New Internationalist

Explaining the Paris attacks

November 2015

There are heavy emotions and serious concerns over the tragic events in Paris, but how can we explain the issue?, asks Tahir Abbas.

16-11-15-french-in-london-590x393.jpg [Related Image]
'We are the French of London, standing with our harrowed grieving nation.' Trafalgar Square, 14 November 2015. Christiaan Triebert under a Creative Commons Licence

The events in Paris on the night of Friday 13 November will go down in history as one of the most horrific acts of organized violence in the country. Eight terrorists in six separate attacks unleashed a wave of terror that has traumatized a nation and shocked the world. It is also the day when France experienced its first suicide attack.

As questions are asked about who or what was behind these events, it is becoming clear that they were likely the work of the Islamic State. Their infiltration into Western Europe will create tremendous unease among security forces, politicians and social thinkers. It will also raise serious implications for the Syrian refugee crisis engulfing Europe at present. Early reports suggests that one of the attackers was a Syrian refugee who had come through Greece by taking the ‘refugee route’. Others are thought to include a French national and an Egyptian. All are believed to have had links with the Islamic State, who claim responsibility for the attacks, asserting it to be ‘first of the storm’ These are ominous words that will instil terror and fear in the hearts and minds of the many.

It is vital to understand the reasons for these attacks as not as being about the West or Islam, but as about the intersection between localization and globalization. It is too reductive to argue that Western neo-colonial intervention in the Middle East entirely sowed the seeds of radicalization among segments of the populace of Iraq and Syria, who subsequently formed the Islamic State. Unquestionably, the collapse of these societies created considerable instability, and a menacing beast has arisen out of the ensuing chaos. Indeed, the Islamic State has a regular source of income, both from internal and external sources, and a significant body of people with military training and skills that it can rely upon to shore up the ranks of fighters willing to die. By declaring itself as an Islamic caliphate, the Islamic State attracts a body of young people looking for adventure, adrenalin, opportunity or simply revenge. A wholly narrow reading of the scriptures and the traditions that followed provides vulnerable young minds the black-and-white or right-or-wrong distinctions they believe they need, as they have done throughout the 21 century.

While these are pull factors, the push factors cannot be underestimated. There are distinct challenges facing a range of second and third-generation Western European Muslims, which result in disconnect from the local. Across ‘old Europe’ there are as many as 20 million Muslims caught up in various spatial formations that often lead to more challenges than opportunities. The socio-economic under performance of these groups is well-documented, but less is stated about the processes of racism and discrimination involved in the so-called lack of integration and participation of Muslims in society who merely wish to pursue their individual religious and cultural interests. The disengagement encourages young Western European Muslims to allude to a global identity framework, ultimately rejecting the national.

Simultaneously, there is a hyper-masculine political structure that is aggressively enforced top-down, with young Muslims responding to their disenfranchisement with their own form of hyper-masculinity as a form of resistance from below. The formation of the Islamic State emerges from a Western foreign policy framework that still upholds a post-colonial lens. The policy responses among Western powers at home and abroad merely exacerbate existing tensions as the status quo is further reified due to short-sightedness. The Paris attacks will also add renewed vigour to the machinations of the far right, whose gains in electoral politics in Western Europe in recent years ought to signal immense alarm. At the heart of the matter is the question of society and the importance of inter-group relations that are fraught with existing deeply embedded structural inequalities. Young Muslims attracted by the Islamic State born in Western Europe are unmade in Western Europe, rejecting society because society has rejected them, and increasingly so in the current epoch of history.

There is a cycle of violence, reproduced in the age of terror through dominant media and political discourses that promote the clash of civilizations thesis that has been so prominent in the post-9/11 era. As the convergence between conflicts in the Middle East enters directly into the theatre of Western European life, a deadly cat and mouse game ensues, leaving blood, carnage and instability in its wake. This is the global culture of violence. As the forces of globalization bite harder, so nations draw inwards, looking to an ideal formation of themselves in order to project a certain distinctiveness. In reality, there is huge diversity and existing inter-dependence among the populous, which is sometimes disregarded or misrecognized. Here, Western Europe is as culpable of such a reality as parts of Muslim world, whose hypnotism by radical Islamic teachings is holding their own people to ransom.

Those who enter the Islamic State from Western Europe and from the Muslim-majority lands, especially Saudi Arabia, do so because their countries of birth have been unable to meet their needs. What is required is a global culture of hope, but this is profoundly lacking among so much of the world, which is immersed in consumption, capitalism and social conflict.

Tahir Abbas is currently Remarque Visiting Fellow at New York University, and a Professor of Sociology at Fatih University in Istanbul. He is author of numerous books and articles on the subject of Muslim minorities in the West, and questions of ethnicity, Islam and politics. His website, for further details, can be found at: tahirabbas.co.uk

This feature was published in the November 2015 issue of New Internationalist. To read more, buy this issue or subscribe.

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  1. #1 Jahan Mahmood 05 Dec 15

    Nice short and informative article

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