Britain’s former top spy has called on the West to avoid criticism of Islam. In his first speech since retiring, the previous head of MI6 said that he expects retaliation from Islamists for perceived slights against their religion.
Sir John Sawers said “There is a requirement for restraint from those of us in the West. I rather agree with the Pope that, of course, the attacks in Paris were completely unacceptable and cannot be justified on any basis whatsoever, but I think respect for other people's religion is also an important part of this.”
"If you show disrespect for others' core values then you are going to provoke an angry response” Sir John said, adding, “that doesn't justify anything, but I think we just need to bear it in mind.”
For his part, the Pope made his remarks while on a tour to the Philippines. “If my good friend Dr. Gasparri says a curse word against my mother, he can expect a punch" he said, imitating a punch to make his point. "It's normal. You cannot provoke. You cannot insult the faith of others. You cannot make fun of the faith of others."
This is a theme that has been running through the Western establishment since the attacks took place. It indicates a tendency to blame the victim rather than the perpetrators, which has a debilitating influence on Western society.
Moreover, it is to say that violence against civilians is an understandable reaction and that, however minimally, the Islamist response is justified by the severe provocation. The Pope's comment “It's normal” when describing this violent reaction to perceived blasphemy can be understood as a tacit acceptance of the principle of vengeance.
In his New Year’s address on Tuesday, French Prime Minister Manuel Valls referred to the recent terrorist attacks that have rocked France, arguing that they highlighted the severe social and racial divisions endemic in the country. He said “These last few days have emphasized many of the evils which have undermined our country from within, or challenges we have to face. To that we must add all the divisions, the tensions that have been brewing for too long and that we mention sporadically. A territorial, social, ethnic apartheid has spread across our country.”
Here again we see the tendency to look inwards and self-reflect. There is no doubt that France has a raft of problems relating to integration, race and the aftermath of its colonial past.
On one level, this is extremely positive. An ability to be self-critical and stress the primacy of rationality over one's emotional reactions is one of the best things, if not the best thing, about the enlightenment tradition of Western humanism.
On another level, the inability to specifically identify and stand resolutely against the ideology of Islamism, without equivocation is damaging. It sends the message that the highest levels of leadership blame their own societies rather than Islamists for jihadism, leaving the general populace with no clear understanding of why terrorism happens and how it needs to be combatted.
The jihadists who attacked Charlie Hebdo were not social justice warriors evoking the memory of Martin Luther King. They did not shout slogans calling for the deconstruction of racist institutions. Instead they massacred 17 people to enforce sharia mandated blasphemy laws.
The Pope, although not a European himself, leads the Catholic Church, the largest single religious denomination in the world. Sir John Sawers has had years of operational experience at the heart of the British intelligence service. Valls is currently serving as the Prime Minister to one of Europe’s largest economies with a seat at the UN Security Council.
They can be taken collectively as representative of a serious voice within the European establishment. Their equivocation on this issue does not bode well for the ability of European countries to cope with the threat posed by Islamism.
Elliot Friedland is a research fellow at Clarion Project.