A version of this essay was posted on the website of Religion Dispatches on January 9, 2015.
Now that the Paris attackers have been identified—one who turned himself in, and the two Kouachi brothers killed by the French police in a shootout north of Paris—the next question is why? Why did they do it, and did religion play a role?
As soon as it became clear that the military-style assault on the offices of the French satirical magazine, Charlie Hebdo, were Muslim, and that they had shouted out as they raced from the scene of their massacre that this was in revenge for the insults levied by the cartoon portrayals of the Prophet Muhammad, the die seemed to be cast. This was a case of Islamic terrorism, pure and simple.
Senator Lindsey Graham said so. The Paris attacks prove that we are “in a religious war” with radical Islam. The respected journalist, George Packer, hurriedly posted an opinion piece on the website of The New Yorker, proclaiming that this act had nothing to do with the ethnic tensions in France and it was simply a calculated attack on behalf of “Islamist ideology.” Twitter and Facebook were full of accusations that once again Islamic religion has propelled its faithful into violence.
But what we know about the attackers and their motives is still murky, and the truth may be more complicated than that.
One possibility is that this case may be similar to many of the other lone wolf terrorist attacks in Europe and the United States in recent years. Before Paris, there was the 2013 Tsarnaev brothers’ attack on the Boston massacre, the deadly assault on a Norwegian youth camp by Christian extremist Anders Breivik in 2011, the December 2012 Newtown massacre by Adam Lanza in Sandy Hook school, the July 2012 movie theater shootings by James Holmes in Aurora, Colorado, the August 2012 attack on the Milwaukee Sikh Gurdwara by Wade Michael Page, and before that, the 2010 Times Square bombing attempt by Faisal Shahzad, and the 1996 Atlanta Olympic park by Eric Robert Rudolph, who was related to the Christian Identity movement.
Some of these were committed by Christians, some by Muslims, and some by those with no particular religious affiliation at all. In almost all cases, though, these have been instances where lonely, alienated individuals have raged against a society that they thought had abandoned them.
These lone wolf events are different from other instances in recent years where organized radical groups with religion as part of their ideology, such ISIS or the Christian militia, have plotted attacks and recruited participants to be involved in them. In the lone wolf cases, religious ideas, when they appeared at all, were more of an excuse than a reason for the violence.
The Paris incident may be a case in point. Though at least one of the brothers may at one time had ties to the Yemeni al Qaeda, there is no evidence that they were sent by some higher authority in the organization to commit this crime. The details of the background and motives of Said and Cherif Kouachi are not yet clear, and so religion seems to be a secondary aspect of their motivations. Like the other cases in recent years, it may be primarily an expression of the rage of angry young men.
The brothers Kouachi were hardly saints. In fact, they were scarcely religious. They were raised in a secular household and their youth was filled with petty theft and brawls. Neither held a solid job, though Cherif occasionally delivered pizzas. The lure of the jihadi ideology seemed primarily to be the call to warfare, coupled with a sense of bringing honor to their communities and to themselves, a dishonor they had earned through their vagabond lifestyles. According to the New York Times, Cherif Kouachi liked to smoke marijuana and listen to rap music; he described himself as “an occasional Muslim.” Neither brother seems to have had a very sophisticated notion of their faith nor of Islamic jihadi ideology. They simply wanted to join a fight.
It is true, however, that the target of their angry, vicious attack was related to religion, since the enemies in their military assault were satirists who had portrayed the Prophet Mohammad in cartoons. This is the kind of insult to religion that would offend all Muslims, not just the angry ones like the Kouachi brothers. It is one thing to make fun of real life leaders, quite another to belittle someone’s faith. The cartoons in the Charlie Hebdo magazine are analogous to the ethnic cartoons of Jews in Nazi Germany, or the bespeckled buck-toothed drawings of Japanese in American World War II posters. These images demean a whole race or culture, in the case of Muslims. Algerian Muslims in France already feel demeaned, and for many the cartoons were the last straw.
This does not excuse the savage attack, however. There is a lot of satire that angers religious folk without causing violence—the 1989 photograph of a statue of Jesus on the cross immersed in a jar of urine comes to mind. It enraged many Catholic Christians at the time—just as the recent musical, The Book of Mormon, infuriated many Mormons. But the unhappy Catholics and Mormons did not storm the artists’ and writers’ homes with military-grade weaponry.
Neither did any other Muslim except the Kouachi brothers. Even though Muslims in general may have been displeased by these drawings of the Prophet Mohammad (or any attempt to picture someone who should not be portrayed at all) no other Muslim attacked the cartoonists’ office in Paris. This brings us back to the idiosyncratic nature of this terrorist act. It was not Muslims in general who attacked the Paris office, it was these guys. Hence no amount of thundering about Islam or Islamic radical ideology in general explains why these particular people did what they did. If they were not commanded by some radical organization to undertake the attack, then the relevant questions are why the Kouachi brothers were angry about the society around them, and why they used a religious pretext related to a religious issue (the cartoon portrayals of the Prophet) as a cover for their rage?
This raises an issue that George Packer, in his New Yorker essay, specifically said that we should ignore: the multicultural tensions of contemporary French society.
If we are looking for a link that connects a couple of individuals’ personal sense of anger and alienation to a public demonstration of how the immigrant community of which they are a part (Algerian Muslims) are angry and alienated in contemporary France, the cartoon issue is a perfect connection. Moreover, there is a prevailing radical Islamic ideology that presents an image of cosmic war between Islam and secular society that allows these individual angry frustrations to be vented. Hence Packer’s identification of the jihadi ideology as a factor is relevant, but the evidence does not indicate that it is the sole cause of the attack; rather it is the vehicle through which a personal and ethnic anger is expressed.
For the dead-beat, dead-end Kouachi brothers, the notion of being a part of a great jihadi battle may have seemed appealing for many reasons. For such people, real wars are exciting, and the imagined wars of great religious conflict are more than exhilarating. They also offer the promise of opportunity, of playing an ennobling role within that cosmic war. Perhaps most directly, such imagined wars provide a justification for doing something destructive to the very society that they think has shunned them and their community.
Hence the defense of religion provides a cover for violence. It gives moral license to something horrible that the perpetrators may have longed to do, to show the world how powerful they and their community really could be, and to demonstrate their importance in one terminal moment of violent glory. Religion doesn’t cause the violence, it is the excuse for it.
One does not need religion to do this, of course. After all, Adam Lanza shot up the Newtown School and John Holmes attacked the Aurora movie theater crowd without a nod towards religion.
But in the case of the Norwegian youth camp murderer, Anders Breivik, Atlanta Olympic Park bomber Eric Robert Rudolph and the Sikh Gurdwara attacker, Wade Michael Page, their motivations appear to have included an imagined defense of Christian society. Times Square attempted bomber, Faisal Shahzad, Boston bombers, Tamerlan and Dzhokhar Tsarnaev, justified their acts of rage as defending Islamic society, as did the Paris attackers, Said and Charif Kouachi.
It is not right, of course, to blame Christianity for the acts of angry young men who are Christian, even when they claim to be defending the Christian community. Similarly, Islam is not responsible for angry Muslims.
Sadly, by evoking faith as an element of their bloody rage, however, they compound their crimes. They cause religion to be one more injured victim of their awful actions