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Let’s Not Give Terrorists the Holy War They Want

This week’s attack on the Paris newspaper Charlie Hebdo by violent Islamicists was a great tragedy and an unspeakable outrage. It was a vile, evil action by people who are not fit to live in human society. We must always condemn, in every way possible, the slaughter of human beings. Full stop.

The Paris massacre also requires responses—from France, from other Western nations, and from all decent people. Those who engineered this outrage must be held accountable. Those who helped them must be punished. We must increase pressure—diplomatic, economic, and military—on countries that harbor terrorists and make these attacks possible. Doing nothing is not an option.

One response that is not called for, however, is a full-scale assault on Islam and its more than one billion adherents. This is not a good time, for example, to ban head scarves and minaret architecture, or to denounce Islam as a religion of hate and violence, or to call for more ridicule of Muslims in order to prove that we have free speech.

There are a number of reasons for this. For one thing, it is irrational to generalize the actions of a few people to an entire one-fifth of the world’s population—most of whom are simply trying to take care of themselves and their families in an increasingly hostile world. It is also immoral (i.e. un-Christian, un-Darwin, and un-Enlightened) to persecute people or to say things like, “Muslims did X to us, so we are going to do Y to Muslims.” And then there is the fact that wars of mass extermination rarely end well for anybody involved.

But the most important reason not to strike out indiscriminately against the Muslim world right now is that this is exactly what the terrorists want us to do. It was the whole point of the attack. A holy war is precisely what the terrorists want, and the worst thing we can do is give it to them.

We in the West need to stop thinking that it is all about us. The terrorists’ main audience is not the West; it is the billion Muslims in the world who are NOT terrorists. The ultimate objective of these attacks is to radicalize these other Muslims. And best way to do this is to provoke Western countries into striking out indiscriminately against Islam.Terrorism in the modern world is not a military tactic; it is a recruiting strategy.

There is a serious flaw in thinking–as so many Americans do–that, “if they want a war we should give it to them.” This assumes that the people who want the war are the same ones who we are going to give it to. But that’s not how it works. Terrorists attack high-profile targets because they know that this will trigger a response, that this response will cause a backlash against millions of Muslims who are not terrorists, and that this will radicalize people who have never before supported their cause.

Up until now, this has been a remarkably effective strategy. And the great showcase of its effectiveness is the current nation of Iraq, a large part of which is now under the control of a horrifically violent extremist group—ISIS—that was born in American POW camps and would never have existed had we not invaded the country, empowered one of its factions, and radicalized the others.

This is not to minimize the difficult problem that terrorism poses to the modern world. These kinds of attacks are horrible, and they must be dealt with. And I do not know what the best response for us would be. I am fairly sure, though, that the worst response is to do exactly what the terrorists want us to do. Unfortunately, this is exactly the path that we seem determined to follow.

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