The Paris attacks: what kind of “game changer” are they?

So, a week and a half after the attacks on civilian targets in central Paris, including a stadium, a concert hall and several restaurants on Friday night supposedly by ISIS (or rather, a group of local supporters), the nonsense in the mainstream media is in full flow, with various pundits and so-called experts proclaiming it a “game changer” and others resorting to the tired clichés about blaming Sunni/Shi’a tensions, “Wahhabis” or the Saudis. Several newspapers led with ill-informed speculation that some of the terrorists came into Europe as “fake refugees” and the discovery of Syrian and Egyptian passports near the sites of the attacks immediately raised suspicion (the Egyptian government claimed that the Egyptian passport belonged to a victim, not an attacker). The attacks happened the same night as someone you might better expect to be a target spoke to an audience of 60,000 at Wembley stadium in London, including the Leicester MP Keith Vaz who donated his pay rise to fund the event: Narendra Modi, the prime minister of India, who was governor of the state of Gujarat when thousands of his fellow Hindu extremists went on the rampage, killing thousands of Muslims, raping others and burning houses and businesses in an obviously orchestrated pogrom. His event passed off without so much as a stone thrown.

The British Parliament before the Paris attacks, with an image of a swastika and the slogan "Modi Not Welcome" and the web address of Awaaz UKI would not want Modi assassinated; there are plenty of others where he came from who could take his place, and if he were killed in an accident, let alone assassinated, it would lead to a re-run of Rwanda on a much larger scale. I want him put on trial and punished, as difficult as this might be given that many of the eyewitnesses to the crimes of 2002 were on his side. But I also think he should not have been allowed into the country, not to meet with politicians or royalty and not to address a crowd. He is reasonably suspected of involvement and while he may be innocent until proven guilty in a criminal context, when members of a movement he has been part of all his life commit murder, rape, arson and assault on a grand scale while he is in charge, this should cast a pall over any attempt he makes to appear respectable. Worse still, the broadcast media has displayed its usual cowardice about calling the pogrom what it was, using euphemisms such as “communal violence” which cast a shadow over his time in office. Broadcasters here would not be so mealy-mouthed when talking about Hamas violence, which has been on a much smaller scale than Gujarat and certainly does not match what the Hindu nationalists are capable of in the event of a real or imagined provocation while in power. I suspect the reason has less to do with Islamophobia than with the fact that he is in political favour here right now. He’s good for business (which means his country can provide cheap labour and destroy British jobs). But I’m sure some of the journalists parroting these phrases remember reporting on the pogrom when it happened.

The targeting of Paris on that of all nights is consistent with al-Qa’ida’s and ISIS’s history of hitting neutral or friendly targets rather than hostile ones. It also suggests that the grievances that got them involved in this activity in the first place are local and that their horizons are not that wide. Initially it appeared that the perpetrators were Syrian or Egyptian, on the basis of passports found near the scenes of the attacks, but so far, the perpetrators that have been identified are French or Belgian nationals. The widespread speculation that the terrorists were Syrians and other Arab nationals who entered Europe as ‘refugees’ has led to widespread calls for much tighter controls on Syrian refugees being allowed into Europe, or for a total ban on them. A number of US states (mostly with Republican governors) have said they will not accept any, but they do not have the power to refuse.

The tone of the editorials last weekend, especially in the right-wing press, was that this attack was a “game changer” and that nobody should now be standing in the way of military action against ISIS and enhanced powers for the security forces. In the British context, they are wrong on the second count especially. The attacks are a dramatic increase in scale from previous ISIS attacks in France, but they do not represent a widening of their horizons beyond France — the former colonial power in Syria. This doesn’t actually prove that they have the intention (as opposed to just the wish) to strike anywhere else: Britain does not have a large Arabic-speaking community, and more of it is affluent than is the case in France where there is a large community of impoverished, ghettoised people of North and West African descent in their notorious out-of-town slums. (We don’t have out-of-town slums to anything like the same extent and, at least in the case of the two I’m aware of near London, their inhabitants are mostly white.) The extremist ‘salafis’ were clamped down on in 2003 and their leaders arrested and in some cases imprisoned and deported (e.g. Abdullah Faisal, Abu Hamza, Abu Qatada), much to the relief of the other Muslims who lived in their areas and attended the same mosques (such as Finsbury Park and Regent’s Park).

