When I arrived in Paris eleven months ago, just a few days after the Charlie Hebdo attacks, I was met with a city in mourning. Seventeen people lay dead, and a million were marching in defiant solidarity. The air was suffused with fear and anger. Now, I have a terrifying sense of déjà vu; except the death toll is 129, there is nobody on the streets, and the headline of le Parisien reads “Cette fois, c’est la guerre” – this time, it’s war.
Friday’s carnage was the deadliest terror attack France has ever seen, and the worst in Europe since the 2004 Madrid train bombings. Gunmen and suicide bombers targeted the national stadium, a concert hall, restaurants and bars – all soft targets, all innocent civilians – in rapid succession. This was a highly coordinated attack, designed to provoke widespread panic and fear; the terrorists chose crowded places, spread out across the city, where ordinary people were gathered. The aim was to kill as many people as possible, as randomly as possible, and to show the vulnerability of cities like Paris to sudden attacks that are difficult to prevent. That is how terrorism works; by striking fear into people’s hearts, by targeting the places you love most, the places where you feel safest.
Now, as the country enters its third day of national mourning, as the lights of the Eiffel Tower are illuminated again, several questions must be asked. The first is “why”. Why Paris, why now? There is more than one answer to this. Indeed, a confluence of factors places France uniquely in the crosshairs of Islamic fundamentalism. Historically, its presence in the Middle East has been destructive and distortionary; the Sykes-Picot agreement, which carved up the former Ottoman Empire into French and British spheres of influence, is a source of enduring international and sectarian conflict in the Middle East, not least of all in Syria itself. Resentment of France as an imperial power persists. Its participation in air strikes against Daesh (Isis) strongholds has added to its prominence as a target. There are also domestic factors which make France especially vulnerable.
The country has a large Muslim minority, another consequence of its colonial legacy, and that part of its population remains poor and disenfranchised, a social underclass trapped in homogenous urban enclaves, many of them on the outskirts, or in the northern areas, of Paris. Feelings of marginalisation and neglect make young men in these communities vulnerable to the influence of extremists. Experts estimate that over 500 French Muslims have travelled to Syria and Iraq to join Daesh forces. Moreover, France’s national values (among them laïcité, or secularism) are a direct contradiction of all that Islamic fundamentalism stands for, making it a symbolic enemy, and an exemplar of perceived Western “blasphemy”.
The second question, though, is perhaps more urgent. “What next?” How can the global outpouring of grief and rage that was unleashed on Friday night be channelled constructively, rather than used to fuel further hatred? Already, two polar extremes have emerged in the aftermath of the attacks. The first is characterised by the demonisation of Muslims, and Islam in general; rhetoric that suggests a collective guilt on the part of almost two billion people. In France, there is the danger that a visceral public anger will fuel the vilification of local Muslims, and empower right-wingers like Marine le Pen, who are already surging in popularity. This is a reprehensible, baseless, derogatory position. But it is also seriously counterproductive. The more Muslims are (or feel) persecuted and threatened by the West, the more Daesh and its affiliates are empowered. Fundamentalists thrive on the creation of a coherent enemy, and Western societies only reinforce this by playing the role they are written.
A second extreme, at the opposite end of the spectrum, tries to cast France and the West as culprit more than victim, seizing the opportunity to criticise and admonish rather than to express sympathy and regret. Take, for instance, the thousands of South Africans on Facebook and Twitter who have attacked the apparent “bias” in Western media coverage of Paris compared to similar attacks in Beirut or earlier ones in Kenya and Nigeria. These are valid and important criticisms, but they are made in destructive and opportunistic ways. Facebook users who change their profile pictures to show solidarity with France are castigated for perpetuating neo-imperialism, rather than respected in their grief.
What is forgotten amidst this cloud of smoke is that mourning the victims of one tragedy does not imply a rejection of any other, and that the grandchildren of colonialists should not be gunned down in a restaurant. There is a critical difference between arguing for nuance, which some have done to great effect, and hijacking a tragedy for a political agenda. As an aside, the only other time I have heard this argument made is by Zionists who respond to any criticism of Israel by shouting, loudly, “but why do you not also condemn the genocide in Burma?”
Between these two extremes – both of which serve to distract and to divide – lies a middle ground, which holds the potential to unite people in France, and elsewhere in the world, behind a constructive and resilient response to the threat of terror. Firm action will be needed to eradicate Daesh and its supporters, and an intensification of the international military offensive is inevitable. As conflict escalates and tension rises, it will be crucial for reasonable people across the globe to drown out the voices of extremists on every side. We must protect the rights and dignity of refugees who continue to flow into Europe, and whose place there seems more and more precarious. We must put aside political intrigue and foreground, instead, the real human victims of this tragedy. And we must show, once and for all, that it is possible to stand against terrorism, to stand with France, without succumbing to paranoia and rage. After all, in the prescient words of Jean-Paul Sartre: “Freedom is what we do with what is done to us.” DM
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