The whole nation of France was shocked on January 7 when two masked gunmen armed with AK-47s, a shotgun, and a rocket launcher began shooting workers at the satirical newspaper Charlie Hebdo while shouting: “Allahu Akbar,” Arabic for “God is great.” The men also killed two French police officers before they were both slain by police on January 9.
After that, people around the world began using the slogan, “Je suis Charlie,” French for “I am Charlie” as a show of solidarity with the victims.
As people are still reeling from this atrocity, many questions are being raised, government policies are being drafted, protests are organized, and many are trying to figure out how to prevent such a tragedy from happening again.
The last 15 years has given the religion of Islam a bad name in Western society, especially when viewed in light of these kinds of acts that have supposedly been carried out in the name of Allah.
Yet simplistically ascribing the incident to “radical Islam” misses more subtle and instructive dynamics that may have lead these brothers to terrible acts—and could lead others.
Amel Boubekeur, author of “Whatever Happened to the Islamists?: Salafis, Heavy Metal Muslims, and the Lure of Consumerist Islam” describes a reality that’s different from many people’s assumptions.
She points out how most of these extremists are French born, don’t speak any Arabic. Their primary impetus might be better described as narcissistic than jihadist. They are disenfranchised in French society, and crave to be heroes.
In the recent Paris attack, one gunman even called a journalist. He wanted as many as people to know who he was and “why” he was killing people—exhibiting the kind of self-centered behavior that approaches the level of criminally insane.
The egotism of the gunman was further evidenced by the fact that they took selfies holding their guns. “This is a reflection of their own subculture, of the environment of their belief, they want to be heroes of the old ways,” says Boubekeur, who is currently a fellow at the German Institute for International and Security Affairs.
None of the attackers were raised with any kind of extremist views, they went looking for them when they couldn’t fill some void inside themselves, says Boubekeur. “Sometimes it maybe because their girlfriend dumped them and they consult jihadi websites and connect their emotional pain to the current moral situation.”
“They believe they will be heroes if they do this mission,” Boubekeur said.
These jihadi websites and social media are a way for these people to pick their own community, to find those with similar views, something they find hard to do in Western society.
“A lot of them feel they do not have the right to disagree, they only have the right to exist. They are trying to discover a ‘true Islam,'” says Boubekeur.
In 2004, the French government banned any form of religious symbols from public schools. It was widely seen as especially targeting headscarves worn by Muslim women. French Muslims were outraged by the law, viewing it as an assault on their freedom of belief.
“Often they are people who have a conflicting relationship with the institution, they are trying to find their place, and feel like they are treated unfairly from those who don’t take the time to listen to them,” says Boubekeur.
Some people would like to write them off as crazies who hate all non-Muslims and Jews, but Boubekeur doesn’t think the case is so simple, that at its heart, it’s not about religion.
“They do hate Jews, but that is because they believe Jews are the most powerful people in this world. … It’s not a religious war based on racial hatred, it’s based on their denomination and with the suffering of Muslims abroad. They are trying to be heroes. They have no impact on their society, this is a way for them to impact their society.”
From a true religious perspective, Boubekeur says most French Muslims do not believe lashing out is the way to deal with unfairness or offense, such as the cartoons portraying Muhammad run by Charlie Hebdo .
“It is offensive to portray the prophet Muhammad, but most French Muslims have decided not to react to it, because if there are injustices, it is up to God to judge people and manage the situation, this understanding is rooted in Islam,” said Boubekeur.