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Magical Thinking about IsisAdam Shatz
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Vol. 37 No. 23 · 3 December 2015

Magical Thinking about Isis

Adam Shatz

3731 words

Before​ the Lebanese civil war, Beirut was known as the Paris of the Middle East. Today, Paris looks more and more like the Beirut of Western Europe, a city of incendiary ethnic tension, hostage-taking and suicide bombs. Parisians have returned to the streets, and to their cafés, with the same commitment to normality that the Lebanese have almost miraculously exhibited since the mid-1970s. Même pas peur, they have declared with admirable defiance on posters, and on the walls of the place de la République. But the fear is pervasive, and it’s not confined to France. In the last few weeks alone, Islamic State has carried out massacres in Baghdad, Ankara and south Beirut, and downed a Russian plane with 224 passengers. It has taunted survivors with threats of future attacks, as if its deepest wish were to provoke violent retaliation.

Already traumatised by the massacres in January, France appears to be granting that wish. ‘Nous sommes dans la guerre,’ François Hollande declared, and he is now trying to extend the current state of emergency by amending the constitution. Less than 48 hours after the event, a new round of airstrikes was launched against Raqqa, in concert with Russia. With a single night’s co-ordinated attacks, IS – a cultish militia perhaps 35,000 strong, ruling a self-declared ‘caliphate’ that no one recognises as a state – achieved something France denied the Algerian FLN until 1999, nearly four decades after independence: acknowledgment that it had been fighting a war, rather than a campaign against ‘outlaws’. In the unlikely event that France sends ground troops to Syria, it will have handed IS an opportunity it longs for: face to face combat with ‘crusader’ soldiers on its own soil.

Recognition as a war combatant is not IS’s only strategic gain. It has also spread panic, and pushed France further along the road to civil strife. The massacre was retribution for French airstrikes against IS positions, but there were other reasons for targeting France. Paris is a symbol of the apostate civilisation IS abhors – a den of ‘prostitution and vice’, in the words of its communiqué claiming responsibility for the attacks. Not only is France a former colonial power in North Africa and the Middle East but, along with Britain, it helped establish the Sykes-Picot colonial borders that IS triumphantly bulldozed after capturing Mosul. Most important, it has – by proportion of total population – more Muslim citizens than any other country in Europe, overwhelmingly descendants of France’s colonial subjects. There is a growing Muslim middle class, and large numbers of Muslims marry outside the faith, but a substantial minority still live in grim, isolated suburbs with high levels of unemployment. With the growth rate now at 0.3 per cent, the doors to the French dream have mostly been closed to residents of the banlieue. Feelings of exclusion have been compounded by discrimination, police brutality and by the secular religion of laïcité, which many feel is code for keeping Muslims in their place. Not surprisingly, more than a thousand French Muslims have gone off in search of glory on the battlefields of Syria and Iraq. Most of these young jihadis became radicalised online not in the mosque. Some, like the perpetrators of the attacks in January and November, have histories of arrest and time spent in prison; about 25 per cent of IS’s French recruits are thought to be converts to Islam. What most of the jihadis appear to have in common is a lack of any serious religious training: according to most studies, there is an inverse relationship between Muslim piety and attraction to jihad. As Olivier Roy, the author of several books on political Islam, recently said, ‘this is not so much the radicalisation of Islam as the Islamicisation of radicalism.’

