A Different Perspective: Understanding the Charlie Hebdo Attack

January 9, 2015 Topic: Terrorism Region: United StatesEurope

A Different Perspective: Understanding the Charlie Hebdo Attack

The recent attack in Paris is representative of a native, home-grown terrorist threat—one that Europeans and Americans will have to address.

Tuesday’s attack on the Parisian satiric magazine Charlie Hebdo was performed by what one could describe as European Holy Warriors—an important point various media outlets are missing in their 24/7 coverage of this tragic event that continues to unfold before our very eyes . They are part of a larger European movement that is internally generated. Understanding this important point and what it means for Europe and eventually the United States is critical.

This European jihadi movement is not made up of “immigrants” as is commonly presumed and published. Most are home-grown children of immigrants, the so-called “second generation.” That status stands in marked contrast to the (first generation) immigrants and visitors who carried out 9/11, the perpetrators of the 1993 World Trade Center bombing, the Subway Bomber, the Underwear Bomber, the 2002 attack on LAX, the Boston Marathon massacre, the Times Square failed bombing attack, and the planned “Millennium” attack on LAX.

The Holy Warriors targeting Europe typically have been born, bred and socialized in Europe itself. That was true of the French Algerian Khaled Kelkal, who in 1995 attacked the French transit system. It was the case in the Amsterdam murder of Theo van Gogh, the attack on the editor of the Danish cartoon, the planned attack on Frankfurt airport and the Ramstein and Hanau American army base in Germany, for all the major failed attacks in the UK, including one originating at Heathrow Airport, for the London Bombers, for Mohammed Merah, the butcher of Toulouse and, yes, for the three men who attacked Charlie Hebdo recently.

Today, as ISIS professionalizes and Al Qaeda regionalizes, the danger has increased. But this outside invitation finds ready recipients inside Europe and this is especially true among French, English and German speakers. Overwhelmingly, these jihadis have been the offspring of labor migrants, born and raised in hardscrabble enclaves, facing social and economic discrimination.

Europe’s Muslim postmigrant, often seeks to distance himself from his parents’ old-country lineaments. In this sense, he behaves much like the children of labor migrants elsewhere, such as the Mexican postmigrant in America today who, like his Polish or Italian counterpart yesterday, shrinks from bringing his schoolmates home where English is not spoken. The second-generation American finds an identity and a bride in the new land, where immigration has always been central to the cultural idiom.


In Europe, mass immigration has been rare until recently and remains suspect, rubbing against the ethnicity that defines its nation-states. Government officials are trying to integrate Muslims, but the rise of “Islamophobic” politics in France, Germany, the Netherlands, Finland, Austria and Eastern Europe (not to mention Norway’s bloody revenge tragedy) suggests that these demarches could be doomed; that Europe might face a 21st-century Kulturkampf, a culture war in a continent where immigration became a seething issue long before it did in Arizona and subsequently in the 2012 Republican primary.

Why do so many Europeans and comparatively so few Americans travel to jihad? Proximity may be part of the answer , but only a small part. Jihadi social media targets both regions. Many Europeans answer the call; relatively few Americans do. Why?

For Europe, the main source of immigrant labor is Muslim; they are our Mexicans and Salvadorans. But we, too, host Muslim immigrants. No, there is another reason. Our Muslim youth are the sons and daughters of professionals, of the students who started coming after our immigration laws were broadened in 1965, under the leadership of Senator Ted Kennedy. They came to American universities and many stayed and raised comfortable families with higher-than-average per capita incomes. Europe’s Muslims started coming en masse in the 50s, when northern Europe had exhausted the supply of laborers from southern Europe. They reached out to Muslim countries like Algeria, Pakistan, Turkey, Morocco and the Middle East. Our immigrant labor was Mexican; theirs, Muslim. The offspring of American Muslim immigrants belong to the middle class or higher; those of European Muslims to the lower class.

But poverty is not the sole or even the main driver. The European Muslim postmigrant faces a stern and baffling clash of civilizations—the values and expectations of his hearth have been formed in a premodern village, but the street outside is drug infested. He encounters an alluring yet forbidden mass culture that encourages sexual liberation and economic ambition, even as the economy shrinks. In the afternoon, he attends an all-male madrassa, where he learns to memorize the Arabic sounds of the Qur’an, but nothing of their meaning; in the morning, he is enrolled in mixed-gender schools with mandatory sexual-orientation classes. His parents insist he cannot disobey the obligation to marry his rustic cousin back home. His sister may have to cover her hair or face, though that may estrange mainstream society.

To whom does the troubled young Muslim, who is certainly not in the Muslim-youth majority, turn when these circumstances produce an identity crisis? Certainly not to the family’s imam—imported from the home country, unable to speak the new language and considered a fustian phony by the young? The embittered youth will more likely turn to the kind of ranting Salafi preachers who made “Londonistan” a byword and Ulm, Germany a center of extremist Islam and that once could be found easily in Paris and Lyon. These itinerant Sunni/Salafist imams preach that traditional folk Islam of the immigrant parents wallows in “superstition” and “innovation” ( bida-). They stress that this folk Islam alone sanctions clan customs, such as the injunction to wed his cousin who can’t speak the language of her new home.