannot be singled out as the solitary cause of terrorism, neither can it be fully dissociated from it. It could just be that, for those innately bent on murder, Islam, so conducive to their ultimate aim, is merely a convenient bandwagon to hop on; a way to channel their temptations in a manner which makes them feel vindicated and holy instead of merely bloodthirsty.

To those on the right who believe that Islamic terrorism is borne entirely of Islamic ideology, I pose the same question. Do they believe in free will, or only when it comes to those with whom they agree, those they perceive as doing “the right thing”? Could it be that killers are killers, and that throughout history they’ve used many guises to shade their intentions? Could it be that murderers, once tainted with a deep jealousy of others, will eventually murder regardless of the banner they carry to battle?

In the first chapter of Tanya, the very first concept that is set as the foundation for everything the Baal HaTanya will yet reveal is that before the soul descends into the vehicle — the corporeal body — “he is made to swear to be a tzaddik, and to not be a rasha.” Being good, or evil, is first and foremost a matter of choice. Not only do we have to actively decide to be good, we must “swear” not to be evil.

This, to me, is just one answer. It’s very easy, as humans, to lump groups of humans together as though life were one big spreadsheet. The human tendency is to constantly “simplify the equation.” In doing so, we tend to go for the quick-fix, easy solution that, on the surface, quells our fears and calms our nerves. In this case, the answer to all questions is Islam. But is terrorism, evil, murder of innocents — are these things fundamentally Islamic problems? Will we be able to cope with terrorism if we’ve identified Islam as its face? Of course not. Individuals have choices. Individuals do good. Individuals do bad. Can we castigate an entire community for the acts of individuals? Even if those individuals are supported by many other individuals, at that point can we suddenly throw everyone into the same pot of accountability?

This is the lesson I learned as I walked past the harrowing scene at Hyper Cacher in Paris. Around the now-heavily guarded, bullet-ridden store, an assortment of candles, flowers and placards attest to the multifaith mourning of a tragedy that gripped a nation and the world. I saw Jews, of course, and I saw French people who appreciated the solemnity of this now infamous scene. But I saw Muslims too. Muslims who showed solidarity with freedom. Muslims who called for tolerance and peace. There, before me, were individuals of every religion and creed who would, if called upon, follow the directive of the Torah and “choose life,” as they denounced murder.

I also saw a note, presumably left by a Muslim, reading “I am Muslim, I am Charlie, I am Jewish — and I am hurt.”

No, I don’t have the answers for the endlessly debating French as to whether or not immigrant integration is the problem or the solution. I don’t have answers as to what kind of jealousy could arouse young people to pick up arms and kill in cold blood.

And no, I haven’t found the answer to the only question I’ve asked: why do people kill out of jealousy? I did learn a lesson, though. As jealousy exists within the Jewish people, it must surely exist among the nations of the world; eventually, this jealousy will be aimed squarely back at the Jews. Now, I can’t fix France’s problems, or the world’s. But I firmly believe that if I can rid myself of the vestiges of jealousy that exist in the deepest recesses of my heart, my effort to do so will inspire others to do the same. Perhaps then we will collectively merit to see the day when Hashem is revealed to all individuals as “water covers the seas,” finally ending the human tragedy known as jealousy and the destruction it has wrought on our species.