At RFE/RL's most recent weekly editorial meeting, as we discussed coverage of the Paris terrorist attacks, a colleague said: "We all feel guilty! I know many of us who are ashamed or afraid to leave their homes. We need to do a story about this as well." Needless to say my colleague is a Muslim.
I understand her.
Twenty years earlier, in 1995, after the massacre in Srebrenica committed by Bosnian Serb forces, another colleague told me: "I am powerless. I have done nothing wrong but I feel guilty. I am not able to look my Muslim friends in the eye." Needless to say my colleague was an Orthodox Serb.
That same year, Croatia forced the country's Serb minority to leave and I had the same problem because I could not justify this action. Needless to say I am a Catholic Croat.
Is there collective guilt?
Collective responsibility in the form of collective punishment is often used as a disciplinary measure in closed institutions such as prisons. It has been practiced in totalitarian societies and in wartime. The Nazis applied collective responsibility in World War II by massacring civilians as revenge for killed soldiers. Ethnic Germans in Central and Eastern Europe were held collectively responsible for Nazi crimes, resulting in the expulsion of Germans after World War II from several countries.
In 2013, Russian President Vladimir Putin signed a decree making the families and friends of convicted terrorists financially liable for the damage caused by those terrorists' actions. The regional Chechen parliament this year went even further, submitting a draft bill to the Russian State Duma that calls for heavy jail sentences for the families of terrorists.
The law in modern democratic societies punishes the perpetrators of crimes but resolutely rejects the principle of collective guilt.
But is there, or should there be, collective responsibility?
It is true that millions in Paris and across France marched on January 11 to express their aversion to terrorism, as did thousands more in other countries, including many Muslims.
But this is not good enough.
Lassana Bathily, a Muslim, originally from Mali, an employee of a Paris kosher supermarket did much more. He led at least 15 customers into a basement freezer after an Islamist gunman entered the store on January 9 and saved their lives.
Leaders' statements cannot defeat Islamic or Orthodox radicalism, but acts like Bathily's can.
This is a process that starts in schools, families, mosques and churches. Many of RFE/RL's reporters noted that Friday sermons at mosques across Eurasia on January 9 failed to mention the Paris attacks directly.
No antiterrorism protests of the magnitude seen in Paris have occurred in Pakistan or Nigeria. Russia's Council of Muftis "angrily condemned" the Paris attack but appeared to place some of the blame on the staff of Charlie Hebdo. "Perhaps the sin of provocation in our world is no less dangerous for peace than the sin of those who gave in to this provocation," the religious body said. "Insulting the feelings of believers is unacceptable and as unacceptable as any manifestation of extremism," it added.
Truth Is The First Victim
Is the "sin" of insulting someone's feelings truly equal to a terrorist attack?
So again, what about collective responsibility? Do the parents of terrorists, their friends, their teachers, feel responsible?
Judging from the numbers of terrorist attacks over the past 10 years -- we have all failed in this respect. Some 3,600 people were killed in terrorist attacks in the year 2000. Last year -- almost 18,000 victims were registered. Are we in the media responsible for quoting irresponsible politicians who spout hate speech? Or on the contrary, do we too often ignore it? Do we really think it is enough to post "Je Suis Charlie" on our websites or TV screens? Silence about hate is a crime, making it even worse.
The populist and antiimmigrant parties surging in the polls across much of Europe did not even wait to find out the identity of the attackers before deciding exactly whom to blame for the massacre of 17 people in Paris.
Geert Wilders, the Dutch politician facing trial for inciting racial hatred, claimed that Europe was now "at war" and called for the "de-Islamization" of Western societies. In Britain, UKIP leader Nigel Farage raised questions about what he called a "gross policy of multiculturalism" in Europe. Even before the attack, populist Czech politician Tomio Okamura, whose Dawn of Direct Democracy holds 14 mandates in the 200-seat Czech parliament, called on Czechs to walk dogs and pigs -- both of which are regarded as unclean in Islam -- past mosques.
There is a saying that truth is the first victim of war. Politicians, religious leaders, and journalists -- if they promote hate speech or if they tolerate it by not acting against it -- will be its eventual victims. Are locals in an Afghan village responsible for justifying killings because they do not like satirical cartoons? Who is going to tell them this if not their local imam?
The populists and the terrorists are doing the same job -- they want to hijack our right to be individuals and corner us into groups reducing our identity to being Muslim, Orthodox, Catholic, Jewish, and so on.
The biggest mistake that a regime, media or any individual can do is to treat terrorism as a collective crime. The approach of "they did this to us" can lead to war. And this is exactly why my Muslim friends are worried right now.
The terrorists seek to spread fear and hatred. If fear prevails, terrorism will prevail. As much as Serbs need to insist on justice for those responsible for the Srebrenica massacre, so too do Muslims need to call for justice for terrorists from Paris to Peshawar.
My colleagues from Central Asia, Serbia and I can sleep easy. We have done nothing wrong. We should not feel guilty. And yes, there is no a collective guilt but "Je Suis Charlie" is not good enough.
-- Nenad Pejic is RFE/RL's editor in chief and co-CEO. The views expressed in this commentary are the author's own and do not necessarily reflect those of RFE/RL.