Thursday, November 19, 2015


Last week, I wrote about the cui bono concept—the presumption that wrongdoers generally do wrong because they rightly or wrongly expect some benefit to accrue to themselves as a result—and I applied it to the spate of untruths that seem just lately to have been functioning almost as the stock in trade of several of our most prominent presidential candidates. Today, I’d like to apply that same principle to the perpetrators of the horrific events of last Friday evening in Paris, events that cost 129 innocents their lives and left 352 others wounded, some of whom have died in the last few days and many of the rest of whom are still hospitalized in critical condition.

Let’s start, however, not in Paris but in Israel, where Rabbi Yaakov Litman and his eighteen-year-old son Natanel were also murdered last Friday. The rabbi and his son were ambushed by terrorists as they were driving last Friday afternoon to Meitar, a small town of 7,500 just northeast of Beersheba on the always-Israel side of the so-called Green Line. Leaving out the horrific detail that a Red Crescent ambulance, the Palestinian equivalent of the Red Cross or the Magen David Adom, apparently sped past the scene of carnage without stopping, I’d like to focus Rabbi Litman and Netanel’s murder through the cui bono lens by asking what their murderers expected—or at least were hoping—to accomplish. Did they hope to bring Israel to its knees by murdering two innocents? Did they imagine that the settlers in Judah or Samaria would be so shaken by their dastardly deed that, cowering in fear, they would simply respond by packing up their things and moving back to pre-1967 Israel? Surely the answer to both questions is no…but that leads us to ask what they did expect to accomplish. Did they consider the murder of Jews simply to constitute its own reward? Or is there an even more sinister, or at least more calculated, motive lurking behind the latest spate of terror attacks in Israel on both sides of the Green Line?

Let’s hold that thought while we consider Paris. The basics, everybody by now surely knows. Seven coordinated attacks at several different locations in and around the City of Light. Names unfamiliar to most of us just a few days ago—the Stade de France football stadium, the Bataclan concert venue, the Petit Cambodge restaurant, the Belle Equipe  and Le Carillon bars, the Casa Nostra pizzeria, the Eagles of Death Metal band, the Molenbeek neighborhood of Brussels, the Saint-Denis suburb of Paris—are now so familiar that it seems odd to think that, with the exception of Saint-Denis (home to the famous Gothic cathedral in which all but three of the kings of France are buried), I myself hadn’t heard of a single one of those names just a week ago. The simple, unadorned words of the president of France, “La France est en guerre,” were still ringing in my ears when, to my semi-amazement, he went on to back up his words with deeds by actually by going to war and attacking ISIS bases in Syria vigorously and violently, then by invoking Article 42.7 of the 2009 Lisbon Treaty that requires every member state of the European Union to respond to armed aggression against any other member “by all the means in their power,” and then by ordering hundreds of strikes against potential terrorist targets within France. Clearly, when President Hollande unequivocally labelled the events of last Friday as “acts of war,” he meant that literally and plans to conduct himself accordingly. Where France and the rest of the world, including our own country and Russia, go from here remains yet to be seen. But that France means to deal with the threat against its citizens forcefully and meaningfully seems beyond doubt.

As all of this was unfolding, I was still in the middle of Michel Houellebecq’s novel, Submission. (The author’s name is pronounced as though it were written “Wellbeck.”)  I’d read one other of the author’s books, his novel The Elementary Particles, which I found so vulgar as to border on the pornographic. (In my defense, I should mention that this is the kind of high-class porn that wins international literary prizes, not the kind they used to sell in midtown sleaze shops before Mayor Giuliani cleaned things up. But even so I’m still a bit embarrassed to admit that I read it through to the bitter end.)  Submission also has its share of crude passages, but is a bestseller throughout Europe—and particularly in France, Germany, and Italy—and is now available in our own country in an English translation by Lorin Stein published just two months ago.

