Why Islamists Target US, Not France

Wednesday, 03 Oct 2012 10:33 AM

By Tawfik Hamid

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The difference between Muslims’ reaction to the French cartoons that insulted the Prophet Muhammad and their reaction to the Muhammad film that was produced in the United States is striking.

On the one hand, Muslim mobs viciously attacked US embassies, replaced the U.S. flag with the al-Qaida flag, and killed many innocent people — including U.S. ambassador Chris Stevens and other U.S. diplomats. On the other hand, however, they did not dare react with the same violence against France, despite the very insulting nature of the French cartoons.

The factors that underpin this odd disparity in Muslim reaction must be analyzed.

The French response to radical Islam since September 11, 2001, can explain to a great extent this paradox.

It seems that the French have understood the mindset of the Islamists.

Analysis of the behavior of most Islamic groups in the last few decades shows beyond doubt that the most important and significant issue for them — once they attain power — is to promote or enforce the hijab (Islamic head scarf). They know very well that their agenda for Islamizing a society cannot succeed without this dress code.

The hijab for the Islamists not only represents the honor and dignity of Islam and of Muslim women, but it also creates a sense of supremacy over other people who do not wear it and unites the Muslim culture as a separate and different entity within the society that uses the dress code. This, then, unites Muslims psychologically with the global Muslim community (Umma) rather than with their western or secular societies.

Many in the West may not be able to imagine how the issue of the hijab is so fundamental to the Islamists. Nevertheless, the reality is that Islamic radical groups everywhere in the world care for nothing more than making Muslim women wear the hijab.

Allow me to share my personal experience to illustrate the case. As a radical Muslim for several years earlier in my life (actually more than 30 years ago!), I can attest that literally the only thing that could have stopped me from committing a suicide attack or using some other form of violence (had been so inclined) was the certainty that my violent action would result in the banning of the hijab for Muslim women.

In other words, banning the hijab — which was for me at that time the symbol of the dignity of Islam — was for me one of very few effective deterrents to violence.

It seems that the French have understood this somewhat bizarre psychology of the Islamic radicals. It therefore did not take them long after 9/11 to ban the hijab in their public high schools. The message that the French sent to the radicals was that if they dared to attack France as they had attacked the United States, the hijab would be banned throughout the country — not just in the public high schools.

Many radicals realized that the French knew their weak point and thus avoided — as much as possible — attacking France lest they ban the Hijab everywhere in the French Republic. For the Islamists this would mean an end to their hopes of Islamizing France in the future.

Using violence to try to prevent France from banning the hijab in the high schools would have resulted in its ban all over France. The French were adamant. The Islamic radicals simply could not take this risk with the strongly determined French, as this could mean the end of the hijab in France.

Unlike the French, American officials took precisely the opposite approach: they defended the hijab, criticized France for banning it, and encouraged U.S. female diplomats to wear it in their meetings with officials in Muslim countries. In fact, U.S. female soldiers were for a short time actually encouraged to wear the hijab in Afghanistan to appease the local Muslim population.

This supportive attitude regarding the hijab made radical Muslims realize that the U S — unlike France — will never even come close to their weakest point or to banning the hijab. Their reaction is not unlike that of a bully who realizes that his opponent will never hit him back.

Killing a few radicals will never deter the others because they actually want to die as martyrs and thereby enter paradise — a fact that many Americans simply cannot imagine due to cultural differences. Whereas, warning the Islamists either directly or indirectly that their attacks will result in a ban on the hijab (as the French did after 9/11) would deter them.

Another factor that has likely played a significant role in weakening the Islamists’ reaction to the French cartoons is the French response to the problem — which clearly shows that they have learned from history.

Examining the Timeline of Muslim response following the publication of anti-Muhammad Danish cartoons on January 30, 2005, reveals that they stayed peaceful for four months after the publication. Violence did not erupt until 72 hours after the magazine apologized for publishing the cartoons.

The apology in this case was seen as a sign of weakness and likely encouraged the Islamists to react violently. The French seem to have understood this lesson. Their response, as articulated by Prime Minister Jean-Marc Ayrault, after publication of the recent French cartoons was this:

“In the current climate, the prime minister wishes to stress his disapproval of all excesses and calls on everyone to behave responsibly. “Questioned on RTL radio, he added: "We are in a country where the freedom of expression is guaranteed, along with the freedom to caricature. If people really feel their beliefs are offended and think the law has been broken — and we are in a state where the law must be totally respected — they can go to the courts."

