Solidarity and anger. Those were my immediate emotions, watching the carnage unfold on the streets of Paris. Solidarity with the people of Paris, anger at the depraved, nihilistic savagery of the terrorists. Those remain my main emotions, even now. But, beyond solidarity and anger, we need also analysis. So here are two articles, thinking through some of the issues. The first looks at, and challenges, two popular explanations for why the carnage was unleashed – Western foreign policy, on the one hand, lax immigration policy, on the other. It was published in Al Jazeera English under the headline.‘Kneejerk finger-pointing after Paris attacks’. (One of the terrorists may have entered Europe as a refugee via Greece, and with a Syrian passport. This has not been confirmed yet, but even if it is, it does not, as I observe in the article, fundamentally change my argument.) The second article, published in the Observer under the headline ‘Terrorism has come about in assimilationist France and also in multicultural Britain. Why is that?, examines French social policy, and the differences and commonalities between multicultural and assimilationist approaches.
The lure – and pitfalls – of easy answers
Al Jazeera English, 14 November 2015
The horrors unleashed on the streets of Paris on Friday night took place against the background of two major ongoing international crises. The first is the Syrian conflict, and the war against Islamic State. The second is the refugee crisis that now besets Europe.
The entry of Russia has escalated the conflict in Syria. The day before the Paris attack, an American airstrike was believed to have killed ‘Jihadi John’, a British national who had joined IS and become an important propaganda tool. Meanwhile, more than half a million migrants and refugees, many from Syria, have arrived at Europe’s southern and eastern borders this year alone. The failure of the EU coherently to address the issue has created major political conflicts between EU states, fuelled hostility towards migrants and boosted the fortunes of populist parties.
Many have inevitably looked to these two crises as explanations for the Paris atrocities. Some have seen the terrorism as the consequence of French foreign policy in Syria, others of lax immigration controls that have allowed terrorists to enter Europe. Both arguments seem superficially self-evident. But both are profoundly untrue.
Islamic State has officially claimed responsibility for the attacks. One of the terrorists in the Bataclan theatre, where at least 87 people were slaughtered, was said to have shouted ‘This is for Syria’. Yet we should be wary of seeing these attacks as a response, however perverted, to French, or Western, foreign policy.
The terrorists did not target symbols of the French state, or of French militarism. They did not even target tourist spots. They targeted, rather, the areas and the places where mainly young, anti-racist, multiethnic Parisians hang out. The cafes, restaurants, bars and music venue that were attacked – Le Carillon, La Belle Equipe, Le Petit Cambodge, and the Jewish-owned Bataclan – are in the 10th and 11th arrondisements, areas that, though increasingly gentrified, remain ethnically and culturally mixed and still with a working class presence.
The other venue attacked was the Stade de France, the national football stadium. France and Germany were playing match there on Friday night, and French President François Hollande was in attendance. But the Stade de France, like France’s national football team, has also great cultural resonance. ‘Les Bleus’, as the team is known, are seen by many as an embodiment of multicultural France, a team consisting of ‘noir, blanc, beur’ (black, white, Arab) players. It was in the Stade de France that Les Bleus, led by Zinedine Zidane, a Frenchman of Algerian descent, famously won the World Cup in 1998.
What the terrorists despised, what they tried to eliminate, were ordinary people, drinking, eating, laughing, mixing. That is what they hated – not so much the French state as the values of diversity and pluralism.
This is in keeping with the character of many terrorists attacks, in Europe and elsewhere. Terrorists often claim a political motive for their attacks. Commentators often try to rationalize such acts, suggesting that they are the inevitable result of a sense of injustice created by Western foreign policy or by anti-Muslim attitudes in the West. Yet most attacks have been not on political targets, but on cafes or trains or mosques. Such attacks are not about making a political point, or achieving a political goal – as were, for instance, IRA bombings in Britain in the 1970s and 1980s – but are expressions of nihilistic savagery, the aim of which is solely to create fear. This is not terrorism with a political aim, but terror as an end in itself.
If many on the left have tried to blame terror attacks on Western foreign policy, many on the right have tried to use the Paris carnage to ramp up rhetoric against migrants and refugees. Had France (and Europe) maintained tighter border controls, they suggest, the carnage could have been avoided.
We don’t know yet the backgrounds of the Paris killers. They may have been recent migrants, or refugees. Yet, even if they were, the arguments linking the Paris attacks to the refugee crisis are questionable.
