Despite my agreement with my esteemed colleagues Professors Bruce Lincoln and Anthony Yu in most aspects of their response in last week’s Sightings to an earlier Sightings piece, “After the ‘Charlie Hebdo’ Massacre: Islam Must Open Itself To Critique,” by a third distinguished colleague, Professor Jean-Luc Marion, their conclusions strike me as ignoring important dimensions of the issues at hand.

The terrible events of January 7-9 in Paris were not, as they aver, the symptoms of social and economic disadvantage, or similar factors. Symptoms of such problems manifest themselves in France, as in many other countries, in increased petty crime, gang activity, drug use, elevated unemployment, occasional car-jackings, arson and riot, and the like.

Among these symptoms, I do not see fit to include targeted, cold-blooded murder, which is what took place in Paris.

These acts of murder, moreover, are part of a pattern whereby certain individuals who regard themselves as acting on behalf of Islam take aim on two particular groups: “blasphemers” and Jews.

As none of my three learned colleagues addressed the wantonly anti-semitic dimensions of the crimes that were perpetrated, and the manner in which they continue an on-going series of related assaults on Jews in France—including the kidnapping, torture and murder of Ilan Halimi by the so-called “Gang des Barbares” (2006), the slaughter of children at a Jewish day school by Mohammed Merah (2012), the carnage unleashed at the Jewish Museum of Brussels by French national Mehdi Nemmouche (2014)—I believe that there is an obligation to set the record about this straight.

If these are “symptoms,” they are symptoms not of the deficit of egalité and fraternité in France, but of the manipulative use of anti-semitic propaganda in large parts of the contemporary Muslim world, whereby the powers that be have encouraged political objections to Israel to morph into global hatred of Jews.

To achieve this, the tools of classical European anti-semitism, as exemplified in the calumnies of the czarist forgery, The Protocols of the Elders of Zion, have been trotted out, dusted off, and given new life in the contemporary Arab media. The perpetrators of the acts under discussion here had all been trained by radical organizations in the Middle East in which they were indoctrinated in this poison, and this became one of their key motivations.

It must be stressed that Jews in France face similar circumstances to French Muslims in several respects.

Many, like France’s Muslims, hail from North Africa, and live in the same working-class suburbs. Jews who are observant (like those gunned down in the Hyper Casher supermarket by Amedy Coulibaly) share with Muslims the sense that France’s commitment to public laïcité—which prohibits Muslim head-scarves and Jewish kippahs in many venues, and ensures that halal and kosher meals are unavailable in most school and office cafeterias—presents them with particular obstacles, and sometimes indignities, that other French citizens and residents do not have to face.

French Jews and Muslims have both resented being the objects of derogatory humor and of far-right-wing polemics. And just as some parts of the French Muslim community have been susceptible to the lures of anti-semitism, so there are French Jews who have embraced Islamophobia. But even the French chapter of the Jewish Defense League, which is not prone to shy away from a fight, has not seen fit to express French Jewish discontent through cold-blooded murder.

The events of January were due to the legitimation and encouragement within some quarters of the Muslim world of the murder of “blasphemers” and Jews. And although the vast majority of French Muslims, as also Muslims elsewhere, by no means condone this, the condemnations have not been nearly loud or prevalent enough to diminish the attraction, for some, of extreme militancy.

This is not to say that the alienation from French society felt by some French Muslims, which is to be explained in large measure by socio-economic factors, has played no role at all here. It is this, in part, that has inspired French jihadis to reaffirm their Muslim identity by joining militant groups and seeking training in arms and explosives among them.

At the same time, we must recognize that the French social contract has historically been exceptionally generous and pace Professors Lincoln and Yu, Muslims in France who are citizens or legal residents—and most by far are—enjoy the benefits of France’s systems of public education, healthcare, unemployment insurance, aid to families with dependent children, etc.

