Tribute in the Place de la République,January 7.David Chour/Demotix. All rights reserved.In the wake of the murders of ten journalists and two police officers at the offices of the French satirical newspaper Charlie Hebdo and the hostage deaths which occurred in the ensuing standoff between the perpetrators and the police there have been numerous calls not to interpret these events as acts of war.
These calls have come from newspaper editorial boards and distinguished Islamic scholars like Tariq Ramadan. On this point, I must respectfully disagree. Some on both sides may try to crassly portray this war as one between ‘Islam and the West’. It is not. But there is a war nonetheless that involves many Islamic countries and various non-state actors that identify – incorrectly or even mendaciously Ramadan argues – with Islam.
This war is being waged in a non-continuous zone of conflict that stretches from Libya to Pakistan. It encompasses multiple related, but nonetheless distinct, spheres of conflict with particular militarily active “hot spots” like Algeria, Libya, Mali, Gaza, Somalia, Yemen, Syria, Iraq, Afghanistan and Pakistan. The lines in this war are not clearly drawn and the distinction between ally and enemy is often blurred. American and European assistance (alongside the support of the Gulf Kingdoms) of armed groups fighting against the Assad regime in Syria, for example, has benefited other transnational non-state actors with diverse and distinct strategies and aims like the various Al Qaeda branded networks and IS (Islamic State), declared enemies of both the western alliance and the Assad regime.
Important to note that there is no homogeneity between these groups with Al Qaeda perhaps functioning more like a non-localized network of fighters, funders and other facilitators and IS now looking increasingly like a territorialized political entity. Iran also supports the Assad regime and funds armed groups like Hezbollah in Lebanon – designated as a terrorist organization in the EU and US – but has coordinated with the US in the conflicts in Afghanistan and possibly Iraq.
The (now dead) perpetrators in the Paris killings reportedly received training from and claimed affiliation with “Al Qaeda in Yemen”. The New York Times reports that, “Chérif [Kouachi]’s interest in radical Islam […] was rooted in his fury over the United States’ invasion of Iraq in 2003, particularly the mistreatment of Muslims held at Abu Ghraib prison.” He was later jailed for his role in facilitating the travel of fighters to Iraq following the US invasion.
Despite arguments to the contrary, this brutal murder cannot be separated from a larger global context of ongoing and past wars, in which France is an active participant. To try to isolate these killings from the broader context of war in the Islamic world, attributing them solely to hatred of “western values” and lifestyle or extremist Islamic ideology, as though that ideology could be treated independently of its geopolitical context, is unfortunately counter-productive. It not only flies in the face of manifest evidence, but by obscuring the full web of causes and influences leading up to such acts it obstructs efforts to find ways to avoid their repetition.
In an asymmetrical, and yes ideological, war that does not respect borders and includes actors like Al Qaeda and IS for whom a kind of brand recognition ranks alongside territory and resources controlled on a scale of importance, the use of terrorism (the deliberate targeting of innocent civilians, for military and/or political purposes) as a strategic tool should be expected. That western populations are shocked every time such an event occurs is indicative of a kind of naïveté.
That western populations should think themselves somehow immune from the kind of brutal logic that governs the asymmetrical wars their nations are actively involved in looks from a distance like hubris. Terrorism is an effective tool. It sows fear and uncertainty; very often it corrupts democratic institutions and helps undermine the rule of law as security apparatuses resort to increasingly undemocratic means and often extra-judicial in the name of protecting the population. In short, in the current geo-political situation, terrorism is not only explicable, but should be expected – neither of which amounts to a justification.
My point is that I think it more realistic and productive to see terrorist attacks like these murders as, at least in part, aspects of an ongoing armed conflict and not simply an attack on European or western freedom of expression. As Michael Deacon has suggested in the Telegraph, these kinds of attacks are more likely an attempt by non-state actors like Al Qaeda or IS to further alienate western Muslims, erode western institutions and gain leverage in the globalized conflict they are engaged in. Charlie Hebdo was an important symbolic target, but it would be a mistake to reduce these killings to being about offense caused by cartoons.
This does not mean that we should disregard well-meaning and responsible arguments in favour of treating such acts of terrorism as crimes rather than acts of war. European governments and civil society can respond to terrorism by affirming and building democratic institutions and thereby refusing the logic of war. Initially, this seemed to be the French civic reaction with demonstrators calling for solidarity, democracy and the protection of freedom of expression. Unfortunately, there is also now a reported rise in Islamophobic attacks in France.
