“Our country is at war,” said French President Francois Hollande on Tuesday, after a priest was murdered near Rouen in front of his congregation by two attackers who claimed to be serving Islamic State.
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, although 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.
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 terrorist 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 Islamic State 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. 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 underprivileged 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.
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 IS is an overwhelmingly Arab organisation. The far-right parties in Germany are also much weaker than the National Front in France.
But IS has just claimed credit for two terrorist attacks in Germany in a single week. Why does Islamic State 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 IS hope to gain popular support and perhaps ultimately political power, in the Arab countries, so it needs the West to behave badly.
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 Islamic State more than Trump as president.