It is true that those who live in poorer neighborhoods must deal with poorer facilities, particularly in the area of housing, and with elevated crime and diminished security. The poorer neighborhoods, too, harbor larger proportions of illegal immigrants, who are not eligible to receive all of the benefits others enjoy, a factor that does contribute to the overall impoverishment of some quarters.

Moreover, the French historical commitment to mixité, ensuring that neighborhoods are occupied by persons of varied social class, has increasingly given way to American-style economic segregation. None of this has been helped by the poor performance of the French economy in recent years, its inability to generate sufficient jobs and to secure long-term prosperity.

So France faces genuine challenges if it is to maintain its social contract and ensure that its Muslim population universally comes to be included within it. Part of that challenge, unfortunately, now inevitably involves the costly, divisive and painful task of identifying, surveilling, and inhibiting ideologically motivated killers.

Postscript. In the days since the above was written, Copenhagen has seen a murderous incident apparently copying the Paris attacks, 300 Jewish graves have been desecrated by a teenage gang in eastern France, and Roland Dumas, a former French Foreign Minister, has crudely castigated the present Prime Minister, Manuel Valls, for being "influenced" by his wife, who happens to be Jewish, in respect to Jewish affairs.

As the malediction of anti-semitism continues to spread, willful ignorance or silence are no longer acceptable options.


Marion, Jean-Luc. “After the ‘Charlie Hebdo’ Massacre, Islam Must Open Itself to Critique.” Sightings, January 29, 2015.
Lincoln, Bruce and Anthony C. Yu. “A Reply to Jean-Luc Marion’s ‘After Charlie Hebdo, Islam Must Open Itself to Critique’.” Sightings, February 12, 2015.’s-“after-‘charlie-hebdo’-islam-must-critique-itself”-bruce-lincoln.
Smith, Craig. “Torture and Death of Jew Deepen Fears in France.” New York Times, March 5, 2006, International.

Sayare, Scott and Steven Erlanger. “4 Killed at Jewish School in Southwestern France.”New York Times, March 19, 2012, Europe.

The Associated Press. “Deadly shooting at Jewish Museum in Brussels.” CBS News, May 24, 2014.

Wakin, Daniel J. “Anti-Semitic ‘Elders of Zion’ Gets New Life on Egypt TV.” New York Times, October 26, 2002, World. “The Protocols of the Elders of Zion.” Accessed February 17, 2015.

Alcindor, Yamiche and Elena Berton. “Four killed at Paris grocery store were all Jewish.” USA Today, January 11, 2015, News.

The Associated Press. “French president: Anti-Semitism and Islamaphobia are threats to the nation.” Haaretz, February 17, 2015, Jewish World News.

“La mixité sociale, définition, échelle et conséquence.” dialogues, propositions, histoires pour une citoyenneté mondiale. September 2007. Accessed February 17, 2015.

Adida, Claire, David Laitin and Marie-Anne Valford. “Terror in France: implications for Muslim integration.” Washington Post, January 14, 2015, Guest Post.

Friedersdorf, Conor. “Europe’s Increasing Targeted Jews Take Stock: Old fears are stoked as anti-Semitic attacks increase.” Atlantic Monthly, Februrary 17, 2015.

“Le CSA instruit un dossier après les propos de Roland Dumas sur l’ ‘influence juive’ de Valls.” Le Monde, February 16, 2015. Politique.

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Author, Matthew Kapstein, (Ph.D. Brown University) is Numata Visiting Professor of Buddhist Studies at the University of Chicago Divinity School and Director of Tibetan Studies at the École Pratique des Hautes Études, Paris. He specializes in the history of Buddhist philosophy in India and Tibet, as well as in the cultural history of Tibetan Buddhism. His recent publications include his translation of the 11th century Sanskrit allegory, The Rise of Wisdom Moon(2009), an edited volume, with Kurtis Schaeffer and Gray Tuttle, Sources of Tibetan Traditions (2013), and Tibetan Buddhism: A Very Short Introduction(2014).