By sending a group of French – and Belgian – citizens to massacre Parisians in their places of leisure, IS aims to provoke a wave of hostility that will end up intensifying disaffection among young Muslims. Unlike the Charlie Hebdo massacre, the 13 November attacks were universally condemned. The victims were of every race, the murders were indiscriminate, and many Muslims live in Seine-Saint-Denis, where the bombing at the the Stade de France took place. In theory, this could have been a unifying tragedy. Yet it is Muslims who will overwhelmingly bear the brunt of the emergency measures and of the new rhetoric of national self-defence. Fayçal Riyad, a Frenchman of Algerian parents, who teaches at a lycée in Aubervilliers, a few hundred metres from where the 18 November raid against the fugitive attackers took place, pointed out the change in the air. ‘In his January speech,’ Riyad said, ‘Hollande clearly insisted on the distinction between Islam and terrorism. This time he not only abstained from doing so, but in a way he did the opposite by speaking of the necessity of closing the frontiers, insinuating that the attackers were foreigners, but above all in echoing the National Front’s call for stripping binational French people of their nationality if they’re found guilty of acts against the interests of the country. So that is aggravating our fear.’ Marine Le Pen, whose National Front expects to do well in the regional elections in December, is exultant. But anti-Muslim sentiment is hardly confined to the far right. There has been talk in centre-right circles of a Muslim fifth column; a leading figure in Sarkozy’s party has proposed interning 4000 suspected Islamists in ‘regroupment camps’.

IS achieved a further strategic objective by linking the massacre to the refugee crisis. The memory of Aylan Kurdi, the three-year-old boy from Kobani who was found drowned on a Turkish beach, has now been eclipsed by a passport found near the corpse of one of the attackers. That this assailant made his way to France through Greece, carrying a passport in the name of a dead Syrian fighter, suggests careful planning. The purpose is not merely to punish Syrians who have fled the caliphate, but to dampen European compassion for the refugees – already strained by unemployment and the growth of right-wing, anti-immigrant parties. Marine Le Pen called for an immediate halt to the inflow of Syrian refugees; Jeb Bush suggested that only Christian Syrians be admitted into the United States. If the West turns its back on the Syrian refugees, the effect will be to deepen further their sense of abandonment, another outcome that would be highly desirable to IS.

It is hard not to feel sentimental about the neighbourhoods of the 10th and the 11th, where IS attacked Le Petit Cambodge and the Bataclan theatre. I know these neighbourhoods well; a number of my journalist friends live there. In a city that has become more gentrified, more class-stratified and exclusionary, they are still reasonably mixed, cheap and welcoming, still somehow grungy and populaire. Odes to their charms have flooded the French press, as if the attacks were primarily an assault on the bobo lifestyle. ‘They have weapons. Fuck them. We have champagne,’ the front page of Charlie Hebdo declared. But as the journalist Thomas Legrand noted on France Inter, ‘the reality is that we have champagne … and also weapons.’

France has been using those weapons more frequently, more widely, and more aggressively in recent years. The shift towards a more interventionist posture in the Muslim world began under Sarkozy, and became even more pronounced under Hollande, who has revealed himself as an heir of Guy Mollet, the Socialist prime minister who presided over Suez and the war in Algeria. It was France that first came to the aid of Libyan rebels, after Bernard-Henri Lévy’s expedition to Benghazi. That adventure, once the US got involved, freed Libya from Gaddafi, but then left it in the hands of militias – a number of them jihadist – and arms dealers whose clients include groups like IS. France has deepened its ties to Netanyahu – Hollande has made no secret of his ‘love’ for Israel – and criminalised expressions of support for the Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions movement.1 Hollande’s pursuit of ‘economic diplomacy’ in the Arab world is a euphemism for an ever cosier relationship with the Saudi kingdom, whose export of Wahhabist doctrine has done much to spread jihadist ideology. The alliance is an old one. It was a team of French commandos who came to the kingdom’s defence during the 1979 siege of Mecca by a group of radical Islamists; the Saudis then beheaded 63 of the perpetrators, in public executions of a kind now practised by IS, the kingdom’s bastard children. Exploiting Saudi anger over Obama’s pursuit of a rapprochement with Tehran, France has aligned itself with the Saudis on Iran’s nuclear programme and on Syria, and is now competing with the US to become Saudi Arabia’s top supplier of advanced military technology.2

In one of his last interviews, Tony Judt said:

When Bush said that we are fighting terrorism ‘there’ so that we won’t have to fight them ‘here’, he was making a very distinctively American political move. It is certainly not a rhetorical trope that makes any sense in Europe, [where politicians recognise that] if we begin a war between Western values and Islamic fundamentalism, in the manner so familiar and self-evident to American commentators, it won’t stay conveniently in Baghdad. It is going to reproduce itself thirty kilometres from the Eiffel Tower as well.

