I have to admit that I have never liked the word “terrorism,” particularly when it is used by the US in the context that we are accustomed to seeing it used at present. However, the Paris attack targeting Charlie Hebdo cannot be described by any other word or label.
During the last days of the Cold War, the labelling of individuals or groups as “terrorist” was frequently both subjective and inconsistent. Former US President Ronald Reagan and his “neocon” disciples never labelled US-supported armed groups such as Nicaragua’s Contras, Mozambique’s RENAMO or Afghanistan’s Mujahedeen as “terrorists”—they were usually described as “freedom fighters”. However, Washington had no qualms about accusing organizations like the Palestine Liberation Organization (PLO) of being “terrorist”.
After the Cold War, which ended with a resounding victory for the West, the West began to prepare itself for the next post-Communist “enemy”; and soon enough Islam was nominated as the prime candidate.
In the meantime, Cold War alliances and allegiances also fell in the Muslim world as the Khomeini-led Iranian Revolution and the Afghan Mujahedeen phenomenon injected an unprecedented dynamism into the notion of “political Islam.” The shockwaves of this have spread out far and wide, from Indonesia to Senegal.
The early signs of this dynamism could be seen in Iran’s indulgent strategy of “exporting the (Shi’ite) revolution” through establishing affiliate Shi’ite parties and militias, such as the Al-Da’wa Party in Iraq, Amal (i.e. Lebanese Resistance Regiments) and later Hezbollah in Lebanon, and similar organizations elsewhere. In reaction to this, the decision taken by former Iraqi leader Saddam Hussein to confront Iran’s sectarian strategy created a groundswell of sympathy among the Sunni masses. This convinced Saddam—a Sunni Ba’athist—that he was the legitimate heir to the Nasserist Pan-Arab legacy, as well as the protector of the region’s Sunnis against the threat of the Iranian “Zoroastrian” enemy.
The irony here, however, was that the only Arab regime to side with Khomeini’s Iran was the only other fellow Arab Ba’athist regime of Syria. The truth behind this bizarre situation did not take long to emerge. What had originally been a secular Arab Socialist Ba’ath (i.e. Renaissance) movement was now developing into two fratricidal blocs: the first, a Sunni, tribal party in Iraq whose core leadership hailed from the town of Tikrit; and the second, an Iran-backed Alawi Shi’ite clan-based party in Syria whose core leadership came from the town of Qardaha.
Under the lengthy dictatorships of these pseudo-secular Ba’athist groups, Islamist organizations became the loudest dissenting voices and, later on, the strongest political and subsequently armed opposition.
In Iraq, the Iran-backed Shi’ite parties and militias could only win their fight against Saddam Hussein thanks to the US-led invasion of 2003 which brought down Saddam and culminated in the country being handed over to pro-Iran Shi’ite parties. On the other hand, in Syria, Sunni Islamists became so powerful that the regime felt it had to destroy them. Indeed, the Assad regime attempted to liquidate them in early 1982 through the infamous massacre of Hama. But this attempt, along with dissatisfaction with the government’s corruption and Iranian connections, turned many parts of Syria into “incubators” for Islamists of all hues.
The political positions adopted by the West, particularly the US, have so far treated the Iraqi and Syrian cases differently: Washington did not hesitate to hand the reins in Iraq to Iran’s Shi’ite followers and later rushed to help their beleaguered government against the threat of the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS). But as for Syria, the Barack Obama administration has badly let down the Syrian people’s uprising against the Assad dictatorship and is now implicitly and virtually throwing Syria into the laps of Russia and Iran. This policy is based on Obama’s expressed belief that Shi’ite extremists are more malleable and rational than their Sunni counterparts.
Today, what we are witnessing is a war being fought by the US against Sunni extremist “takfirists” with total disregard of Iran’s advances into the Arab Middle East. A situation like this can only increase—albeit, indirectly—Sunni sympathy with these extremists, bearing in mind that this is taking place in a highly frustrated and anxious environment where the people are threatened with being uprooted and forced diaspora. We have already seen how allowing the Syrian tragedy to continue unchecked and unresolved has attracted extremist fighters to Syria from all over the world, including the US and Europe. However, what has happened in France under the pretext of “defending Islam” does not follow the same Middle Eastern scenario, especially regarding its Shi’ite angle. The reason being that there is a specific “North African Case” with its own special dimension in Western Europe, and particularly in France as the major former colonial power in North and West Africa.
It is true that the War in Afghanistan, and the emergence of Al-Qaeda and other Sunni Muslim “jihadist” and extremists groups in North Africa, contributed to this situation. But there are also several local, regional, colonial and economic factors that have had their own momentum.
Cultural alienation, stemming from an identity crisis, has for some time plagued France’s Muslim youth—most of whom are third generation immigrants. Unlike their parents, this generation was born and bred in Europe and thus are “European” and in this particular case “French”. This generation has not, for various reasons, adapted and acclimatized with its adoptive surroundings and claims it is not enjoying the full rights of citizenship it is entitled to. In this sense, it is not very different from how some third generation immigrants from the Indian subcontinent feel about their treatment in the United Kingdom or those of Turkish descent in Germany.
The 1991 riots in the poor Parisian suburbs served notice about the brewing “alienation” of this community, aggravated by the rhetoric and policies of the extreme right-wing National Front, in the same way the early 1989 anti-Salman Rushdie protests in the UK revealed a cultural gap unbridgeable by simplistic measures. Then, in 2001 came the September 11 attacks in the US which served to alert these aggrieved, socially marginalized, and religiously and culturally alienated youth to the fact that they still have a say, and can show their rejection, even through suicidal terror. The same message became clearer after the 7/7 attacks in London in 2005, carried out by British born and bred Asian Muslims.
The point that must be forcefully made is that France’s “terrorists” do not represent Islam—whether as a religion, an identity or a culture. It must be stressed too that it is not in the interests of Islam and Muslims to fight against the world community and reject its cultures, and by equal measure it is not in the interest of the world community to push Muslims further towards frustration and despair that can only result in alienation and hatred.
What has been happening in France is exceptionally dangerous; but all concerned must, and very quickly, prevent those seeking a “clash of civilizations” from achieving their vicious aims through actions that have nothing to do with any civilization whatsoever.