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Some Thoughts on Daesh and Paris

Paris is a human tragedy and crime that affects me on multiple levels, both personally (emotionally) and professionally (analytically). Apart from the sheer horror, it touches on questions of identity, religion, European foreign policy, and domestic security.

I have tended to be rather sanguine about Daesh’s threat to us until now and I stand by that in the broad scheme of things. But what we do have to realize is that this terrorist menace will stay with us for the foreseeable future and that there is no one simple solution to put an end to it.

Even as we speak, or as you read this, the hundreds of thousands of Syrian and Iraqi refugees are voting with their feet in favor of our systems and against the alternative available to them in Raqqa and elsewhere. Daesh understands this and its blatant attempt – by conveniently placing a passport and including at least one attacker who had seemingly come to France via the Balkan route – to augment the backlash to these refugees in Europe is a response to this general vote of no-confidence. This is not to mention that Daesh’s potential for expansion within its region seem to be rather limited. Daesh is like a wounded animal that has lost a significant part of its territory recently and is being attacked by Russia, the US, France, Kurdish forces and many others; yet, just like that wild animal it seems almost particularly dangerous.

For Europe, these horrifying attacks in Paris have a number of different implications that I want to discuss here. Analyzing helps to digest I think, or I hope that anyway.

There are three main strategic components to the motivation for this – and thus also the prevention of future – attack(s).

Domestic alienation. All countries in Europe have a problem with a rising subset of their populations who do not feel represented in traditional avenues of our political and societal system. This may be seen reflected in the decreasing score for mainstream parties throughout the continent or low voter turnout, but also in both violent and non-violent street manifestations. In Germany, PEGIDA has become a fixture, in France (2005) and the UK (2011, Brixton) riots occur with some frequency. The social aspect of this alienation is compounded by an ethnic one where a European population of migrant origin – and rarely the migrants themselves! – makes up a significant component of this alienated population.

In a parallel to the student movement of the 1960s/70s, a small minority of this alienated subset – who individually may not suffer from socio-economic exclusion but with some justification perceive themselves as part of a group that does – has turned to terrorism. This alienation has spatial, economic, and political aspects to it; it also has nourished a steady stream of Europeans going to Syria where they see themselves – again, with some justification – in a just fight against an oppressive, murderous, and cruel regime. The Paris attacks were carried out by precisely these people. To structurally counter these kind of processes in the future, our societies need to fundamentally rethink the inegalitarian spatial, economic, and political nature of some of our policies.

Even though terribly overplayed by governments and much of the media, this attack also has an undeniable and important foreign policy component to it. This component is two-fold.

  1. The historic imperialist policies of Europe versus the “Orient” continue to reverberate. In combination with the West’s inept foreign policy – ranging from the Iraq war to the decade-old support for dictatorial regimes throughout the region – this history feeds the above-outlined alienation process of European citizens who feel targeted in some of their multiple identities (whether it be “Muslim” or “Arab” or simply “non-European”). A more even-handed, post-Arab Spring foreign policy that could undermine this perception has not been formulated, is in fact not even being discussed whether in the media or at governmental level. This is a problem.
  2. More importantly though in this case, Daesh has seized upon these European volunteers. Initially, it only relied upon them as cannon fodder for its military tactics in Syria. Yet, it now seems to use them in order to carry out its long-range foreign policy. It has targeted Russia via its Egyptian subsidiary, Hezbollah via Lebanon, and now France (or the West if you may) via Paris. As a big part of Daesh’s appeal effectively lies in its output legitimacy, aka its military success and territorial hold, to militarily combat them is a sound foreign policy decision per se – if one always keeps in mind that every bomb dropped there comes at a political and societal cost in both Syria/Iraq and Europe. What is more questionable is whether air strikes are sufficient to achieve that goal and, in particular, what the alternative to Daesh on the ground in Syria/Iraq looks like.

Finally, Islam and political Islam in particular are facing an ideological schism. An anti-traditional, pseudo-original interpretation of Islam proclaims itself as the sole true voice of Islam. This variety – a takfiri Salafist, for the most part not institutionalized, interpretation – claims the right to kill other Muslims as much as monotheistic non-believers and “heathens”. While believers of this variety of Islam remain a very, very small minority, they have clearly been increasing in number throughout the Arab world and Europe. This partly because of socio-economic reasons but also an essentially post-modern lack of competing ideologies. Left-wing Arab nationalism has failed to achieve results in the Arab “world” as did the neoliberal reforms of the 1980s; democracy died in Rabaa Square in Egypt and has yet to produce tangible results in Tunisia. Europe and the West could have some effect on the political and economic output influencing this debate – assuring that democracy in Tunisia goes along with socio-economic advances for example, – but this ideological exchange within Islam fundamentally is one that the believers themselves need to engage in.

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