UCLA International Institute, December 10, 2015 — A recent panel discussion organized by the Center for European and Russian Studies (CERS) examined the causes and consequences of the terrorist attacks in Paris that killed 130 people and injured over 350 on November 13, 2015. The attacks were organized and carried out by European citizens, some of whom had previously traveled to Syria to fight with the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (ISIS, also known as ISIL in English and Daesh in Arabic). ISIS has claimed responsibility for the violence.
Cosponsored by the Burkle Center for International Relations and the Center for Near Eastern Studies (CNES), the discussion revealed a blindness on the part of France and the West in general about the causes of radical Islamic jihadist violence, whether in the West or the in Middle East. As a result, both French and Western policy responses are likely worsen the very problem that they seek to resolve.
In France, the reasons for the social alienation of young French Muslims are being obscured by an emphasis on laïcité (secularism, or the separation of church and state), a national political discourse that avoids discussion of race and religious identity, and the increasing power of nationalist parties. As a result, the country and its political elites are indisposed to policies that could effectively address that alienation (i.e., by engaging and investing in that community).
In its “war on ISIS,” the West — and the U.S. in particular — appear oblivious to the fact that violent Western interventions in the Middle East have contributed to the violence of radical Islamist groups such as ISIS and Jabhat al Nusra. Security-oriented, militarized responses to ISIS on the part of the West then reinforce the ideological justifications for jihadist violence, regardless of whether or not they succeed in eradicating an organization such as ISIS on the ground.
Moderated by CERS Director Laure Murat, professor of French & Francophone Studies at UCLA, the panel drew on the deep UCLA reservoir of expertise on France and the Middle East. Faculty panelists included historian Caroline Ford, a specialist in modern French history; Dominic Thomas, chair of the French & Francophone Studies department, whose research encompasses globalization and the politics of France and Francophone Africa; historian James Gelvin, an expert on the modern history of the Middle East, particularly that of greater Syria; and law professor Aslı Ü. Bâli, whose research interests span non-proliferation, the use of force and the politics and doctrines of intervention.
The view from France
“It’s important to put [the attacks of November 13] in larger context to understand the historical specificity of what has just occurred,” said Caroline Ford. The historian stressed that the recent attacks on civilian targets resonated with French historical memory of political violence in Paris going back as far back as the anarchists of the late 19th century and the attempted assassination of Napoleon in 1800. The way in which the older generation in France is responding to the November attacks, she said, is shaped by this longer history of violence. That history includes not just the Charlie Hebdo attacks of January 2015, but the St. Michel metro bombing by Algerian Islamists in 1995 and the brutal Paris police attack on a pro-independence demonstration of Algerians in 1961.
Ford warned against conflating the home-grown terrorists of France and Belgium who carried out the Paris attacks with the disaffected Muslim youth who rioted in the Parisian banlieues* in 2005. Jihadist recruitment has diversified, she observed, to include young middle-class Muslim men and, for the first time, young Muslim women.
The historian emphasized the strong Moroccan connection in the November attacks (many of the attackers were of Moroccan origin) and the fact that the group of attackers included long-time friends and family members, as well as people they had met while fighting for ISIS in Syria. Cautioning against claims that ISIS directed the recent attacks, Ford contended that groups in France were using jihadist ideologies for their own ends. “Not enough attention is being paid to the vision of jihadis in Europe, separate and apart from ISIS,” she said.
The striking fact that many of the attackers of November 13 came from Belgium should support greater information and intelligence sharing among European countries, she said. Instead, French and European governments and party leaders closed their borders.
Dominic Thomas emphasized that unlike the United Kingdom, France has failed to address head-on problems of race in the postcolonial era. That failure, together with the fact that French constitution prohibits any category of citizen other than “French,” has led to an indifference to the question of race. “And as many observers have pointed out,” he commented, “this indifference to race has also led to an indifference to discrimination.
“The 2005 riots became known as the revolt or the insurrection of the ‘invisibles,’” continued Thomas. The immigrant residents of the banlieues, he explained, were invisible in two ways: their markers of difference and ethnicity were not recognized under the French constitution and they were geographically marginalized at the edge of French cities. “Rather than effectively responding to these young people’s needs,” he said, “what happened in France and EU–wide was an increasing . . movement toward the ‘invisibilization’ of Islam: the banning of burkas, of veils, of headscarves, of minarets on mosques, etc.” Laïcité was in turn invoked to address what he called “the French and EU-wide identity crisis.”
Thomas cited French Prime Minister Manuel Valls’ assertion that a territorial, social and ethnic apartheid exists in France. “Not an apartheid of the law. . . but a kind of apartheid of the mind,” said the speaker. The statements of certain French leaders (e.g., President Nicolas Sarkozy’s assertion in a 2007 speech in Sénégal that Africans had not entered history, the 2012 statement of the French foreign minister that France was the country of a “white race”) and France’s continued collaboration with dictators in its former colonial spaces, said Thomas, “continues to shape and influence the ways in which one perceives of French people.” These statements reflect an assumption of the “indissolubility between whiteness and ‘French-ness’ that continues to maintain hierarchies of those who are French and those who are not,” he said.
