On my last visit to Paris, I endured the inevitable bawling infant on the flight, a two-hour wait at immigration, and an awkward journey in the Metro carting a month’s worth of baggage, before taking an escalator up to the renovated Place de la République and a goose-bump inducing view. The square was suffused in warm autumnal sunshine, at its centre a massive bronze statue of Marianne, symbol of the French Republic, holding up an olive branch in her right hand and resting the other on a tablet engraved with the rights of humanity.

The buildings ringing the square, many of which had cafés and restaurants at ground level, were homogenous without being boringly uniform. Wide avenues radiated from the concourse, offering tempting perspectives into that most beautiful of cities. Within the pedestrianised plaza, young skateboarders of varied ethnicities tested acrobatic manoeuvres. At that moment, the Place de la République seemed to me to represent, both symbolically and physically, what was best in the modern nation state and the contemporary metropolis: liberty, conviviality, broad-mindedness, refinement, as well as an attention to urban planning, to the provision of services, and to the insurance of security without which any individual pursuit of pleasure would be severely circumscribed.

I was aware that shifting a little in space, or moving back in time, would offer a bleaker picture tinged with prejudice, authoritarianism and expropriation, but that awareness, rather than undermining my sense of being in the presence of something precious, emphasised the precariousness of what I was witnessing and made it all the more valuable in consequence.

If I share some of the grief of the mourners who have gathered daily in the Place de la République following the terrorist outrage of last week, it isn’t only because of the innocent lives lost but also because of what else is threatened. I comprehend why the response to that attack was more prominent than the reaction to similar assaults conducted by ISIS in the past week in Egypt, Ankara, and Lebanon, (the last of which was actually better covered by the mainstream press than social media critics would have us believe). Our reaction to tragedy is never merely a matter of numbers. Nobody died in the immediate aftermath of the Fukushima meltdown, but that does not mean the media’s extensive coverage of it was unjustified, for a similar disaster elsewhere could easily cost tens of thousands of lives. The Delhi gang-rape victim was but one among thousands, but to denigrate the anger her rape provoked is churlish. Only a single man was killed in Dadri, and yet the incident drew far more attention than dozens of murders committed on the same night.

Where's the data?

Commentators on the right have been quick to demonstrate the absence of any statistical basis for the belief expressed by many Indian intellectuals, notably those who have returned state-sponsored awards in protest, that intolerance is on the rise in the country. Statistics on lynchings and pogroms, though, are lagging indicators; the leading indicator we have before us is hate speech produced by top leaders in the ruling party, a discourse that could easily spiral out of control. In that context, Dadri must be seen as something more than an isolated attack.

There is a second false narrative related to Paris: it balances this atrocity against western military action in Iraq, Afghanistan, Syria and Palestine. For one thing, France was among the dissenters against the misguided intervention in Iraq. The nation did participate in the invasion and occupation of Afghanistan, but that was following an explicit United Nations resolution. The current bombing campaign in Iraq and Syria has broad support among countries in the region, and only began in earnest when ISIS’s actions turned genocidal. Though a solution to the civil war is far off, and might even be impossible, at least the massacre of Yazidis, and many that may have followed, was averted.

Bringing up the American invasion of Iraq in the context of the Bataclan carnage is the equivalent of Modi’s toadies countering any analysis of the 2002 riots with the question, “What about 1984?” As for Palestine, it is to leftist Muslims what the plight of Kashmiri Pandits is to right-wing Hindus, a convenient token that can be used to muddle any argument. If there’s a difference between the two, it is that right-wing Muslims are as likely as left-wingers to insert Palestine into any given political argument.

False narratives

Which leads to the question: why should Palestine be considered so important? The stats certainly don’t justify the kind of attention it receives. To those who would accuse me of hypocrisy for following news from Paris more than word from Beirut, I ask, “Why are you more concerned about a few hundred deaths in Palestine than millions of deaths in the Democratic Republic of Congo? (and don’t pretend you aren’t)."

This isn’t just a rhetorical question. It leads directly to the third false narrative about Paris, and about Islamist terrorism more generally, which is that it has nothing to do with Islam. Muslims, even liberal ones, even atheists, tend to be disproportionately concerned about Palestine because the idea of the Muslim ummah is extraordinarily strong, with no parallel in other faiths. Europe tried to copy it a thousand years ago by launching crusades, and it didn’t go well. That notion of a trans-national ummah is at the root of much Islamist terrorism. The Tsarnaevs were from Chechnya, the London bombers from Pakistan and Jamaica, the main accused in the Paris bombings is a Belgian of Moroccan origin. Neither Jamaica, nor Pakistan nor Morocco has been invaded or occupied by any Western nation during the lifetimes of these criminals. They murdered civilians in acts of trans-national brotherhood, as retribution for western military action in nations not their own, in most cases places they had never visited.

As globalisation has made national borders less important, atavistic ideas of ummah and Caliphate have found themselves newly relevant. I am not suggesting the particular interpretation ISIS has given them and Islam’s holy books is a legitimate one. But to dismiss the organisation out of hand as something unrelated to Islam is merely a defence mechanism far too many liberal Muslims use to avoid interrogating the putative perfection of their faith.

Killing innocents

The most common quote from the Quran in response to the latest attacks, as to previous ones, is chapter 5, verse 32 of the book, which states, “Whoever kills an innocent  person, it is as if he has killed all mankind. And whoever saves an innocent life, it is as if he has saved all mankind.” Glance at the notinmyname hashtag on Twitter and you will come across dozens of uses of this quote. Only problem is, that is not what chapter 5, verse 32 of the Quran says, nor does the book offer pacifists much solace in its other pages. You can confirm it for yourself on this site, which offers six different translations of each verse.

Chapter 5, the Sura Al-Ma’ida, begins by talking about food taboos, then shifts to Jesus, and Moses, before going all the way back to the murder of Abel by Cain. Referring to the distant past, the chapter continues (verse 32), “For this reason did We prescribe to the children of Israel that whoever slays a soul, unless it be for manslaughter or for mischief in the land, it is as though he slew all men; and whoever keeps it alive, it is as though he kept alive all men.” Not quite the generalised prescription against killing one has been fed.

The chapter then switches to the present, and this is what we get in verse 5:33: “The recompense of those who wage war against Allah and His Messenger and do mischief in the land is only that they shall be killed or crucified or their hands and their feet be cut off on the opposite sides, or be exiled from the land. That is their disgrace in this world, and a great torment is theirs in the Hereafter.” None of the six translations varies greatly in rendering either verse. Interpret "those who wage war against Allah" widely enough, and you have the ISIS philosophy.

A variety of figures on the left, from Barack Obama to Slavoj Žižek, have emphasised in the wake of the Paris attacks that Muslims need to ask deeper questions about why extremism has such a strong hold in certain Muslim communities. Too many on the left, though, are stuck with equating Europe with colonialism and neo-imperialism, identifying Muslims as victims, and dismissing as Islamophobia any critique of Muslim beliefs and customs. It is a short-sighted and simplistic posture from a group whose core beliefs are close to those represented by the statue in the centre of the Place de la République.