Battle lines: Islam and the Paris terror attacks

Crises are revealing. We know now, for instance, that there is at least one way in which François Hollande, the elected president of an advanced European democracy, agrees with masked murderers at the head of an international terror organisation. “This is an act of war”, claimed Mr Hollande, speaking about the atrocities ravaging the streets of his country’s capital city this weekend.

Exactly whom this war is between was subsequently explained. France, paragon of the free world (no exaggeration by French rhetorical standards), is taking a leading role. Its opponent is identified as the ‘Islamic State’, a diffuse yet infamous group of militants and terrorists. Mr Hollande assured these killers that they could expect to meet his nation “on every battleground here and abroad”. While his response will be lawful, it will be merciless.

Let me be clear. The leadership of the Wahhabist fundamentalists operating within Iraq and Syria do not believe in international law. They claim that Allah’s divine word is absolute; that infidels who do not practice their perverted version of the Muslim faith must be put to death; that foreign powers conspire against their god’s will and are therefore an enemy. But the harsh truths of foreign meddling in the Middle East are their greatest recruitment tool.

Most importantly, they believe, or at least purport to believe, that in their bloodthirsty mission they continue a holy war that never really finished. The battles won by Salah al-Din in the 12th century, and later by Ottoman caliphs as they swept towards Europe: this image of the Islamic world contra the crusading West forms the basis of their warped mythology. The fundamentalist version of Islam they preach attracts so many young minds because of, not despite, its purist intolerance of unbelievers or political enemies. The broad construal of the latter is crucial. An unwavering resistance to multiple oppressors is what these young men crave – an ‘answer’ to trouble, frustration, poverty.

In this respect Daesh is as medieval and atavistic in its declared purpose as it is modern in its methods and membership. Much has been written on why this combination has proven quite so deadly since the group first gained mass attention in 2014.

But so what kind of war is this? Is it between ideologies, as David Cameron would have it, or between soldiers? Where are the aforementioned battlegrounds? Perhaps Mr Hollande posits that the substance of IS – its infrastructure, resources, manpower – is his antagonist-in-chief. In doing so, he would therefore either recognise the latter’s status as a state, or do away with conventional notions of war. Can a nation declare war on an organisation or set of individuals?

By speaking in these terms, Mr Hollande obviously wishes to announce a state of battle, of military posture, and to justify extraordinary measures. But IS is more than a military or an army. The killers on Friday night struck from homes and apartments in an urban community. This is a recent development in IS’ identity – the evolution into a truly global terror network.

Another, more harrowing option takes shape: the concept of a monolithic ‘other’ against which Western powers (and now perhaps Russia) are arrayed. This ‘other’ is increasingly posited as Islamic, and fundamentally backwards in nature. ‘Ideology’ rhetoric feeds this trend.

One of the most astute observations on Islamist politics (including but not limited to groups engaged in terrorism) I have read comes from Fred Halliday, a prominent academic who specialised in the Middle East. He notes that “the opponents and proponents of the Islamic movements [in the 20th century] were in agreement that ‘Islam’ (the idea of the religion and its intersection with politics, as distinguished from Islam, the religion) was a total, unchanging, system.”

The broken, corrupt men at the head of IS want you to view ‘their’ religion as the one, total whole they advocate. Then the war can begin, and believe them when they claim that it will be on their terms.


In the West, the public response to these horrifying events is multi-faceted. It is by turns self-congratulatory and self-pitying, defiant and introspective. It is difficult to take on board all at once.

The immediate response – the only possible – is horror. The sensation I felt as I rolled out of bed and browsed the news on Saturday morning is what gives the terrorist his name. What follows is grief and condolence. Then, in time, come bold statements of resistance and courage in the face of the fear and pain.

The response now reaches its most dangerous phase. As literally millions marched on the streets in the aftermath of shootings at the offices of Charlie Hebdo in January this year, some, like me, felt uncomfortable. Because the content of the cartoons under scrutiny is, in its essence, noxious, by the very standards of pluralistic tolerance supposedly so cherished in the West.

A backlash occurs. I refer to slogans of solidarity swiftly converted into banners of criticism – ‘Je suis Charlie’ so quickly spawned ‘Je ne suis pas Charlie’, and the quarrel evolved into one seemingly over the soul of Western liberalism. This November, the fight is one over ‘prayer’: for Paris, or for the world? The inescapable superficiality of the social media setting threatens to consume these essential discussions.

I believe solidarity is the necessary response: in times of suffering, communal hope is the only antidote. But this hope must be mature, and it must be well informed.

Seeing comments like those of the most high pontiff in January – expressing the idea that “you cannot provoke, you cannot make fun of the faith of others” – the reality of at least part of the question becomes abundantly clear. Militant dogmatism remains the unforgivable sham and evil that it is. By this reality, the use of force or threat to attack and intimidate others in a peaceful community is, and always will be, rightly deplorable.

But this is precisely why I find the baying of some Western crowds in the wake of these tragedies so disturbing. The Paris attacks have played out against the backdrop of Europe’s singular and feeble failure to help hundreds of thousands of refugees. Refugees from the same region Westerners presume to fix with their bombs and bullets. The persecution of these refugees – dividing them into categories of worthy and unworthy, dangerous and tame – continues apace. Such discourse becomes the accepted norm, the contemporary groupthink.

And what then, when dogmatists and bigots stand shoulder to shoulder in the secular crowd with the truly liberal and tolerant? Will we notice? Will we care? Christopher Hitchens, that tireless dissident against religion, tyranny and coercion, wrote that:

In every epoch, there have been those to argue that “greater” goods, such as tribal solidarity or social cohesion, take precedence over justice. It is supposed to be an axiom of “western” civilisation that the individual, or the truth, may not be sacrificed to hypothetical benefits such as “order”. But such immolations have in fact been common.