For a start, refugees and migrants are often attempting to flee just the kind of carnage that came to the streets of Paris on Friday. And far from waving migrants across Europe’s borders, the EU has spent 25 years building a fortress against migration, protected by militarized border controls.
Whatever may eventually turn out to be the identities of the Paris killers, until now the problem of terrorism in Europe has not been created by terrorists smuggling themselves onto refugee boats. It has, rather, mostly been the work of homegrown jihadis. The Kouachi brothers, for instance, responsible for the Charlie Hebdo killings in January were born and raised in Paris. So was Amedy Coulibaly, the gunman who, that same weekend, attacked a kosher supermarket in Paris and killed four Jews. Three of the four suicide bombers responsible for the 7/7 attack on London tubes and a bus were similarly born in Britain. Most of the 4000 or so Europeans who have joined IS as fighters have been European-born, and many have been professionals, and well integrated into society.
Pointing the finger at refugees not only sidesteps the problem of homegrown jihadism, it also foments more anti-immigrant hatred, further polarizing European societies.
It is understandable that in the wake of a horror such as that in Paris, we should seek quick, easy solutions. But the problem of terrorism is more complicated than that. If we really want to address the issue of terrorism we need to address the complexities, too.
Assimilationist France, multicultural Britain and terrorism
Observer, 15 November 2015
We don’t yet know the identities or backgrounds of the eight killers that carried out the carnage on the streets of Paris on Friday night. President François Hollande has suggested that killings were organized abroad but with support from within France.
Whoever the Paris killers may eventually turn out to be, until now much of the problem of terrorism in Europe has been created not by foreign terrorists but by homegrown jihadis. The Kouachi brothers, for instance, responsible for the Charlie Hebdo killings in January were born and raised in Paris. So was Amedy Coulibaly, the gunman who, that same weekend, attacked a kosher supermarket in Paris and killed four Jews. Three of the four suicide bombers responsible for the 7/7 attack on London tubes and a bus were similarly born in Britain.
In the past, when London was seen as the capital of Islamism and of terror groups – Londonistan, many called it – French politicians and policy makers suggested that Britain faced a particular problem because of its multicultural policies. Such policies, they claimed, were divisive, failing to create a common set of values or sense of nationhood. As a result many Muslims were drawn towards Islamism and violence. ‘Assimilationist’ policies, French politicians insisted, avoided the divisive consequences of multiculturalism and allowed every individual to be treated as a citizen, not as a member of a particular racial or cultural group.
So, how do we account for the way that terrorism has been nurtured in assimilationist France, too? And how different are French assimilationist and British multicultural policies?
Many of the French criticisms of multiculturalism were valid. British policy makers welcomed diversity. But they tried to manage it by putting people into ethnic and cultural boxes, defining individual needs and rights by virtue of the boxes into which people are put, and using those boxes to shape public policy. They treated minority communities as if each was a distinct, homogenous whole, each composed of people all speaking with a single voice, each defined by a singular view of culture and faith. The consequence has been the creation a more fragmented, tribal society, which has nurtured Islamism. The irony, though, is the French policies, from a very different starting point, have ended up at much the same place.
There are, it is often claimed, some five million Muslims in France, making it the largest Muslim community in Western Europe. In fact there are five million people of North African origin in France. Most are secular. A growing number have, in recent years, become attracted to Islam. But even today, according to a 2011 poll by the l’Institut Français d’Opinion Publique (Ifop), only 40 per cent call themselves ‘observant Muslims’ – and only 25 per cent attend Friday prayers.
First generation postwar immigrants to France faced, just like their counterparts in Britain, considerable racism. The second generation, again as in Britain, was far less willing than their parents had been to accept passively social discrimination and police brutality. They organized, largely through secular movements, and took to the streets, often in violent protest. In autumn 2005 riots swept through French banlieues and cities as youth and police fought pitched battles, much as they had in Britain two decades earlier.
During the 1970s and early 1980s the French authorities had taken a relatively laid-back stance on multiculturalism, generally tolerating cultural and religious differences, at a time when few within minority communities expressed their identity in cultural or religious terms. The then President François Mitterrand even coined the slogan ‘droit à la differénce’ – the right to be different.