Front page of the Sun, 22nd Nov 2015. Headline reads "1 in 5 Brit Muslims' sympathy for jihadis"The press here have also ran a series of inflammatory cartoons and front-page stories, including the Daily Mail’s cartoon showing rats coming into the UK alongside women in burqas, and the story on the front of the Sun today claiming that 1 in 5 British Muslims support “jihadis”. As the Independent points out, the headline is based on a question that asks if they have sympathy for people going abroad to fight in Syria — that is a category that is not limited to jihadis (some are joining the Kurdish forces); the poll asked if the respondents had some or a lot of sympathy, and the headline bundled the “some” and “a lot” categories into one; and it also failed to consider that “sympathy” does not mean that they condone it outright, or would do the same or encourage others to do the same; and the figure among non-Muslims was 14% when Sky News ran a poll in March. As the Independent points out, hate crime figures against Muslims have increased 300% since the Paris attacks and the majority of the 115 victims have been women. (The Guardian also notes that it is not known how the Muslims were sourced for the poll or how representative they are and that YouGov, the paper’s usual source for polls, refused to carry it out as “it could not be confident that it could accurately represent the British Muslim population within the timeframe and budget set by the paper”.) As with Modi, I have never heard of ISIS- or al-Qa’ida-affiliated terrorists attacking newspapers that publish mendacious junk that foments hatred of Muslims, nor their individual columnists and editors, which demonstrates that their agenda has nothing to do with the welfare of Muslims here any more than in France. Nobody is talking about Modi now, or his degree of culpability for the riots, or what he and his thugs might do while in power in India. It’s no longer important.

Michael Burleigh had an article published in the Mail on Sunday the Sunday after the attacks, in which he called for “forging a grand alliance with Iran and Russia in the manner of the Second World War” and for postponing a “reckoning with the ‘butcher’ Assad” if necessary as he “is not the main threat”. He made the standard call for an end to multiculturalism and “telling British Muslims that they are not neutral bystanders when their young people join or support IS or equivalent groups … better some plain speaking than the usual evasive multicultural garbage”. First, it is doubtful whether Russia and Iran are reliable allies in any fight against ISIS. Russia joined World War II because Germany invaded; its own interests were threatened and it gained enormously in terms of expanded influence by the result. ISIS are not a direct threat to Russia, right now. They are on Assad”s side, but have not translated this support into action against ISIS, as opposed to against other anti-Assad groups. Putting Assad back in power across Syria is not an answer, as his clan will want revenge against those who challenged their authority, much as was the case after the Hama uprising in 1982. A return to the status quo ante in Syria is impossible.

His article also makes the oft-repeated claim that Muslims’ stance on ISIS is unclear. This is very far from the truth. Muslims’ condemnation of ISIS has been very thorough and unequivocal and has come from across the religious spectrum, including from quarters which were slow to accept that al-Qa’ida were responsible for 9/11 and promoted conspiracy theories (and sometimes, the more outlandish the better) for years. Muslims here cannot stop individuals running off to join ISIS, especially adults, because we have no power to stop them other than by informing the authorities or hiding or destroying their passports (the latter is illegal). The authorities have convinced themselves that British Muslims who join ISIS intend to come back and stage a terrorist attack, when in fact they may simply intend to emigrate, and evidence shows that they are not religious Muslims being radicalised in mosques, but people with family problems and criminal involvement and that their radicalisation occurs in clandestine online forums (it was reported that one of them had ordered the book Islam for Dummies off Amazon shortly before leaving!).

