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Chaos in the Middle East. The aftermath of the #ParisAttacks

Extract from The World of ABC Economics, No. 1, 12/2015.

FRANCESCO FINUCCI  * – The recent attacks carried out by fanatic Islamists in Paris came to feed the European dilemma over the way how the current crisis in the Middle East must be dealt with. The process following the attacks was a standard one: estimating the severity of the event, individuating the source of the threat, isolating it. The acts of terror come months after the first wave of attacks in Paris and years after the (temporary) extinction of the wave of attacks following 9/11. Today, decoding the ongoing crisis affecting Europe is not going to be as easy as expected ten years ago.

One of the topics covered by journalists after the attacks focused on whether the terrorists were lone wolves or not. This is a key element in terrorism studies and it is obviously aimed at understanding where the attackers came from and who are the minds behind the event itself. But here a first problem emerges. As highlighted by Raffaele Alberto Ventura, “terrorists are not lone wolves, but rather fishes swimming in the water of resentment lying in banlieues”. Thus, while the theory of lone wolves aims at explaining the facts taking place in Paris as the action of loose cells weakly linked to other larger organisations, the scenario portrayed by Ventura is totally different: terrorism grows in a thicker, denser environment which involves each and every individual.

This raises one of the most important interrogatives emerging from the double wave of attacks in Paris. Can we really isolate terrorists? Can we scare chaos away from us? When placing party allegiances and political controversies aside, this problem seems to be close to the debate involving the two main trends of the English School of international relations theory. While Solidarists promote collective norms aimed at defending the individual as human being, Pluralists defend the independence and stability of the state over any other consideration. What should it be Europe’s approach, now that the violent winds of Syria hit Paris so severely? The rush to establish criteria defining borders between threatened and threatening communities may seem as a solution, as it aims to containerising the international society: once one country is in chaos, we prevent chaos from contaminating the international system by interrupting all ways along which contagion may erupt. But this strategy may prove a seriously dangerous trap for Europe.

Economist terror

This trap has been highlighted by many observers, for different reasons. First of all, as according to Janeczek, the leaving of a Syrian passport by terrorists show the attack from the point of view of a greater strategy: the purpose of using it as a large first fire toward the eruption of violence among Muslims and non-Muslims. This is consistent with Spannaus’ warning: the aim is the one of encouraging radicalisation. That is, for what concerns France, feeding the fear of an upcoming civil war. This resonates with the inner nature of terrorism, whose target is not the person attacked, but the larger community it comes from; but it also reflects another problem: the multiplication of threatening individuals among people we meet in our everyday life.

So, the target is not the victim of the attack, but all non-Muslim people, but also the perpetrator is not the attacker, but rather the entire Muslim community. Needless to say, this is the ABC of civil war.

The problem of containerising the international society to save the “healthy” part of it is that crises don’t come in waves – as it may be suggested by refugees fleeing Syria – but through contagion. Ideas are contagious, and as much are their precursors as fear, hate and hope. Fear, hate and hope ignite ideas, so leading to the contagion. So how will we prevent fear from intoxicating our societies? Fear is toxic, it undermines the script allowing the functioning of democracy, hijacking it. But violence is too, and comes with no surprise how among the scholars cited by Giles Fraser in his article following the attacks is prominent the enormous contribution provided by René Girard on the argument: “You punch me, I punch you back. You bomb us, we bomb you. And so the cycle repeats itself again, tit for tat. Girard used the term mimesis, which is a fancy word for copying. And its tragic and disturbing consequence is that, over time, combatants come to look more and more like each other. They become like enemy twins – though both use any means possible to morally distinguish themselves from each other. Still, they respond to each other in the same way”.

While Girard words sound like a far echo coming from “primitive” societies, the argument offered by Roger Eatwell is not, as it addressed violence in a country as Britain: extremism is cumulative, that is, it grows thanks to the interaction by opposite extremist groups, so eroding the cohesion of the entire society. Once more, this argument emerges as a reminder of the “civil war threat”, which is enshrined in the concept that in the end, terrorism is just the postponement of insurgency. A society broken long religious, ethnic, political borders is significantly easier to be thrown into chaos. It is easy then to remind how atrociously the cycle of violence backlashed in Iraq and Afghanistan, how the mass surveillance and extraordinary rendition systems elaborated by the US government didn’t enhance the security of the international society. They only accomplished Osama Bin Laden’s claims that in fact democracy is a lie, an hypocrisy juxtaposed between the West and the resources it yearns for. And the US reaction isn’t at all far from what we witness today when looking both at jihadists killing in Paris and the overreaction inherent the counter-jihad launched by the European far right.

 This is the destiny of the security dilemma, creating insecurity by trying to enhance security. As a consequence, getting rid of the Islamic State won’t turn out being an easy task, simply because the point won’t be getting rid of a terrorist network. The point will be reinvestigating the set of interactions taking place in today’s Europe among different ethnic, religious groups, and possibly among individuals themselves. The first blow was courageously provided by Foreign Policy with two articles, “France has been no friend to Muslims” and “the threat is already inside”. The story of both radical Islamism and the far right in the United Kingdom already showed its historical roots and its social psychological complexity, the same may be applied to France and the rest of Europe. Counter-terrorism will probably indulge in the classical tri-partition of reactions to terrorism: criminalisation, that is, the treatment of terrorists as common criminals to be arrested and condemned according to the law; accommodation, that is, the giving up by the State on some requests advanced by terrorists; repression, that is, the plain destruction of the network through the use of intelligence, police and military force.

Nevertheless, while Hollande’s regretless bombarding of ISIS clearly highlights what strategy the French government chose, the analysis and reflection over the nature and status of democratic institutions and practices in Europe may prove vital in order to understand and prevent not only terrorism, but violence as it is. The nature of violence is indeed complex and layered, as proved by history of far right groups as Public Enemy Number One (PEN1) in the United States and their origins as a defence against the violence of Asian gangs by white Americans; or the impact of humiliation suffered by White Britons and its links to the growing of the so-called “white backlash”; or even more critically the bewildering caused by the British Army in Ireland, and the one caused in Iraq by the sectarian policy led by the United States, which later fed the civil war affecting the country in 2006.

The discourse which is to follow the attacks then overcomes the debate over law enforcement – repressing, criminalising or appeasing – but it also surpasses the one over the now overindulged “root causes”. The discourse is rather about the reassessment of what is exactly that as an international society we’re standing for, what is that is to be defended, and what to be changed and improved. If what we stand for is not just security then we’re not discussing about counter-terrorism, as counter-terrorism defends security which is only the prerequisite of democracy, and not its synonymous. Ideas are thus once more primary in order to deal with what looks more and more like a political crisis. The thinking of an entrenchment into the fortress won’t save us from anything dealing with politics, as much as borders didn’t save governments from contagion during the Arab Spring. Extremists as much as political cynics are waiting for nothing else than a chance to blame as hypocrite rhetoric all this speaking of rights, justice and democracy. To offer an effective and powerful answer the best we can do now – beyond awareness and caution – is formulating an hypothesis for what rights, justice and democracy mean to us. An hypothesis whether what we built  so far is really enough to prevent anybody from losing so badly they fall into the clockwork of violence.

* Francesco Finucci – freelance journalist. MA International Relations at University of Birmingham



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