I get that we live in a hyperkinetic media age, but the speed with which terrorist atrocities are refashioned as vessels for self-righteous umbrage is staggering. It’s as if 132 actual human beings with lives and loved ones weren’t murdered en masse, and in cold blood, in Paris last Friday, but that the true victims were those dainty souls forced to endure Rupert Murdoch’s tweets on the subject.
Literally within minutes of the Paris attack, my social media feeds were inundated with a battery of stern admonitions. Lest we are considered racist — a crime greater than terrorism, it seems— we are told not to blame Syrian refugees for the attacks, a thought that may never have crossed my mind otherwise. We are reminded of France's colonizing past; its deprived suburbs; its contribution to the air war inside Syria; its complicity in the West's ongoing humiliation of the Muslim world. We are warned against overreacting to the events because doing so will play into the terrorists’ hands – and because, presumably, letting them get away with mass murder will not. Meanwhile, telepathic scolds chastise us for failing to pay enough attention to atrocities in less fashionable corners of the world like Beirut or Burundi. Others rally to reassure us, albeit oxymoronically, that ISIS has nothing to do with Islam but that acting against them will nonetheless inflame the Muslim world. Somebody even posted something from John Pilger, Australia's feeble answer to Noam Chomsky, who I thought had long since disappeared into a sinkhole of self-parody. But apparently he is still taken seriously by some (not least himself), especially when he gets to revive his Algeria talking points as another way to avoid staring global jihad in the face.
The most confounding aspect about Pilger and co, aptly coined by novelist Salman Rushdie the "but brigade", is that, even as they offer excuse after excuse for jihadists, they remain resolutely unwilling to listen to a word terrorists actually say. ISIS is neither shy nor ambiguous about its agenda and motivations, and none of it bears the vaguest resemblance to the Marxian interpretation insisted upon by its Western enablers. ISIS are not victims of Western imperialism as much as they are themselves imperialists – the first of countless clues to that effect was the declaration of a caliphate in 2014, starting with a stretch of land across Syria and Iraq roughly the size of Great Britain.
By refusing to take ISIS at its word, superimposing an oppressor-victim paradigm more amenable to their favoured ideology, the ‘but brigade’ engages in what British anti-extremism activist Maajid Nawaz calls ‘soft racism’ – emanating mainly, in his words, “from privately schooled, Oxbridge-educated Guardian journalists”. Deprived of agency, Islamist extremists are treated like brutalised adolescents: incapable of tempering their rage, they latch on to their twisted interpretations of the Quran and the Hadith, if only because they’ve yet to discover Chomsky and Pilger. Nobody defends per se the shootings and the bomb blasts, the enslavement, the rape, the beheadings – but, perfunctory expressions of outrage and sympathy aside, the details are soon glossed over, relegated to mere symptoms of a disease whose origins lie in Western malevolence.
None of this is to deny that France has an indefensible record of colonial brutality and reckless military interventionism. In sub-Saharan Africa alone, French forces engaged on no fewer than nineteen occasions between the end of colonial rule in the 1960s and 1994 when the regime they sponsored in Rwanda carried out the worst genocide since the Holocaust. Yes, we can stipulate that France has more than its share of blood on its hands, but we can do so without using it as an excuse to diminish the crimes of ISIS who, after all, opted not to target French political or military leaders but concert-goers and football fans. (And, in January, another group of Islamists opted to direct their homicidal rage at Charlie Hebdo’s cartoonists, among the harshest critics of France’s foreign policy).
I’m sick and tired of being lectured about how to respond inoffensively to acts of terror, and exhausted by the whataboutism that pollutes so much of the discourse. Of course the vast, vast majority of Muslims reject the tactics and beliefs of ISIS and other extremist groups. Of course it is wrong to blame Syrian refugees for what happened in Paris. And of course Donald Trump and Pauline Hanson are vile, opportunistic racists. But none of this should blind us to the reality of the threat: a virulent strain of extremism is flourishing in the world; one that instructs its followers to subjugate and enslave women and girls, behead infidels, hurl gay men off buildings, and send suicide bombers into crowded theatres and football stadiums. Those on the so-called left who stand by and tolerate this, bleating about U.S. foreign policy or muttering non-sequiturs about the socioeconomic hardship of France’s Muslims, will have a lot to answer for when Marine Le Pen and her ilk sweep to power across Europe. If liberals and progressives won't stand up for the civilization we helped build, voters will seek out someone who will.