As tensions within North African communities became more open, and as the far-right Front National emerged as a political force, so the ‘droit à la differénce’ was abandoned for a more hardline assimilationist approach, with the problems of North African communities presented in terms of their ‘difference’. Few of the youth that rioted in 2005 saw themselves as ‘Muslim’. But the authorities portrayed the riots, and the disaffection they expressed, less as a response to racism than as an expression of a growing threat to France – that of Islam.
In principle, the French authorities rejected the multiculturalist approach that Britain had adopted. In practice, however, they treated North African migrants and their descendents, in a very ‘multicultural’ way – as a single community, and primarily as a ‘Muslim’ community. Islam became symbolic of the anxieties about values and identity that now beset France.
A much-discussed 2013 poll conducted by Ipsos and the Centre for Political Studies Sciences Po (Cevipof) found that 50 per cent of the population believed ‘the decline of France’, both economic and cultural, to be ‘inevitable’. Fewer than third thought that democracy worked well, while 62 per cent considered ‘most politicians’ to be ‘corrupt’. The report described a ‘fractured France’, divided into tribal groups, alienated from mainstream politics, distrustful of their leaders, and resentful of Muslims. The main sentiment driving French society, the report concluded was ‘fear’.
Faced with a distrustful and disengaged public, politicians have attempted to reassert the notion of a common French identity. But unable to define clearly the ideas and values that characterize the nation, they have done so primarily by creating hostility against symbols of ‘alienness’, the most visible of which is Islam.
The irony is that not only is France’s North African population predominantly secular, but even practising Muslims are relatively liberal in their views. According to the Ifop poll, 68 per cent of observant women never wear the hijab. Fewer than a third of practising Muslims would forbid their daughters from marrying a non-Muslim. Eighty-one per cent accept that women should have equal rights in divorce, 44 per cent have no problem with the issue of co-habitation, 38 per cent support the right to abortion, and 31 per cent approve of sex before marriage. Only on homosexuality is there a deeply conservative stance: 77 per cent of practising Muslims disapprove.
Yet, far from including North Africans as full citizens, French policy has tended to ignore the racism and discrimination they have faced, and institutionalized their marginalization. Many in France look upon its citizens of North African origins not as French but as ‘Arab’ or as ‘Muslim’. But the second generation within North African communities are often as estranged from their parents’ cultures and mores, and from mainstream Islam, as they are from wider French society.
Consider, for instance, the Kouachi brothers, responsible for the Charlie Hebdo slaughter. They were raised in Gennevilliers, a northern suburb of Paris. Cherif Kouachi, who appeared to mastermind the operation, only rarely attended mosque, and appeared not to be particularly religious, but was driven by a sense of social estrangement. He was, according to Mohammed Benali, president of the local mosque, of a ‘generation that felt excluded, discriminated against, and most of all, humiliated. They spoke and felt French, but were regarded as Arabic; they were culturally confused.’
According to Benali, Kouachi was most affronted by the imam’s insistence on the importance of political engagement. ‘When the imam told everyone to enrol on the register of electors so they could take part in elections, and play their part in society, he refused. He said he wasn’t a French citizen and wanted nothing to do with the democratic process. He then walked out of the mosque.’
Kouachi’s story is not that different to that of Mohammed Sidique Khan, the leader of the 7/7 bombings in London. They are of a milieu caught not between two cultures, as it is often claimed, but between no cultures. As a consequence, some of them have turned to Islamism, and a few have expressed their inchoate rage through jihadi-style violence.
There are aspects of both the multiculturalist and assimilationist approaches that are valuable. The multicultural acceptance of diversity and the assimilationist resolve to treat everyone as citizens, not as bearers of specific racial or cultural histories are both welcome. And there are aspects of both that are damaging – the multiculturalist tendency to place minorities into ethnic and cultural boxes, the assimilationist attempt to create a common identity by institutionalizing the differences of groups deemed not to belong.
An ideal policy would marry the beneficial aspects of the two approaches – celebrating diversity while treating everyone as citizens, rather than as simply belonging to particular communities. In practice, though, Britain and France have both institutionalized the more damaging features – Britain placing minorities into ethnic and cultural boxes, France attempting to create a common identity by treating those of North African origin as the Other. The consequence has been that in both Britain and France societies have become more fractured and tribal. And in both nations a space has been opened up for Islamism to grow.
All the paintings are by Pierre Soulages.