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Today many are asking why Parisians have been attacked in their own city, and by their own people. But for many years the question for those following the issues of foreign policy and religion was why France had suffered so little terrorism in comparison to other European states. After the bombs on the Paris Metro and a TGV line in 1995, there were no significant Islamist attacks until the fire-bombing of the Charlie Hebdo office in November 2011, and the killings of three French soldiers (all of North African origin) and three Jewish children (and one teacher) by Mohamed Merah in Toulouse four months later. These attacks turn out to have been a warning of things to come. But why was France free of such attacks for over fifteen years, when Madrid and London suffered endless plots and some major atrocities? Given the restrictions placed by successive governments on the foulard (headscarf) and the burka, together with the large French Muslim population (around 10% of the 64 million total), the country would seem to have been fertile ground for fundamentalist anger and terrorist outrages. One view is that the French authorities were tougher and more effective than, say, the British who allowed Algerian extremists fleeing France after 1995 to find shelter in the Finsbury Park Mosque — to the fury of French officials. Another line is that the French secular model of integration, with no recognition of minorities or enthusiasm for multiculturalism, did actually work. Thus when riots took place in 2005 the alienated youth of the banlieues demanded jobs, fairness, and decent housing — not respect for Islam or Palestinian rights. A third possible explanation of the long lull before this week’s storm is that French foreign policy had not provoked the kind of anger felt in Spain and Britain by their countries’ roles in the Iraq war, which France, Germany, and some other European states had clearly opposed. Although France had an important role in the allied operations in Afghanistan, its profile was not especially high. Given the slow-changing nature of international reputations the image of France as a friend of Arab states and of the Palestinians endured, while Britain drew hostile attention as the leading ally of the United States in the ‘war against terror’. France, again unlike Britain and the United States, has tended to be pragmatic in negotiations with those who have taken its citizens hostage abroad, facilitating the payment of ransoms and getting them home safely. Its policy was that payments, and the risk of encouraging further captures, were preferable to providing the Islamists with global publicity.

There are two stories in the media this week that touch on the nature of a free society. The first is headline news in the major newspapers and television networks, while the second is largely relegated to the Buzzfeed-esque websites. I’m referring to the terrorist attack on Charlie Hebdo in Paris, where 12 people were killed by alleged Islamic terrorists, and that Mia Khalifa has become the most popular porn star on the internet’s more saucier websites. If people make a connection between the two stories it will probably be Islam. Charlie Hebdo is well known for courting controversy by offending the religious, especially Muslims. The attack is presumably motivated by their publication of cartoons featuring Mohammed and general mockery. Ms Khalifa, as someone who works in pornography, no doubt offends a wide array of people from anti-pornography feminists to the intuitively prudish. However, she has attracted a great deal of abuse online, including death threats, because she is a Lebanese-American and many people in the Levant take exception to her career on religious grounds.

Recently I had a chance to visit the Christian community of Tur Abdin in Eastern Turkey, a long standing community. The monasteries where I stayed dated to the 5th century AD. The people are generous and welcoming, but there is certainly a feeling of isolation and anger in the community as well. You can see Syria stretching out in the distance from the Mor Hananyo Monastery. The people have family and friends in Syria and Iraq. These are the Christians who have been subjected to the brutality of the Islamic State (IS) along with the Yazidi, Shabak and Shia people of the region. Yet, this is nothing new to the people of Tur Abdin. The monasteries, with their austere beauty and clockwork way of life, give the impression of tranquility. The reality is that this region of the world has been subjected to repeated instances of inter-ethnic and inter-religious conflict. All but one of the people I spoke about the region and its history had lost family in the pogroms of the late 19th century, the terrible bloodletting that accompanied the collapse of the Ottoman Empire, down to the recent conflict between Ankara and the Kurds. Violence is woven into the historical fabric of life in Tur Abdin. The people are horrified and scared of what is happened a few kilometers from their homes, but they do not expect anyone to help. They’ve seen this before. The international community condemns, prevaricates and retreats. Admittedly, things are starting to happen. Airstrikes against IS have escalated and now include strikes in Syrian territory. Greater assistance is being given to the Kurdish Peshmerga, moderate Syrian forces and the Iraqis. However, this is insufficient. The world needs to decisively intervene in this conflict because the Islamic State is attempting to commit genocide against the minorities in their territory and we all have an obligation to stop them.

Pakistan has always been a divided nation—divided between the forces of progression and regression, between secularists and the rest, between those who believe in social equality and those who don’t. Three days before Pakistan gained independence in 1947, Jinnah, the founding father, made clear that religion would have “nothing to do with the business of the state.” Yet, within a year after his death, the Mullahs prevailed. TheObjectives Resolution, passed by the Constituent Assembly in 1949, laid the basis of an Islamic Republic where religiosity has progressed with every passing decade, culminating in its current violent form. Resistance to religiosity in the country has also been constant. Zulfikar Ali Bhutto, the first elected prime minister, attempted liberal socialism in the 70s, but had to succumb to the religious right and was finally hanged by an Islamist general. His daughter, Benazir, struggled for progressive politics since the 80s, until her fateful assassination in 2007. The alternatives are well known. In their attempt to impose Sharia in the past decade, Taliban extremists have silenced thousands of lives. Yet saner voices continue to emerge to champion national struggle against religious bigotry. Malala Yousafzai, the survivor of Taliban assassination bid last year, is the latest exponent of this just cause. With the late Benazir as her role model, the 16-year-old girl from a rural town says she wants to become the prime minister of Pakistan.

Pakistan was born a paradox. Its partition from India was considered necessary to ensure a homeland for the Muslims of the Indian subcontinent. However, its founder, Muhammad Ali Jinnah, always believed that Pakistan should be a secular state, tolerant of minorities; a homeland for Muslims but not an Islamic state. Unfortunately, he died shortly after partition and the dream of a secular and peaceful Pakistan was stillborn. 66 years after the establishment of the nation, the religious factor underpinning Pakistan’s creation and statehood has now become the principal source of its greatest national tragedy.

When Pope Benedict XVI resigned in February 2013, there was much scrabbling by journalists to establish when last a pope resigned voluntarily. After a bit, they came up with the correct answer. It was in 1294, when the elderly hermit Pietro of Murrone, who had been elected as Celestine V after a two-year deadlock, abruptly resigned after five months and went back to being a hermit, a life he evidently preferred. But Celestine V was remarkable for two things, of which his resignation was but one. The other was his enforcement of the conclave. That distant event has decisively shaped the procedure for electing popes. To see why, we need to understand a lesson from social choice that papal electors learnt the hard way: the trade-off between stability and decisiveness.

On 11 December, the government announced its response to the consultation on same-sex marriage that took place from 15 March through 14 June 2012. The initial consultation concerned how (not whether) to proceed with same-sex civil marriage. In its response to the initial consultation, the Church of England failed to respond to the question that the government had asked. It took the position that all marriage (civil or religious) was the same and that same-sex marriage should not be offered by the state.

Last weekend, I discussed on Radio France International the meeting in Khartoum (Sudan) of thousands of politico-religious militants with strong links to the government: the general conference of the Islamist movement known as Al-Harakat Al-Islamiyyah is the most important political rally in the country of the last 10-15 years. Reformers among them believe Sudan’s military-Islamist regime has drifted from its revolutionary roots. Some are even calling on President Omar al-Bashir to leave office.