What would Hitchens say about the recent drive to promote ‘British values’? When does the assault on religious terror, an assault he lauded so openly, become a witch-hunt, the very same order-worship he abhorred?

The general distrust of communities in our midst is fuelled by the idea that they are in some way like the terrorists. These communities have generally suffered more than Western audiences can conceive, at the same destructive hands of extremism. If we persecute our peaceful Muslim neighbours, if we drive and shut them out, it is IS, not Europe, who will be winning the war.

Finally, there is the issue of media coverage and sympathy. Our reserves of both seem inexhaustible for the Parisians; for those in Beirut, the confessional city long wracked by faith-driven violence, the attention devoted lasted a day or so. I cannot see a way this last issue is not burningly pertinent. In our hope for tolerance; for one world united in peace, if not opinion; for a host of nations each of them equal; how can we continue to weigh lives by their proximity to London, Washington, or the rest?

I do not presume to have some special insight or answer to our moral dilemma over Islamism, international relations, and the Middle East. Rather, my aim is to elaborate just quite how confused and overwhelming that dilemma really is.


France has a shockingly gritty history as far as race and colonialism (and the Arab world in particular) are concerned. Andrew Hussey’s book The French Intifada is required reading for anyone seeking to understand the roots of terrorism in France, in the past and at present. Algeria, Morocco, Tunisia, Syria; the 20th century histories of each of these nations must dwell at length on French rule and oppression. If you consider it insulting to mention this period so soon after the terror in Paris, learn to deal with uncomfortable facts.

The generations of Islamic immigrants to France from the Middle East and North Africa have not been well integrated. They primarily live in the banlieues (‘suburbs’, but much more pejorative than the English word – these areas are commonly extremely poor and hotspots for crime and violence). There is an important way, as Hussey records so well in his book, in which these people do not feel at home in France. They do not feel ‘French’ in the European, nationalistic sense. Many, primarily unemployed young men, are more than ready for a ‘war’ against those they perceive as both their modern and historical oppressors. Mr Hollande underestimates the size of the ‘army’ prepared for mobilisation against him. Hence why an IS video beseeching these men to begin their ‘work within France’ is quite so chilling.

Islamist movements are, counterintuitively, primarily modern in their roots. They react to changing realities and attract members through a package formulated as resistance to this change. The Muslim Brotherhood swelled because neoliberal and authoritarian policies led to spiralling unemployment in Egypt, particularly among the youth. Its call that ‘Islam is the solution’, as an unelaborated panacea to economic woes, fed its growth.

Daesh thrives because angry Muslim men and women have been insulted and sidelined in Europe, as they watch the nations of their faith burn (frequently under siege by NATO jets). France suffers most keenly because it has failed most dramatically to understand these people. Its active role in the aerial campaign in Iraq, and now Syria, compounds this.

So we must strike a niche between understanding this historical process and condemning the twisted ideology and actions it produces. The author Nick Cohen writes with great insight on this matter. A significant failure of the anti-imperialist Left in the West, he claims, is to show empathy to these deranged totalitarians. In their supposedly bold anti-Americanism, leftist intellectuals associate themselves with those who deny basic rights to women, homosexuals and minorities. This is not pluralism, and we must not be found defending it for even a second.

But it is no less true that when people are slaughtered in Paris, some of the uglier tendencies in the West – xenophobia, notions of cultural superiority, racism – can be seen through the panic. The reason a discussion over Charlie Hebdo’s frankly racist cartoons is appropriate is because without that debate, without our recognition of chauvinism wherever it occurs, terrorism achieves its aim. It divides and conquers. Only the intellectually courageous and honest can bridge the gap before it becomes too wide.

Albert Camus faced the same mountainous task during the debate over then-French Algeria in the 1950s. While troubled by his conflicting sympathies –his pied-noir heritage largely to blame – the Algerian-born philosopher saw how violence practiced by the revolutionary Front de Libération Nationale (FLN) was tearing the embryonic nation apart. This he could not sanction. He was thus deemed a traitor to each cause – too colonial for Algerians, but inherently sceptical of the right-wing French position. “Each side thus justifies its own actions by pointing to the crimes of its adversaries”, he wrote in 1958. And so each are contemptible.

There is a colossal difference between repellent claims that European victims of terrorism ‘had it coming’, as heirs of empire guilty by association, and simply noting that integration and tolerance have been sorely lacking in some major respects. Remember that terror is the enemy to be annihilated. The longer the lack continues, the more terror will breed.

We must condemn violence, but open our arms to the violent-in-waiting before it is too late. And we must not do this like parents reaching down to the immature child, but like compassionate friends who account for, and even admire, each other’s diverse needs.

That is how we must fight this war.


Edit: If it was not already apparent, the idea I speak of here – of integration, of adopting a welcoming posture – goes, in my opinion, beyond merely what governments and authorities should do. Arguments over immigrant entitlements to welfare are part of a general debate over both national budgets and international justice. More essentially, my view is about how we, as a society and as individuals, respond to the notion of ‘outsiders’.

The greatest test of the (predominantly) Western model of multiculturalism and tolerance lies ahead. A simple expectation of Muslims to abandon their heritage is useless. But this doesn’t entail the pockets of strict Shari’a up and down European countries. The first step is recognising, as an intellectual position, that there is a middle path between such pointlessly polarising viewpoints. That is a task every one of us can take up in our personal lives, and in our communities.

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