The debate after the Charlie Hebdo massacre focused on free speech and the “home-grown” nature of the murderers, Chérif and Saïd Kouachi, with not enough attention paid to the fractured nature of French society.
The debate after the Charlie Hebdo massacre focused on free speech and the “home-grown” nature of the murderers, Chérif and Saïd Kouachi, with not enough attention paid to the fractured nature of French society. Arguing that an attack on IS will solve these problems seems laughable when you list recent attackers in Europe: Amedy Coulibaly, Mohammed Merah, Omar Abdel Hamid El-Hussein in Denmark and, in 2013, the murderers of Lee Rigby here in the UK, Michael Adebolajo and Michael Adebowale. All of these people were born in the countries in which they committed their crimes. Several of those involved in Friday’s attacks were from the Molenbeek district in Belgium, whilst Samy Amimour was born in Drancy, Paris. Both places are unlike the ghetto-like banlieues on the outskirts of Paris where immigrants are trapped in a poverty cycle which so often ends in one of France’s prisons where the population is estimated to be 70% Muslim.
But Ismail Mostefai did grow up in the banlieue Courcouronnes; although the estate on which he was raised, Le Canal, is less deprived than others, his youth seems to have been marred by gang violence and disaffection. The fact that others involved appear not to have been born into abject poverty highlights how the deep feelings of isolation and otherness can run. France has pursued disastrous policies that isolate sections of society – from the banning of religious symbols (including headscarves in schools) and assimilationist policies that have largely exacerbated problems, to their recent foreign policy which has seen French military action in Mali in 2013 (extended to Niger and Chad) and also against IS in Iraq and Syria. France is thus seen by certain sectors, both in France and further afield, as symbolic of the hated “imperialist West”.
But this is also the story of Molenbeek: a poor district, but not as deprived as the banlieues, it is unique in Europe for the amount of residents who wish to go to fight in Syria. There is a sophisticated network of “radicalisation” and many of the perpetrators apparently grew away from their societies: from being fairly lax in their religion – images of assimilation in their music taste, football team and social lives – to the mind-set that resulted in the attack on Friday. But this can paper over the fact that radicalisation doesn’t just happen to people – they have to be both inclined to that sort of fanaticism, and social conditions must be such that this inclination grows into action (or vice versa – the inclination develops due to the social conditions). The causes are disparate, but clearly personality, personal grievances, social disadvantage (racism, socio-economic status and so on), a strong network of persuasion, and a hatred of France, for its past and current domestic and foreign policy, play a massive role.
What is so shocking about the slaughter of those civilians in Paris is the seemingly random nature of the targets; the fear is that, without a target, the debate will be framed as a “clash of civilizations”. After all, what else can you take from a co-ordinated attack on seemingly neutral targets other than that IS judges all aspects of French, and by implication “Western”, society to be immoral to the point that the citizens need to be killed? This runs the risk of characterising Islam as incompatible with “Western societies”. Many found the Je suis Charlie campaign divisive in its exclusive solidarity, but that campaign focused primarily on freedom of speech. A broader attack produces a broader slogan and a broader defence of France’s values.
The fact that two of the attackers are said to have come through Europe as refugees has already fuelled the support of the rising right and the desire to close borders: Front National, UKIP and the Polish Law and Justice Party speaking out amongst others. This kind of polarisation is also ultimately one of the aims of IS who claim to want to wipe out “the grey zone”: those who have not yet committed to either side in the battle. If this debate mirrors the claims of IS with such heavy-handed dichotomies, it risks alienating people within an already polarising society further: such a reaction will surely not have the desired effect of putting an end to terrorism. The response needs to be sensitive to the many angles and causes both within Europe and the rest of the world – people may call for crippling action, but this risks backfiring and shutting down any nuanced debate or dialogue between factions (both nationally and internationally): blindly flailing, it puts reaction before understanding and smashes the very fragments of the mirror that allows us to see the right picture of this atrocity