The real problem confronting many European nation states today is the question of national identity, said Thomas, “They are simply ill-equipped to deal with the realities of an increasingly globalizing world,” he noted. The discourse about immigrants on the part of Marine Le Pen of the National Front and other extreme right leaders in Europe is becoming indistinguishable from the discourse and actual policies of many EU leaders today, he explained. “In order to pay attention to some of the internal dynamics that are creating [the disaffection of Muslim immigrants] means essentially implementing and devoting resources. . . to precisely those populations and communities that the extreme right are unwilling to reach out to,” he concluded.
The view from the Middle East
Whereas al-Qaida operates kinetically, seeking to exhaust the “Crusader-Zionist conspiracy” in debilitating foreign adventures, historian James Gelvin said that ISIS operates spatially. “It's strategy has been to seize territory and purify it from foreign influences and from those it considers to be un-Islamic: Yazidis, secular Kurds, Shi’a, etc.,” said the historian.
ISIS has now displaced Al Qaeda as the leading jihadist organization in the world. Although it looked unstoppable in 2014, when it seized large and largely uninhabited swathes of Iraq and Syria to create a self-declared caliphate, Gelvin said ISIS had been contained over the past year. In fact, he said, it is losing territory, population and many funding sources, including oil exports, kidnapping and donations. At this point, he observed, ISIS is “primarily getting its money from a poll tax and extortion.”
In light of these circumstances, the group has changed its tactics and is now advocating shocking attacks against the West in an effort to turn the tide and drive up recruitment. The historian stressed, however, that it was important to distinguish terrorist acts undertaken by existing groups that opportunistically affiliate themselves with ISIS (e.g., Islamic jihadists in the Sinai, Boko Haram in Nigeria, and al-Shabab in Somalia) from terrorist acts undertaken on the direct orders of the highest levels of ISIS. With respect to Paris, he said it remained unclear whether the attacks were opportunistic or directed.
Although not probable, Gelvin said there was now a small chance for a peace agreement (or at least a ceasefire) in Syria for three reasons. The Iranian nuclear deal of July 2015 has made it possible to bring Iran to the negotiating table, the Russian intervention in the Syrian civil war has re-established a military stalemate (the prerequisite for negotiations), and the Paris attacks had made destroying ISIS a political priority. “At this point, the policy of containment appears to be off the table,” he concluded.
Aslı Ü. Bâli began by criticizing the analytical framing that differentiated between spectacular violence by ISIS in the West and in the Middle East, where the group is located. She noted, for example, the lack of Western outrage about recent horrific terrorist attacks in Beirut (November 12, 2015 — 43 killed, over 200 wounded) and Ankara (October 10, 2015 — 102 killed, over 400 people wounded).
The law professor argued that there was a direct link between violent Western intervention in the Middle East — particularly the impact of the strategies used by the United States in the Iraq war — and violent extremism in the Middle East. Among the U.S. strategies that helped give rise to that extremism, said Bâli, “were the choice to disband the Iraqi Army without disarming it, the decision to de-Ba’athify and therefore disenfranche [an] entire Sunni geography and elite that had governed for a decade, the arming of Sunni militias as part of the ‘Arab Awakening,’ the backing of a deeply sectarian central government in Baghdad. . . and adopting a framework for governance in Iraq that has spilled over to the region — [that is], a sectarianization of governance.
“What we have seen is essentially a Western-assisted collapse of the state system in the Arab world, at least in certain pockets,” she continued, citing the examples of Iraq, Libya and now Yemen. Bâli called the West’s approach to fighting ISIS “magical thinking” because the approach refuses to examine causal relationships. “ISIS emerged from Western intervention — it can’t be done away with the same,” she said. As long as the people in the territory currently held by ISIS prefer some kind of Sunni enclave between Syria and Iraq more than Western states are willing to prevent that outcome, it is unlikely such an enclave will be overturned, she said.
Two intertwined crises must be resolved in order to address terrorist attacks in Western cities, she continued. The first is the sectarian crisis between Shiite and Sunni Muslims in the Middle East, which has become part of a broader regional rivalry between Iran and Saudi Arabia. To resolve that crisis, Bâli insisted that Western countries had to rethink a strategy that premised regional security in the Middle East on Saudi Arabia. The latter country, she pointed out, “has been the purveyor and fomenter of many of the kinds of destabilizing ideologies that are now exploding in spectacular violence in Western cities.”
The second crisis is the West’s relationship to its own internal Muslim communities, which Bâli claimed was now directly intertwined with the crisis taking place in the region. Most Western recruits to ISIS are from France, which has Europe’s biggest Muslim population, she noted. “Their alienation is specific to postcolonial descendants living in France,” said the law professor, observing that it was Muslim women from the West, not the Middle East, who were joining ISIS. “These women have been politicized around their identity: they have been targeted to be made ‘invisible,’ as Dominic Thomas [just] explained,” she said.
Western nations are now doubling down on their security relationships with Saudi Arabia, adopting extreme measures that single out Muslim communities domestically and pushing refugees into detention conditions that make them ripe for further radicalization. These are the wrong choices, argued Bâli. The right choices, she said, would be a sane refugee policy that enabled Syrians to resettle and restart their lives, a focus on a political settlement in Syria and, in the medium term, addressing the intertwined causes of sectarianism in the Middle East and the disaffection of Muslim communities in the West.
* Suburbs; specifically, the suburbs on the outskirts of Paris where the French state has built public housing that primarily houses low-income immigrants, many of whom are Muslim.
All pictures by Peggy McInerny/ UCLA.
Please upgrade to a browser that supports HTML5 audio or install Flash.