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Home–grown terrorism: a republican failure

The issue of home–grown terrorism, among other factors, is caused by a failure of governments to implement the republican idea of protecting citizens not only from vertical, but also horizontal power imbalances.

Vahid Nick Pay
18 February 2015
Manifestation on Republic Square in Paris against terrorism and in memory of the attack against  Charlie Hebdo.

Commemoration of the Charlie Hebdo attacks on Republic Square in Paris. Shutterstock/arenysam. Some rights reserved."The period of danger to the republic has come to an end, the period of difficulties starts" Leon Gambetta, the prominent ideologue of the French Third Republic, optimistically proclaimed in 1879. The recent Paris terrorist attacks and numerous other failed attempts unearthed some major ideological fault lines underpinned by considerable social alienation of some of the republic’s very own children.

There are numerous ideological factors that play a role in such acts of violence and several international contexts, where ethno–religious dividing lines result in considerable violence with a global impact. Particularly the Middle East appears to be providing a breeding ground for ideological activism, with the ongoing conflicts leading to pervasive injustice and violence inflicted on ethnic and religious grounds. Notwithstanding these issues, in this article I wish to highlight other internal political factors within the European borders that, amongst others, could be persuading some parts of our societies to use violence. 

Civic rights and duties

In a recent speech at the Arab World Institute, President Francois Hollande emphatically underlined the “republican rights and duties” of all French citizens, including the Muslim minority. Prime Minister Manuel Valls, in denouncing social discrimination within society, went even so far as to refer to certain impoverished sections of the French community as instances of social apartheid. Such affirmations, while clearly highlighting some of the socio–spatial factors that lead to the isolation and ghettoization of some groups, do not appear to go far enough in highlighting the normative significance of such destructive political realities for the republican idea of being trapped in the prevailing imperative of a moral condemnation of violence.

Furthermore it appears that such discourses on civil reconciliation, based on a consensus on the principles of rights and punishment, provide a mere fig leaf and a modicum of consolation in the face of the fundamental deficiency of republican provisions to protect and promote the central principle of liberty at both private and public levels, which characterise and indeed qualify a republican political system.

Republican political theory

It is important to remind ourselves of the main tenets of this political philosophy. The first pillar of the republican ideal of the state as envisaged by its main ideologues consists of the provisions against what has been labelled as imperium, i.e the state itself becoming a dominating force in the life of its citizens. In western democracies, a lot has been done to regulate and balance the vertical relationship between public power and individuals, by making the political system more representative, transparent and accountable. Nevertheless, much more has to be done in this regard to attain republican political ideals.

The second pillar of republican political doctrine seems to be somewhat neglected in systems claiming to uphold republican ideals. This principle explicitly concerns guidelines against “private domination”, dominium, to use the classic republican terminology. This principle is related to the horizontal management of power relations in the sense that citizens of the republic should not only be free from any economic and material domination, but they should also be empowered by various provisions on the right to distributive fairness and social justice. Unlike its liberal counterpart, the republican humanist state is not based on the idea of non –interference in the private space of its citizens and the self–regulating balances of horizontal powers. In contrast, a republican state is explicitly authorized to actively and positively regulate and even intervene at social spaces to guarantee the absence of cultural, normative and economic domination.

A republican failure

It is not hard to observe that this is the very area where the res publica seems to have blatantly failed. This fundamental failure in providing adequate republican guarantees of social justice has turned practices of exclusion and discrimination into fertile breeding grounds for all sorts of social malaise in most western democracies. At a global level, a new study has revealed that we are indeed moving towards a point where 1% of the world population possesses as much as the remaining 99%. Thomas Piketty’s famous work on “capital in the twenty-first century” clearly shows that global economic development has not translated into a reduction of social inequality, resulting in fragmentation and alienation of some parts of society due to inequitable access to social resources.

Although France has a more egalitarian political tradition than many other western democracies, it is evident that a significant amount of the republican ideals have been systematically overlooked by a system that has shown itself more inclined to accommodate the economic imperatives of liberalism. It is not hard to observe that a considerable part of the republican directives for social justice in the form of equality and class mobility appear to have been side–lined by the overriding rules of the free market and the paralysing principle of state neutrality.

In this light, if we consider the backgrounds of acts of terrorism and their perpetrators in France, it is not difficult to identify traces of social injustice that should have been the concern of all political programs of a truly republican state. At the same time, a deficiency in promoting civic republican values through the so–called "politics of belonging" have also played a major role. The attackers at the Charlie Hebdo magazine were examples par excellence of such parts of the republic that have fallen outside the purview of the inclusive republican ideal of the state.

Hence, although the republican ideology continues to be a founding principle of the French republic, the failure of the state to fulfil the basic republican political promises by guaranteeing an adequate level of distributive fairness and equitable access to socio –economic resources should not be underestimated. The absence or inadequacy of such republican provisions of comprehensive social justice not only confronts the republican model with a veritable “era of difficulty” , but exposes the entire republican political edifice to an existential “era of danger”, fatally threatening the entirety of the republican social contract.

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Hear from:

Paolo Gerbaudo Sociologist and political theorist, director of the Centre for Digital Culture at King’s College London and author of ‘The Mask and the Flag: Populism and Global Protest’ and ‘The Digital Party: Political Organisation and Online Democracy’, and of the forthcoming ‘The Great Recoil: Politics After Populism and Pandemic’.

Chantal Mouffe Emeritus Professor of Political Theory at the University of Westminster in London. Her most recent books are ‘Agonistics. Thinking the World Politically’, ‘Podemos. In the Name of the People’ and ‘For a Left Populism’.

Spyros A. Sofos Researcher and research coordinator at the Center for Middle Eastern Studies, Lund University and author of ‘Nation and Identity in Contemporary Europe’, ‘Tormented by History’ and ‘Islam in Europe: Public Spaces and Civic Networks'.

Chair: Walid el Houri Researcher, journalist and filmmaker based between Berlin and Beirut. He is partnerships editor at openDemocracy and lead editor of its North Africa, West Asia project.

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