Like Burleigh, Jon Snow also makes the common mistake of blaming “Wahhabis” for just about all the violence that goes on in the Muslim world. In fact, the ‘mainstream’ of that sect has opposed al-Qa’ida from the beginning; as it is closely linked to the Saudi religious establishment, it opposes any kind of political agitation or rebellion against established authority, and even scholars not linked closely to the Saudi establishment (such as Yasir Qadhi) have widely attacked ISIS as ignorant and deviant. Snow also brings in the Sunni/Shi’a conflict “fought between Iran and Iraq in the eighties”. This argument rather sounds like the claim that is made about a lot of civil wars: that the two groups involved have been fighting each other for centuries and the hatreds are deeply-rooted and never far from the surface; it was said about the former Yugoslavia and it was said about Northern Ireland. It wasn’t true of either of those conflicts and it is not true here either. Sunnis and Shi’ites have not always been in conflict and are not always destined to be in conflict whenever they find themselves in the same space, and during the Iran-Iraq war, Shi’ites served in the Iraqi army.

A red-brick building on a street corner, with the signs reading "Jupiter: Les Beguines".It was initially supposed (on the basis of some passports found in the vicinity of the attacks, now known to have been fakes) that some of the attackers were people who had come in among the refugees from the Syrian civil war. I immediately believed that this was unlikely, as ISIS surely would want to make sure their operatives and weaponry made it to their target, rather than getting stuck in a refugee camp in Hungary or drowning when an overloaded boat capsized in the Aegean Sea. All but one of the attackers are known now to have been French or Belgian citizens, with another having used a fake Syrian passport and an identity that another man also uses, suggesting that they bought documents from the same counterfeiter. It’s also known now that several of them were not religious, two of them owning a bar in Brussels until shortly before the attacks and some of them were petty criminals. A woman killed in a raid on a flat in Saint-Denis last week was claimed to be Europe’s first female suicide bomber (and various details of her lifestyle were broadcast, including a picture of her in the bath), but we now know that she was killed by the police after making what they insist was a false attempt at surrender (something they were supposedly certain of because of prior intelligence).

This has not stopped politicians in both the UK and USA, where there is a Presidential election next year and the front-runners for the Republican nomination are two moronic outsiders, Ben Carson and Donald Trump, from competing to prove who will will be tougher on not only Syrian refugees but also on American Muslims. Trump in particular proposed a register of all American Muslims, something nobody seems to have pointed out is against the First Amendment (Bush’s register worked because it was targeted at non-citizens from specific countries, regardless of religion). Others (including British retired General Richard Dannatt) have suggested transporting male Syrian refugees to Syria or Iraq to form some sort of army to fight ISIS. The reason this is a dangerous idea is that many of the refugees have said that they are fleeing Assad, not ISIS, and there is no guarantee that some of those sent back after making a perilous journey across Europe will not simply defect, or that the ‘army’ will not become simply another faction, and nobody seems to have considered the possible impact of a large group of men separated from their families on local women and girls. Why should we expect Syrian refugees to help us fight our enemy, when we betrayed them when they tried to fight theirs?

Another example of a stupid response to the Paris atrocities came from the feminist writer Victoria Brownworth, who claimed in an article for the lesbian magazine Curve that “not all men are terrorists, but all terrorists are men”. She also said that she had received a number of hate messages after posting tweets defending Muslims, all of which came from men. In other words, the attacks were another example of “male violence” which is something nobody is saying (except herself and others like her). The problem is that not all terrorists are in fact men. Women have functioned as terrorists and as helpers to terrorists in almost every conflict in the last century, including Northern Ireland, Sri Lanka, Chechnya and Palestine. They have fought, held hostages, been suicide bombers, and helped behind the scenes by storing and smuggling weapons and by producing and presenting propaganda. The leaders are, it’s true, nearly always men. But there are no shortage of women agreeing with them, even when their views might strike anyone else as profoundly inhumane or misogynistic (the presence of women in extreme animal rights activity is another example). Al-Qa’ida and ISIS are rare among terrorist groups in not using women in front-line roles. And men do not have a monopoly on bigotry and hate either; women have been filmed abusing people of ‘foreign’ appearance on British public transport and have been active in all the major racist groups and parties, including the EDL.

