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The impossibility of the citizen terrorist

The goal, in the words of French Prime Minister Manuel Valls, is to make a "strong symbolic act against those who have excluded themselves from the national community."

Joseph McQuade
2 February 2016

France's Justice Minister, Christiane Taubira has recently stepped down ahead of a proposal to strip those convicted of terrorism of their French citizenship, which went before a parliamentary commission shortly after Taubira's resignation. The French government declared a three-month state of emergency following the Paris attacks that took place on 13 November and left 130 people dead. Although this state of emergency was set to expire on the 26 February, President Francois Hollande has stated that the emergency will remain until the Islamic State (ISIS) has been defeated. This latest proposal would presumably apply only to convicted terrorists with dual nationality, as the French government have made it clear that the reform would not render anyone stateless.

This proposal highlights an important feature of the politics surrounding contemporary terrorism; that terrorism has come to be seen, by definition, as a crime carried out by outsiders. With the popularization of a "clash of civilizations" hypothesis first put forward by Samuel Huntington in the 1990s and since picked up by a range of ideologues spanning from Bill O'Reilly to Bill Maher, it has become the accepted wisdom that a monolithic force called 'Islam' is currently colliding with something called 'the West', with devastating results.

Muhammed Merah, perpetrator of the Toulouse and Montauban killings, 2012.

Muhammed Merah, perpetrator of the Toulouse and Montauban killings, 2012. Wikicommons/Home video image. Some rights reserved. Despite having little real grounding in the complicated history of Eurasia, this hypothesis provides easy answers to difficult questions regarding the causes and consequences of twenty-first century political violence.

It also provides convenient sound-bites for politicians seeking to present a tough front on the issue of terrorism without actually addressing any of its root causes. In the Canadian election last fall, Stephen Harper's Conservatives tried (and failed) to use the perceived threat of Muslim 'Otherness', embodied in the refugee crisis and the niqab, to steer voters towards a narrative that prioritized 'Canadian values' over the 'Barbaric Cultural Practices' being imported from abroad. After the Paris attacks, Republican contenders in the United States clamoured to drown each other out with suggestions for restricting the entrance of Muslims into America, culminating in Donald Trump's disturbing proposal that Muslim Americans should be required to carry special identity cards, all of course in the name of national security.

Nowhere in these narratives is there room for addressing the possibility, or indeed the likelihood, that terrorism can come from among a society's own citizens, even if that society happens to be western. This is because identities, and particularly identities that clearly demarcate in-groups and out-groups, are so often viewed as singular and one-dimensional, when in fact they are always multifaceted and plural, as Nobel Prize winning economist Amartya Sen has pointed out. Erasing a terrorist's citizenship becomes an easy way to erase the aspect of their identity that most complicates a simplistic narrative linking their violence to forces beyond the pale of civilization, by literally stripping them of their legal relationship to the country in which they chose to carry out their attack.

The goal, in the words of French Prime Minister Manuel Valls, is to make a "strong symbolic act against those who have excluded themselves from the national community." More than this, the message that it sends, that terrorists are not citizens, makes it easier to scapegoat foreign or unfamiliar communities, regardless of their actual participation or lack thereof in any given terror plot. This explains the immediate rush following the Paris attacks to blame Syrian refugees, despite an overwhelming lack of evidence pointing towards their involvement.

Denying the citizenship of those who carry out acts of horrific violence only reinforces the binary thinking that groups like ISIS rely upon for their recruitment and their rhetoric. It also creates a distorted reality in which the general public comes to place a disproportionate emphasis on acts of violence carried out by individuals perceived as foreign, in comparison to dangers that lie closer to home such as mass shootings, domestic violence, or far-right extremism.

Revoking the citizenship of those who commit horrible acts of brutality will not protect anyone from those acts. Rather than deny that terrorists can be citizens, we should instead seek to better understand the complex and multifaceted processes that turn citizens into terrorists.

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