No, France isn’t at war, Hollande
Our country is at war,” said French President Francois Hollande after a priest was murdered near Rouen in front of his congregation by two attackers who claimed to be serving the Islamic State (IS). It’s the sort of thing leaders feel compelled to say at times like this, but it does send the wrong message. French aircraft are already bombing IS forces in Syria, so you could call that a sort of war (though nobody on the French side is getting killed). But that was not what Hollande was talking about. He was saying that France is somehow at war at home, and went on to say, “Our democracy is the target, and it will be our shield. Let us stand together. We will win this war.”
Stirring stuff, and the French certainly need some encouragement, because they are still in shock after the recent slaughter of 84 people by an truck-driving Islamist terrrorist in Nice. But the words are wrong, because if the French are at war at home, then who are they at war with? The obvious answer, almost the only plausible answer, is French Muslims. Which is, of course, precisely the conclusion that the IS wants the French people to reach. I’m not saying that the two deluded Muslim teenagers who carried out the attack – both born in France – were aware of the grand strategy behind IS’s terrorist campaign in Europe. The foot-soldiers in any campaign are unlikely to know or care much about such things.
But the men who set IS policy and control the Islamist websites that urge young European Muslims to commit these terrible acts know exactly what they want to achieve. In France, they want to stimulate anti-Muslim hatred, turn the majority against this under-privileged minority, and ensure the victory of Marine Le Pen, the leader of the neo-fascist, anti-Muslim, anti-immigrant National Front, in next year’s presidential election. She is already practically guaranteed a place as one of the two contenders in the second, run-off phase of the French election. If the terrorist attacks radicalise many Christian and post-Christian French people and lead to widespread anti-Muslim violence, Le Pen might even win it and become France’s next President.
The Islamic State’s strategy in Germany is just the same, although the country is less fertile ground for Islamist extremism: Relatively few of Germany’s Muslims are Arabs, and the IS is an overwhelmingly Arab organisation. The far-right parties in Germany are also much weaker than the National Front in France. But the IS has just claimed credit for two terrorist attacks in Germany in a single week.
Two IS attacks in Germany, not four. The axe-wielding Afghan youth on a train near Wuerzburg who wounded five people on 18 July, and the failed Syrian asylum seeker who blew himself up outside a music festival and injured 15 other people in Ansbach, both proclaimed their loyalty to the IS. But the 18-year-old German youth of Iranian extraction who murdered nine people in Munich, all but one in their teens, was a psychologically troubled youth obsessed with school shootings and Norwegian mass murderer Anders Breivik. The Syrian asylum-seeker who murdered a Polish woman in Reuthlingen with a machete knew the victim, and the police said it was probably a “crime of passion”.
However, both of those men were also Muslims, so in the mind of many Germans there has just been a wave of murderous Islamist terrorism. The two IS-linked attacks actually didn’t even kill anybody, but there is now a political panic that has strong anti-Muslim undertones. The IS strategy is working in Germany too. Why does the IS want an anti-Muslim backlash in European countries? Because it will radicalise many more European Muslims, and also maybe bring to power populist leaders who really do want to “wage war on Islam”.
Islamic State’s ideology claims that the whole Muslim world is under attack by the evil West, and that only IS can defend it successfully. Only if its real target audience in the Arab world believes that lie can the IS hope to gain popular support, and perhaps ultimately political power, in the Arab countries, so it needs the West to behave badly. That’s why Hollande was wrong to say that France is at war at home. Words matter, and he’s playing into the terrorists’ hands.
It’s also why the United States can expect to see a rash of Islamist attacks next October. They wouldn’t even have to be very big to drive millions of American voters into the arms of Donald Trump, and nothing could please the IS more than Trump as President.