There have been many uncomfortable questions asked about the role of political Islam in fomenting the ideology and attitudes that led to French citizens committing these murders. But it is essential to remember that Islamic leaders in Europe have condemned these acts unequivocally. As important are poll numbers which show next to no support for terrorism among Europe’s Islamic communities. ‘When a large-scale survey asked if “attacks on civilians are morally justified,” 1% of the French public, 1% of the German public and 3% of the British public answered yes; among Muslims, the responses were 2%, 0.5%, and 2%. Asked if it is “justifiable to use violence for a noble cause,” 7% of the French public agreed, along with 8% of French Muslims; 10% of the German public and fewer than 2% of German Muslims; 10% of the British public and 8% of British Muslims.’
European Muslims are not a monolithic fifth column to be mitigated or converted to liberal democracy, and they should not be treated as such. Religion does not need to be treated with kid gloves or respected for its own sake, but too often the legitimate nominal refusal to respect Islam for its own sake is blurred with a refusal to respect Muslim persons and discriminatory behavior that would otherwise be deemed unacceptable were it directed toward another group.
Charlie Hebdo, in its provocations, often seemed to operate in this zone between critique and satire on the one hand and bullying and humiliation on the other. Such forms of expression should be allowed, but they need not be lionized; protected speech is not necessarily desirable speech. Satire is an important political tool, but it is a tool of the vulnerable against power. When this relation is reversed satire becomes humiliation that alienates and isolates.
Likewise, critique of minority or majority religions, belief systems or ideologies is an essential dimension of democratic culture. But this must not be reduced to forms of baiting; nor must the persons of a certain religion, Islam in this case, be reduced to and regarded simply as signifiers for that religion. Freedom of political expression and democratic critique functions in an environment where respect for others qua persons is maintained both at the interpersonal and institutional level, i.e. where certain freedoms and rights are guaranteed across the board.
Once we shift perspective from seeing these murders as purely an ideological attack on freedom of expression to being part of a larger conflict and indeed war it becomes easier to understand that one of the central aims of acts like the murders at Charlie Hebdo is to create strife within national communities and to shut down possibilities for real democratic debate and expression which might be able to address at least some aspects of exclusion and radicalization within Europe.
The isolation and demonization of Muslims in Europe gives leverage to groups like Al Qaeda and IS who use the internet to communicate with European Muslims; radicalization happens largely online not in European mosques. Strengthening democratic institutions and the principles which underpin them – equality under the law, due process, the right to free expression and manifestation, freedom from racial and religious persecution and discrimination, including in housing and employment – is a show of strength in the face of terror.
It is not the strength of “us” against “them”, but an inward looking affirmation of our commitment to a just and democratic Europe. This kind of response would not be a kind of relativistic, multi-kulti, wrongheaded apology or capitulation as many right wing commentators claim. Rather it is the demand that Europe try to live up to the universalist principals of the French Revolution – Liberté, Egalité, and Fraternité – which are now reiterated across the continent as a show of unity with the victims in France.
What is in many ways remarkable about these horrific killings is that both the perpetrators and the victims were not only all French, but probably grew up and lived within close distance from one another. And yet these killings involved causes and influences that were truly global. They point to two worlds occupying the same political and geographical space. At once global and local, these attacks remind us that the fault lines of war running through Syria, Iraq and Yemen intersect with those running between l'Elysée and Clichy-sous-Bois.
Recognizing the geopolitical dimensions of these murders does not condemn us to war’s odious logic where, as the French writer Simone Weil put it, the “indefinable influence of human presence is not had,” and “others move about as if they were not there.” To the contrary, it is an important part of equipping ourselves with the intellectual tools to find a way out of this logic, to move beyond an “us” vs. “them” dichotomy that no longer lines up across national borders, but cuts through the hearts of our capital cities.
But universal principles are not the particular domain of European nations and their peoples. Thinking about how to address these horrific murders includes thinking about how to address the global conflict that contextualizes them. And this means considering how best to ensure that persons living within the zones of conflict, which now to a small degree include Paris, London, Madrid or New York as well as Syria, Iraq, or Mali, have access to the basic rights that we hold dear. This includes the right of civilians not to be bombed from above, the right of everyone to due process, the right to political self-determination as well as the right to free expression. This standpoint is not a conclusion but a beginning. It is a massive challenge, but one that we should honour, so that the chance of such horrific killings occurring again and again may at the very least be lessened.