The French government refuses to accept any such thing. Most people in Paris were stunned by 13 November, but not those who were listening to IS. Weeks earlier, Marc Trévidic, a magistrate who specialises in terrorism cases, warned in Paris Match that France had become IS’s ‘number one enemy’ because of its activities in the Middle East. ‘It’s always the same story,’ he said in an interview after the attacks. ‘We let a terrorist group grow into a monster, and when it attacks us, we’re surprised … And we’re friends with countries that are responsible for disseminating this ideology – Saudi Arabia … We’re in a total paradox.’

There has been a lot of magical thinking about IS. Liberal hawks, like Roger Cohen in the New York Times, have called for a ground offensive in the usual Churchillian terms – something no Western leader has any appetite (or sizeable constituency) for after Afghanistan and Iraq. Leftists have demanded an end to the drone war, a breaking of ties with Saudi Arabia and the creation of a Palestinian state. According to a writer in the online magazine Jadaliyya, only ‘hallucinating’ neoconservatives could argue that the attacks target the West or France for what they are, rather than for what they do. But IS says very clearly in its communiqué that it’s attacking Paris both for ‘the crusader campaign’ and as ‘the capital of prostitution and vice’ – and it seems obtuse not to take it at its word. To be sure, anger over Western policies is among the drivers of recruitment for groups like IS, but IS is not a purely reactive organisation: it is a millenarian movement with a distinctly apocalyptic agenda. As Elias Sanbar, a Palestinian diplomat in Paris, points out, ‘One of the most striking things about Islamic State is that it has no demands. All the movements we’ve known, from the Vietcong to the FLN to the Palestinians, had demands: if the occupation ends, if we get independence, the war ends. But Daesh’s project is to eliminate the frontiers of Sykes-Picot. It’s like the Biblical revisionism of the settlers, who invent a history that never existed.’ The creation of a Palestinian state is a necessity, above all for Palestinians, but it’s not likely to make much of an impression on IS, which rejects the Middle Eastern state system entirely.

A far more subtle – but in some ways just as wishful – analysis has come from Olivier Roy, who argued in the New York Times that the Paris attacks are a sign of desperation rather than strength:

Isis’s reach is bounded; there are no more areas in which it can extend by claiming to be a defender of Sunni Arab populations. To the north, there are Kurds; to the east, Iraqi Shiites; to the west, Alawites, now protected by the Russians. And all are resisting it. To the south, neither the Lebanese, who worry about the influx of Syrian refugees, nor the Jordanians, who are still reeling from the horrid execution of one of their pilots, nor the Palestinians have succumbed to any fascination for Isis. Stalled in the Middle East, Isis is rushing headlong into globalised terrorism.

It’s an intellectually seductive and almost reassuring argument: IS appears to be on the march, but it’s actually in its death throes, having suffered losses in Kobani and Sinjar. But it’s also an argument that has been made before. After 11 September, it was widely argued that al-Qaida attacked the ‘far enemy’ in the West because it had failed to defeat ‘the near enemy’, the regimes of the Middle East. Today that theory seems less credible. Al-Qaida experienced a regional revival, thanks in large part to the Iraq war. And for IS, an offshoot of al-Qaida in Iraq, the distinction between near and far enemies is porous: all apostates are enemies. Although it has conquered a significant piece of territory – something bin Laden and Zawahiri never dared attempt – its power is only partly rooted in the caliphate. It is as keen to conquer virtual as actual territory. It draws on a growing pool of recruits who discovered not only IS but Islam itself online, in chatrooms and through messaging services where distance vanishes at the tap of a keyboard. Indeed, the genius of IS has been to overcome the distance between two very different crises of citizenship, and weave them into a single narrative of Sunni Muslim disempowerment: the exclusion of young Muslims in Europe, and the exclusion of Sunnis in Syria and Iraq.