A map of US states showing those that have "surrendered to ISIS" by refusing to take ISIS's victims and those who have "told ISIS to fuck off" (California, Washington, Minnesota, Pennsylvania, Delaware and Connecticut).The attacks have led to some positive responses. One of the attempted hate attacks, on a Muslim woman on a Metro train in Newcastle, ended when other passengers intervened on the victim’s behalf and the aggressor was forcibly ejected from the carriage. In response to calls to pull up the drawbridge on refugees, it was pointed out that ISIS may have in fact intended to close off emigration routes to the west by planting fake Syrian passports and making the attackers look like refugees, and shutting out refugees was just what they wanted; a map was then circulated showing US states who have “told ISIS to go f**k themselves” or “surrendered to ISIS” by welcoming or excluding refugees, respectively. The best analysis so far, in my opinion, came from Haroon Moghul on the website Quartz, which put the attacks down to ISIS’s strategy in which they “find a major fault line, seek to undertake an attack that will widen this fissure, and reap the whirlwind as people in divided societies run in opposite directions”. So the ghettoised, impoverished and stigmatised condition of France’s Muslim minority “help explain why France is so repeatedly targeted” by ISIS-affiliated terrorists, but they are not the ultimate reason.

Politicians and press in the UK are acting as if Britain must be next in line for an ISIS attack. This is a misplaced assumption. The same cells carrying out the attacks in Paris know the city well; they may not have the same knowledge of London or the required connections. The community here is different; it does not even speak the same languages as the Muslim community in France. It is better integrated and not subject to open official harassment or discrimination. The number of people radicalised by exposure to civil war or to secular state tyranny (Algeria, Egypt) is much lower here. Britain’s Muslims are also more religious: the traditions are stronger and the power of mainstream Islam, the four madhhabs (or rather, one of them) and Sufism (rather than the mixture of modernism and ‘salafism’ which predominates in many Arab countries) persists. The scholars and religious schools are not compromised by their connections to government, as is the case in much of the Arab world. Mosques are open, not clandestine as with many mosques in France. Britain’s Muslim community has also had a debate about terrorism since 9/11 and the 2005 London bombings; France is quite new to this kind of terrorism and the evidence suggests that it does not come from religious Muslims who could be persuaded by moderate, mainstream religious scholars.

Front page of the Sun following the Hillsborough stadium disaster, reading "The Truth: Some fans picked pockets of victims; Some fans urinated on the brave cops; Some fans beat up PC giving kiss of life". These accusations were false.I started writing this the Sunday after the attacks. At the time, I believed the talk of the attacks being a “game changer” was hype. The attacks were not a major departure from the existing behaviour of ISIS in France and while the death toll was twice that of London 2005, they were a fraction of those of 9/11. Now it appears that the attacks have strengthened the most bigoted, ignorant and power-hungry factions in western society, as perhaps they were intended to, so as to make life more difficult for Muslims already here, to make society less free and the state more intrusive, and to shut off the escape route for the refugees who flee from Assad away from ISIS rather than towards it. ISIS has, for most of its short history, been about taking territory in Syria and Iraq and building a state, which is why it attracted people who might previously have supported al-Qa’ida. Now that it is losing territory, it resorts to the old al-Qa’ida tactics of causing outrage by attacking unsuspecting civilians so as to provoke the apocalyptic global conflict they crave and force Muslims to choose sides. Barring a minority with family problems or a history of petty crime, most of us don’t support ISIS and have no wish to join them. It seems bigotry sells more papers than pulling people together to fight it on all fronts, but newspapers with a dubious respect for the truth (left) who turn their ill-educated readership against innocent Muslims in this country are doing ISIS’s work for them. Their role, and their ability to influence society in this way, must come under serious scrutiny.

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