If as is expected it turns out the murderers who attacked the offices of Charlie Hebdo are Islamist terrorists of some variety or other, Juan Cole’s analysis of their probable motives is worth reading:

The problem for a terrorist group like al-Qaeda is that its recruitment pool is Muslims, but most Muslims are not interested in terrorism. Most Muslims are not even interested in politics, much less political Islam. France is a country of 66 million, of which about 5 million is of Muslim heritage. But in polling, only a third, less than 2 million, say that they are interested in religion. French Muslims may be the most secular Muslim-heritage population in the world (ex-Soviet ethnic Muslims often also have low rates of belief and observance). Many Muslim immigrants in the post-war period to France came as laborers and were not literate people, and their grandchildren are rather distant from Middle Eastern fundamentalism, pursuing urban cosmopolitan culture such as rap and rai. In Paris, where Muslims tend to be better educated and more religious, the vast majority reject violence and say they are loyal to France.

Al-Qaeda wants to mentally colonize French Muslims, but faces a wall of disinterest. But if it can get non-Muslim French to be beastly to ethnic Muslims on the grounds that they are Muslims, it can start creating a common political identity around grievance against discrimination.

Cole goes on to compare this strategy to the Marxist dialectical concept of “heightening the contradictions” of capitalism the better to make it implode, which means deliberately making life worse for the slumbering proletariat.

Now in thinking about this it should occur to you that the same strategy would make sense to rightwing fanatics who might put on a fake Islamic atrocity to provoke a backlash not as a method of Islamic mobilization but as an end in itself. So perhaps we should all (and I’m admonishing myself here as well) be a bit more careful about assuming this attacks was what it appeared to be. We will probably know soon enough.

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Ed Kilgore

Ed Kilgore is a political columnist for New York and managing editor at the Democratic Strategist website. He was a contributing writer at the Washington Monthly from January 2012 until November 2015, and was the principal contributor to the Political Animal blog.