The French clearly stood for their values of freedom of expression.

On the contrary, the initial U.S. response to the "Muhammad" film — as seen in the tweets of the U.S. embassy in Cairo — was mainly to denounce the film and its producers rather than defend the basic American value of freedom of speech.

5:53 a.m., 9/11/12. Shortly before noon local time, @USEmbassyCairo tweets: "Respect for religious beliefs is a cornerstone of American democracy," according to a screenshot captured by @NYCSouthpaw.

6:11 a.m., 9/11/12.@USEmbassyCairo tweets: "U.S. Embassy condemns religious incitement" with a link to a statement, according to another @NYCSouthpaw screenshot. The statement "U.S. Embassy Condemns Religious Incitement" was posted on the embassy of the United States Cairo, Egypt website in response to Egyptian media accounts of the film, though without a specific time-stamp:

"The embassy of the United States in Cairo condemns the continuing efforts by misguided individuals to hurt the religious feelings of Muslims — as we condemn efforts to offend believers of all religions. Today, the 11th anniversary of the September 11, 2001, terrorist attacks on the United States, Americans are honoring our patriots and those who serve our nation as the fitting response to the enemies of democracy. Respect for religious beliefs is a cornerstone of American democracy. We firmly reject the actions by those who abuse the universal right of free speech to hurt the religious beliefs of others."

This weak U.S. response is likely to have worked in the minds of Islamists in the same way as the apology from the Jyllands-Posten magazine for publishing the Danish cartoons: It was understood by the Islamists as a sign of weakness, encouraging a violent reaction against the “weak” United States.

In fact, the deadly anti-U.S. protests erupted in Pakistan essentially after (not before!) an ad on Pakistani TV featuring President Obama and Secretary of State Hillary Clinton denouncing the movie "Innocence of Muslims." As the ABC News put it:

“The ads have been running this week on seven different Pakistani television stations in an attempt to cool tempers over the film, but today's protests were the largest seen so far since the controversy began in Pakistan last week with the attempted storming of the U.S. embassy”.

The same phenomenon was observed when thousands of Afghans turned violent, some even killing American officers, after President Obama’s apology for the “inadvertent” Koran burning by American soldiers at Bagram Airfield on February 20.

Additionally, as a prophylactic move to avoid Islamist violence against France after publishing the cartoon, the French Interior Minister Manuel Valls recently threatened to expel radical Muslims from the country if they challenged France's principles.

By comparison, putting the man allegedly behind the inflammatory film "Innocence of Muslims" under arrest in the U.S. and holding him without bail was seen by many in the Muslim world as a sign of weakness. This move, which was also seen by many Muslims as a move to appease the Islamists, did not prevent (and possibly encouraged) violence.

Within 48 hours of this arrest, most Christians living near Egypt’s border with Israel in Sinai had to flee their homes because Islamist militants set their church on fire, made death threats to their community, and gunmen attacked a Coptic-owned shop.

The difference in the reaction to Islamic-related issues between France and the U.S. can be further exemplified by comparing the response of former president of France Nicolas Sarkozy to the Danish cartoon problem by saying on LCI television that he "preferred an excess of caricature to an excess of censorship" — to the recent U.S. request to Google to consider banning the latest anti-Muhammad movie.

This is not meant to underestimate other factors that aggravate Islamist violence or to excuse the innate nature of Islamic radicalism but rather to shed light on some other factors that may aggravate or weaken it.

Another factor that could have also played a role in ameliorating the Islamist response to the French cartoons is the fact that raising the flag of al-Qaida on French embassies will not fulfil the grandiose feelings of Islamists compared to raising their flag on the embassies of the most powerful country on earth (the United States).

To conclude: The striking difference between Muslim reaction to the U.S. and to France after publishing insulting material against the Prophet Muhammad in both countries illustrates how, without thinking outside the box, the fight against Islamic radicals can go on forever, as simply killing some of the radicals does not deter the rest from conducting more violent acts.

We may not be able to kill all the terrorists and jihadists but perhaps by understanding and using much less costly psychological measures, we can deter many of them.

Dr. Tawfik Hamid is the author of "Inside Jihad: Understanding and Confronting Radical Islam." Read more reports from Tawfik Hamid — Click Here Now.








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