The novel is set in 2023 and unfolds as the Muslim Brotherhood, evolved by the early 2020’s into a French political party, almost unexpectedly gains enough votes in a national election to make it almost impossible for the actual victors to form a government without them. This kind of parliamentary wrangling will be familiar to any who follow French (or Israeli or Canadian or British) politics, but what is truly shocking here is the easy plausibility of it all. The Socialists win the election, but are obliged to choose between the Muslim Brotherhood led by a fictional Mohammed Ben Abbes and the far-right Front National led by the very real Marine Le Pen if they wish to form an actual government. They weigh their options, but in the end determine that they will have a better chance of remaining in power if they choose the Muslim option, which they do. In a matter of weeks, Ben Abbes is the president of France. What happens next is both predictable and horrific. The unemployment problem is solved by eliminating most women from the work force. The national deficit is eliminated by ending mandatory education at age twelve. The problem of anti-Semitism is “solved” by encouraging Jews to immigrate to Israel. The university system is closed, then re-opened as a national grid of Islamic universities with exclusively Muslim faculty members (most of whom are merely the teachers from the previous system who have chosen to convert to Islam, a conversion that appears to require almost nothing at all other than a public declaration of willingness to embrace Islam). By the month, France grows closer and closer to re-attaining its nineteenth-century glory as other European countries install Muslim governments and as Morocco, Turkey, and Tunisia join the EU. French itself regains the supremacy it once had as the language of diplomacy and world trade.

Of course, the book’s premise is that France has been and still is so inept at integrating its Muslim population into the fabric of French society that if the Muslim Brotherhood were to become an actual party, the entire Muslim population of France—something like 4.5 million people—would vote en bloc for its list of candidates. (Of course, by 2023, the number of Muslim citizens in France will be that much greater, particularly if large numbers of refugees from Syria and other battle-torn Arab lands are admitted.) Whether that is a reasonable supposition or not is hard to say. Surely not every Muslim would vote for a Muslim party! But it is also true that the Muslims of France have not been well integrated into society and that very large numbers feel themselves to live outside of the intellectual and social milieu that non-Muslim French citizens consider their natural cultural climate.

Events like the last week’s horror in Paris constitute a major challenge for French society as a whole. If President Hollande’s war against ISIS goes well, then the nation will be able to unite behind that victory. But if it does not go well, and if large numbers of French citizens succumb to base prejudice and end up further marginalizing France’s millions of Muslim citizens, thus alienating them even more, then Houellebecq’s premise—that if and when a serious Muslim political party constitutes itself as a force to be reckoned with in French politics, the Muslim citizens of France will automatically and eagerly vote for them—then that premise, now the stuff of novels, may well become reality.

The challenge facing the French, therefore, is two-fold: to pursue its war against ISIS in the Middle East and in Europe and to pursue it relentlessly and with unyielding determination…but also to reach out to French Muslims and to invite them to join the battle against violent, Islamicist extremism. The time has clearly come for the Muslims of France to decide as a community where they stand and to what degree they are willing to stand by their countrymen in a battle against their own co-religionists. And that brings me back to the cui bono question that I asked earlier in this letter but didn’t answer: could the goal of this kind of horrific terror be specifically to goad non-Muslim France into creating the kind of illiberal atmosphere that could conceivably make the scenario presented by Michel Houellebecq in Submission a reality? That—and not the supposition that terror attacks against random civilians are undertaken merely to terrify—that strikes me as a rational response to the cui bono question that logic tells us must always be reasonably asked in the context of criminal acts.

And that brings me back to Rabbi Litman and his son. Why would anyone choose a car at random and murder its driver and passenger? Could the “real” goal of those attacks not be to kill this or that person, but to make the Israeli public even less likely to see the Palestinians as worthy partners in peace…or even the kind of people with whom one even could live peacefully in adjacent nations? The mood in Israel is grim these days as random violence against civilians is on the rise. How could it not be?  But the real challenge in these acts of random terror is not to find a way to legitimize the demonization of an entire people, but to find a way to combat the bad guys and to encourage the “regular” Palestinians to seize the reins of leadership and to negotiate a lasting, just peace with Israel.

Terrorist acts are not random acts of natural violence like hailstones or earthquakes, but focused, intentional deeds intended to make less likely the kind of peaceful coexistence between nations and peoples that extremists fear the most. France is entirely justified in its decision to go to war with ISIS. The question is whether the effort will make France stronger by making ISIS weaker…or whether it will just weaken ISIS in Syria or wherever, but leave the millions of disengaged, disenchanted Muslims in France more than ready to make real Michel Houellebecq’s dystopian fantasy. That is the question that churns and roils deep within as I contemplate the events of last Friday evening against the background of having just read Submission and internalized its dark, frightening message.

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