The aftershock of an atrocity rarely brings out the best in us. It is difficult to focus on the horror of what has happened, so we engage in forms of displacement activity by considering the indirect implications. Insurance brokers reacted to the 9/11 enormity by calculating the effect on premiums; traders sold shares; Palestinians pressed it into their own quarrel with Israel; one Labour spin doctor thought it was “a good day to bury bad news” and, disastrously, said so in an email.
My friend Tom Utley later wrote an immensely brave column admitting that his very first thought, before he came to his senses, was that the unleashing of terrorism against New Yorkers might jolt them out of their support for the IRA. His point was that we can’t help thinking idiotic things when we are in a state of shock, and he proposed an amnesty for anything said or written in the first 24 hours after an attack.
We should respond with similar generosity to some of the words spoken immediately after the Paris abominations. Bernie Sanders said terrorism was a consequence of climate change. Janine di Giovanni said: “What really worries me is that these attacks will help the Right wing”. Jean-Claude Juncker said that the murders strengthened the case for the free movement of migrants in Europe. Stop the War said that France brought the attacks on itself by bombing Syria. In each case, people were responding in the way that human beings do to trauma, by retreating into the familiar, by saying, in effect, “This just proves whatever it was I was arguing a moment ago.”
The two most common responses came from the two ends of the political spectrum. “These attacks are nothing to do with Islam!” and “Where you have Muslims you have terrorism!” It’s hard to say which is sillier.
When murderers chant “Allahu Akbar” while spraying civilians with bullets, it’s facile to claim that there is no connection to Islam. If you are reading this article as a Muslim, ask yourself: what was your very first thought when you heard that there had been a series of co-ordinated terrorist attacks in Paris? Did you think: “Hmm, it could be Mormons or Methodists”?
Equally, though, it is preposterous to judge a billion Muslims by the actions of a handful of criminals. I’m afraid this, too, is an error prompted by a flaw in our cerebral wiring. As Steven Pinker showed in one of his magisterial works on behavioural psychology, the brain can slide easily, but erroneously, from “Terrorists are likely to be Muslims” to “Muslims are likely to be terrorists”. The first statement may be statistically true (although it wasn’t so long ago that terrorism came in very different guises: the IRA, ETA, Carlos the Jackal). The second is preposterous.
Muslims are, overwhelmingly, the main victims of jihadism. I was in Tunis when I heard the news from Paris. On the same day, there were two local Islamist attacks. In one, a police officer was shot; in the other, a teenage boy was decapitated because he had co-operated with the security forces. Believe me, people in the Muslim world don’t need to be told to speak out against terrorism: they live with it more than anyone.
The Tunisian economy has been devastated by two atrocities earlier this year: one at the Bardo Museum, the other on the beach at Souss. A country making a successful transition from dictatorship to pluralism was targeted for that very reason.
It was partly as a gesture of solidarity that I was in Tunis with the Alliance of European Conservatives and Reformists. There is nothing worse than declaring, after a bomb, that the terrorists mustn’t win, but then quietly changing your travel plans. Tunisia is a gentle and welcoming country, a country that aspires to freedom. The least the rest of us can do is to spend some time here.
Our larger purpose, though, was to engage with local politicians. It is worth recalling what sparked the revolution in 2010 – which spread from Tunisia across North Africa and the Middle East. The risings began when Mohamed Bouazizi, a market trader, was driven to the horrific extreme of self-immolation because he had been denied ownership of his own goods and the right to engage in commerce. His was a protest against the violation of property rights, and he was not alone. In an authoritative study of the Arab Spring, the Peruvian economist, Hernando de Soto, chronicled hundreds of cases of entrepreneurs in Arab countries being driven to suicide by police corruption and harassment.
The Arab Spring, in other words, began as a movement against arbitrary government. Citizens were fed up with living under regimes that could make up the rules as they went along, seizing property without due process, rigging the law in favour of their clients. They wanted freedom: freedom of speech, freedom of assembly, freedom of worship, freedom of association and, not least, freedom to enjoy their own property.
Sadly, not every country has followed Tunisia’s trajectory. Authoritarian regimes have a way of calling into existence authoritarian opponents. Many Arab strongmen justified their despotism by presenting themselves as the only alternative to Islamic fundamentalism. Such arguments have a way of becoming self-fulfilling. If people are told often enough that the only alternative to brutal, self-serving, oligarchic regimes is religious extremism, some of them will come to believe it.
One of the speakers at our conference was Rached Ghannouchi the leader of the Ennahda Party, which is sometimes called “moderate Islamist”. Ghannouchi, who recently stood aside following a narrow election defeat, put it like this: “Throughout the Middle East, for decades, dictators suppressed Islam. In Tunisia, any kind of Islamic education was forbidden. It was forbidden for women to wear the veil. People were persecuted if they demonstrated any interest in Islam. It is these policies that produced a reaction, the generation of Islamic terrorists that we are living with now.”
That assessment was delivered just before the Paris obscenities; it was not one of the panicky reactions I quoted earlier. And, the more you think about it, the more sense it makes. Across North Africa, people faced an unappealing choice between two sets of autocrats: secular Leftists, and religious fundamentalists. Moderate and democratic parties were squeezed out, forced to pick the side they regarded as less threatening.
In Tunisia, the religious parties opted for democratic pluralism. Perhaps it was because their leaders spent their exile in London rather than Riyadh. In any event, the constitution they drew up was secular and inclusive. Among other things, the bar on diplomatic relations with Israel was removed on the impeccable grounds that diplomacy was a matter for day-to-day politics, not something to embed in basic law.
The word “Islamist”, in Tunisia, seems inappropriate. Ghannouchi has more in common with a European Christian Democrat than with an advocate of sharia. His “Islamism” is restricted to the kind of issues that most Western conservatives also wrestle with: embryo research, religious instruction in schools, gay marriage.
When a party like Ennahda seeks to self-define as a free-market Centre-Right movement, how should Western conservatives react? Should we, as some American commentators do, insist that there is a spectrum that leads from Ennahda to the ayatollahs in Tehran? Or should we seek to bolster moderate conservatism in the region?
The answer ought to be obvious. Religion isn’t going to disappear, much as some Leftists might like it to. The question is whether observant Muslims can be represented by values-based democratic parties, of the sort that the Western Right takes for granted, but that have so far barely existed in the Arab world except in Morocco and Tunisia.
No one can definitively answer that question, and the recent history of North Africa cautions against excessive optimism. Still, as Benedikt Koehler – a fellow CapX contributor and also a conference delegate – has regularly argued here, freedom and free markets were an integral part of early Islam. The aspiration to liberty is universal. Don’t write off an entire region.