North Africa, West Asia

How ISIS provincialised Europe

A politics of blame, of ‘us’ versus ‘them’, serves only to endorse ISIS’s Manichean worldview. Only an ethos of intercultural dialogue can help produce the "strange multiplicity" that an irreversibly multiethnic Europe so urgently needs.

Bassel F. Salloukh
7 December 2015

Demotix/Roger Milnes. All rights reserved.Toward the end of his searching survey of the social imaginaries that helped create western modernity, in Modern Social Imaginaries, Charles Taylor invokes Dipesh Chakrabarty’s Provincialising Europe as he invites other parts of the world to articulate their own very different imaginaries of modernity.

The objective, to quote Taylor at length, is to "finally get over seeing modernity as a single process of which Europe is the paradigm, and that we understand the European model as the first, certainly, as the object of some creative imitation, naturally, but as, at the end of the day, one model among many, a province of the multi-form world we hope…will emerge in order and peace."[1]

The Paris terrorist attacks and the concomitant security lockdown that swept across Europe suggests that ISIS has succeeded in provincialising Europe indeed, but in a diabolical way and for all the wrong reasons. As expected, and much like that lonely moment following the 9/11 terrorist attacks of 2001, many immigrant Arab Muslim communities feel themselves outside history, beleaguered by the venom of those knavish and useless binaries of ‘us’ against ‘them’ and the sordid discourse of the clash of civilisations.

Yet lest we allow ISIS to set the terms of the debate, some context as to how we arrived to Paris is essential. At the ideological level, ISIS terrorism is the teleological high point of an exclusivist Wahhabi-theorised, Salafi-jihadi applied creed gone viral in the age of new social media. In this virtual Salafi-jihadi ecosystem, connecting dispersed audiences across the globe, geography is meaningless: Raqqa, Sirte, Molenbeek, Mali, and the Parisian bidonvilles are neighborhoods in the same salafi-jihadi spatial imaginary.

Lest we allow ISIS to set the terms of the debate, some context as to how we arrived to Paris is essential.

The Paris terrorist attacks are also part of the blowback effects of misguided foreign policy choices that have now returned to haunt their proponents. This part of the story requires our attention not for its novelty, but rather for its injurious déjà vu

The 2003 US invasion and subsequent occupation of Iraq unleashed a geopolitical contest between Riyadh and Tehran, and their respective allies, one in which sectarianism was deployed as a fig leaf for otherwise realist battles. In turn, these geopolitical battles pulverised societies along newly securitised sectarian divides, and created the ideational and societal sanctuaries so crucial for the emergence and metamorphosis of Salafi-jihadi groups. 

The Arab uprisings enabled this already-established contest to spread to new areas, but mainly Syria. There the overlapping domestic, regional, and international struggle for Syria created breeding grounds for a new generation of Salafi-jihadi fighters and their later export back to Iraq, Europe, and beyond. A big part of this story has to do with the exclusionist sectarian policies of the rulers of Baghdad and Damascus; but it would be incomplete without factoring in the brutally shortsighted strategy of regime change in Syria. 

The ability of western policymakers to ignore the blowback lessons of Afghanistan’s mujahidin war must surely come across as a textbook case of cognitive dissonance, with tremendous though unequal consequences for Arab and European societies alike. 

Western governments are also guilty of a policy of 'looking the other way' when their citizens were journeying to jihad in Syria. Like their Arab counterparts, they assumed that the best strategy to deal with alienated and disenfranchised communities is to export them to faraway lands and use them as fodder for foreign policy adventures. The everyday carnage in Iraq and Syria is living testimony to these shortsighted but deadly policies.

The Paris terrorist attacks are driven by much more than ideology and geopolitics, however. They are a manifestation of deep economic and social structural transformations underway in a globalised and intertwined modern world, driven by the will to homogenise across what is in reality a polyphony of individuals, communities, and cultures.

Given its colonial history, homogenising secular but chauvinistic republican identity, and lingering economic crises, France reflects Europe’s failure to reconcile peacefully and democratically different visions of modernity and multiculturalism, but especially vis-à-vis its Arab Muslim immigrant community. 

Europe’s Muslim communities need to negotiate their own new version of the secular, one that alienates them neither from an ‘imagined’ Muslim identity nor from their new cultural milieus. 

As Taylor reminds us, modernity in the west rests in part on a novel understanding of secularity. But it is only one variation among many of the relation between the sacred and the profane. And to expect Europe’s immigrant communities to embrace the western version of secularity is to adopt, in Pankaj Mishra’s lovely coinage, a "unilateral view of humanity," with all its consequent distortions. No matter how long it takes them, Europe’s Muslim communities need to negotiate their own new version of the secular, one that alienates them neither from an ‘imagined’ Muslim identity nor from their new cultural milieus. 

The proponents of Muslim liberalism in the west leave much to be desired. They carefully shy away from demystifying a set of always imagined ‘Islamic’ practices, which have neither a grounding in the religion per se and the practices of its early adherents, nor any purpose today except to stubbornly affirm an otherwise historically constructed communal and personal identity. [2]

The tendency to demonise ethnic and cultural minorities at times of great economic and social transformations, and feelings of resentment rooted in decades of state neglect and socioeconomic disenfranchisement, only exacerbates this European predicament, for the host as well as immigrant communities. Little wonder, then, that ISIS has penetrated immigrant Muslim communities and turned them into breeding grounds for a stream of fresh recruits. Its genius, Adam Shatz correctly opines, "has been to overcome the distance between two very different crises of citizenship, and weave them into a single narrative of Sunni Muslim disempowerment: the exclusion of young Muslims in Europe, and the exclusion of Sunnis in Syria and Iraq."

A politics of blame, of ‘us’ versus ‘them’, serves only to endorse ISIS’s Manichean worldview, and is bound to stir up dormant racist attitudes against hapless immigrants and ultimately play into the politics of far-right groups in Europe and elsewhere. Only an ethos of intercultural dialogue, based on deep mutual recognition of other ways of life and other imaginings of modernity, can help produce the kind of "strange multiplicity,"[3] in James Tully’s memorable phrase, that an irreversibly multiethnic Europe so urgently needs. 

However, interculturalism also means that we are always willing to critically reflect on and dissent from our cultural practices and institutions, as we reinvent new hybrid and mongrel ways of living together amicably in a post-colonial world shaped by "overlapping territories" and "intertwined histories,"[4] to recall Edward Said’s towering voice in these trying times. Only such an ethos can help reconcile modernity’s leveling instincts with the will to be culturally different in a bland and homogenised world. Alas, societies in the throes of deep structural dislocations do not have the luxury of quiet reflection. We should thus expect more of the current violence as the quest for a modern but peaceful ‘multi-form world’ continues.

[1] Charles Taylor, Modern Social Imaginaries (Durham: Duke University Press, 2004), p. 196.

[2]For a careful analysis, see Zaheer Kazmi, “The Limits of Muslim Liberalism,” Los Angeles Review of Books, 4 April 2014, at:

[3] James Tully, Strange Multiplicity: Constitutionalism in an Age of Diversity (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1995).

[4] Edward W. Said, Culture and Imperialism (New York: Vintage, 1993).

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