The barbarous terrorist attack against the French satirical weekly Charlie Hebdo marks a turning point, as many have noted, in the campaign Islamic extremists have launched against Western countries. It is significant because it came from people within France, not operatives or immigrants from abroad, as in many past attacks; and because it touched an extremely sensitive nerve with Western countries – freedom of expression – as now Western journalists may feel intimidated by the terrorists’ threats.
Surely, in the past Western journalists were killed, but not in their home countries, in the field in Muslim countries. And attacks in America, Britain, Spain, and elsewhere were aided and supported by local sympathizers, but sympathizing is a step below taking an active part in an attack. The fact that local French boys of Muslim faith planned and carried out this attack without any knowledge of the French intelligence system proves (as reportedhere and here) that large portions of French cities are out of control and virtually in the hands of people sympathetic to the extremists’ cause.
Spengler, in one of the above-mentioned articles, says this is a big problem in France, home to some six million Muslims, about 10% of the population. Even if only 1% of them – some 6,000 people – are sympathetic to the terrorists’ cause, it might provide enough water for some dangerous fish to swim in France, as Mao would have put it. This possibly should be projected on a continental scale. The Muslim population in Europe is over 20 million, and in Great Britain, Germany, Italy, and Spain some urban areas are no better than the Paris suburbs. With no border controls, with trains and highways running freely from the Russian border to the Atlantic shores of Portugal, there is enough water to let dozens of terrorists swim freely.
In this situation, one lesson to draw upon could be the fight against Red terrorism in Italy in the 1970s and 1980s. Then a group of communist extremists tried to push the Italian state into a fierce crackdown against the wave of terror that they had unleashed on Italy. The terrorists hoped their actions would create sympathizers among the large communist population in Italy, which gave about 30% of the total votes to the Italian Communist Party (PCI). The astute reaction of the then-ruling Christian Democrats (DC) was to engage the PCI closely and bring it near to the mainstream power system. The DC also floated the real threat of anti-communist, fascist terrorism, and the risk for Italy and the PCI of falling into a civil war between opposite extremisms.
The PCI, caught in a vise between the temptations of sharing power and the threat of being crushed in all-out crackdown, in turn aggressively helped to isolate the terrorists. This internal strategy was de facto coupled with an external effort by the Catholic Church, “headquartered” in Rome and engaged in supporting the values of freedom in its fight against atheism in Eastern Europe – especially in Poland, with a large Catholic population. This effort in Eastern Europe and the PCI’s decision helped cause the Soviet Empire’s resolve to flag in its efforts to support Italian communist terrorists, something that weakened them.
This large-scale political exertion created the conditions to drain the water where the terrorist fish were swimming, thus allowed intelligence officers to catch the dangerous fish with minimal or no harm to society and to the largely peaceful Italian communist population.
The same effort on a much larger scale must be mounted to turn the tide of extremist Muslim terrorists in Europe and in the world, while knowing that the present phenomenon is in many respects quite different from the old Italian experience.
On a broad scale then, certainly, a massive effort has to be taken by the West as a whole and the European states specifically to integrate and assimilate the growing Muslim minorities. But this is not simple. Resentment among Muslim minorities has many causes, one of which is economic. The European economic downturn is killing millions of jobs, leaving the unemployed to the embrace of militant Muslims – or their opposite, near reflection, the anti-Muslim, racist parties springing up all over Europe, from the British UKIP to the French Marine Le Pen to the Italian Lega Nord, to name a few.
The risk for Europe and for Muslims in Europe and Muslim countries is thus similar to that of Italy 30 years ago: to be swamped by the wave of militant Islam or its opposite, the racist Europe lurking always around the corner, fighting Islam today just as it was persecuting Jews or socialists yesterday.
This double bind may first squeeze and crush moderate Muslims in Europe and then those in Muslim countries, just as a similar vise was doing with the PCI. Realizing this danger, Egyptian President Al-Sisi  recently called on Muslim scholars to draw a clear line with war-mongering extremists. This effort is fundamentally important, yet it is still not enough. The discrepancy between tolerant and intolerant societies in the West and in Muslim countries creates two unbalanced environments where both Islamic extremists and Western neo-racists can thrive by pointing to the differences.
Why can Muslims in the West open a mosque next to the dome of Christianity in Rome or near the temples of Buddhism, while Christians, Buddhists, Hindus, and Jews can’t do the same in Mecca? This difference falsely proves to Islamic extremists the strength of their faith and the weakness of the infidels’ faith, and thus provides further ammunition in their fight against the infidels – but first it crushes the moderate Muslims who stand in their way and would like to export the model of European religious tolerance to their countries of origin.
The imbalance in religious environment furthermore helps the spread of Western racist crusaders. They may falsely see religious tolerance in Europe and religious intolerance in some Islamic countries as the reason for the spread of terrorism and thus push for anti-Islamic measures at home and a harder stance against Islamic countries. Then to maintain tolerance for Islam in the West and abroad and prevent a risky slide into religious war, far greater tolerance for the spread of other religions is needed in Islamic countries. That is, in a nutshell: Certainly the West needs to make a greater effort to integrate Muslims into mainstream society, but also only the return of Christians, Jews, Zoroastrians, and Buddhists to what are now Islamic countries can save Islam from being hijacked and destroyed by Islamic extremists.
This will also require a deep recalculation of political pacts in many Islamic countries. Here, many governments have struck an uneasy peace with militant Islamists, trading official neutrality and aloofness toward some of the extremists’ activities for keeping their countries safe from terrorist attacks. This pact, while in the short term it makes their own territory peaceful, in the long term de facto creates greater room for the spread of extremists for the situation explained above. It gives extremists a huge power to pressure many governments towards intolerance, something that breeds more extremism and pushes the radicalization of Islam and loss of clout of government in Muslim countries. This in turn greatly aids in the total hijack of Islam, as religious extremists play the long game and have little or no interest in the short game. So, Islamic countries de facto trade an uneasy peace now for the no-so-distant prospect of an all-out civil war or a massive political and religious hijack of whole countries in the future.
This is something that involves everybody, not only the West. Islam is a global religion, practically no country is without a Muslim presence, and the spread of Islamic extremism is a danger for everybody.
Here comes also a China angle, and not simply because Muslim extremists are threatening the Chinese region of Xinjiang. The initial Chinese reaction  of encouraging censorship in the West to avoid provoking Islamists in fact plays into the hands of the terrorists. It tells them: If we push hard enough, the enemies are going to buckle one way or another, by surrendering (giving us what we want: no jokes about Islam) or by launching a total war against Islam (thus proving to moderate Muslims that infidels just want a crusade against Islam). Accepting censorship of papers like Charlie Hebdo (however vulgar and insulting it may be), as the Muslim extremists have asked, means that terrorists have already won, and tomorrow they can intimidate Western governments as they have intimidated rulers in Islamic countries. This intimidation is in fact very hard to carry out in the West, as in the past century it fought two wars – against fascism and communism – for freedom of expression. Then the gates of clash of civilizations would be open with unpredictable consequences and to the satisfaction of extremists.
Francesco Sisci is a Senior Researcher associated with the Center for European Studies at the People’s University in Beijing. The opinions expressed are his own and do not represent in any way those of the Center.
(Copyright 2015 Francesco Sisci)