Roy is right that IS can’t ‘win’ in any conventional sense, but it doesn’t have to expand the caliphate in order to remain in business. In the global society of the spectacle, it’s on a roll. Paris has seen its share of terrorist attacks since the 1970s, but the assault on the Bataclan felt very different, and even more disquieting than al-Qaida’s strikes in Madrid and London. Bombings on trains, because the perpetrators are invisible and death is as sudden as in an earthquake, are somehow more easily absorbed than killings by men in balaclavas, armed with Kalashnikovs, haranguing their victims before methodically mowing them down. The message seemed to be: this is what it feels like in Baghdad and Aleppo, this is what it feels like to be utterly helpless, this is what it feels like to be at war. And because the massacre was followed by promises of similar attacks in Paris and other ‘crusader’ cities, it has thrown into relief the impasse in which the West now finds itself, an impasse in large part of its own making.

Hollande may speak confidently of a war to destroy IS once and for all, but his options are limited, and unpalatable, and his lack of imagination imposes further constraints. Mass arrests, interrogations and surveillance could make France safer in the short term, only to drive another generation of alienated youths into the hands of IS. The state of emergency, which he is the only president other than Sarkozy to have invoked since the Algerian war, could quickly turn against him, deepening the sense among banlieue residents that they are an internally colonised population.3 The most important task of the French state is arguably to combat the roots of jihadist terrorism in France, where a Muslim name remains a liability. Third and fourth generation citizens of North African descent are still routinely described as ‘immigrants’, and the neighbourhoods where they live have been called ‘the lost territories of the Republic’, as if they weren’t even a part of France. A long-term project to end discrimination against Muslims, and ensure their participation in the workplace, civic life and politics, would help to reduce the temptations of radical Islamism. So would an effort to address the fact that 70 per cent of the prisoners in French jails are Muslims. But boldness and foresight are in short supply among French politicians, and terrorism and economic austerity may make them still scarcer. Hollande doesn’t want to be too far to Le Pen’s left in the next election.

The airstrikes France is conducting with Russian co-operation may provide the public with a taste of revenge, but airstrikes seldom turn people against their rulers and often do the opposite. In co-ordinating the strikes with Russia, Hollande is moving in a direction fervently advocated by the French right, which has been suffering from an acute case of Putin envy. But such an alliance could, yet again, play into IS’s hands: other than Assad, there is no figure more reviled by Syrian Sunnis than Putin, so an air war in concert with Russia and in tacit alliance with Assad would fan the flames of Sunni anger, and be further fuel for IS propaganda.

In a recent interview with Vice, Obama described IS as a child of the Iraq war. It’s true that if it weren’t for the dismantling of the Iraqi state, and its replacement by a Shia-dominated sectarian system, IS would probably not exist. And in its war against the Sykes-Picot frontiers, IS has paid a peculiar homage to the neoconservatives who have always viewed the post-Ottoman borders as artificial constructs, a map to be redrawn in blood, with multi-confessional states replaced by ethnically exclusive, weak statelets: Christian Lebanese, Kurdish and Shia.

But the problem of IS can’t be laid exclusively at the door of Bush, Blair et al. The war in Libya, and Obama’s accommodation with the Sisi regime in Egypt, have encouraged the spread of IS well beyond Iraq. It is, however, the US’s dangerously incoherent Syria policy that has perhaps done the greatest damage. When Obama called for Assad to step down, apparently confident that his days were numbered because an American president had said so, he raised the expectations of the opposition that the US had their backs, in the event that Assad began firing on them. But Obama had no intention of sending troops, or imposing a no-fly zone. His determination to will the means for Assad’s removal has never matched Russia’s or Iran’s determination to keep him in power. The result was to leave the Syrian opposition exposed to Assad’s war.

Assad, who read American intentions better than the opposition, was emboldened by Obama’s obvious wish not to be drawn directly into the war, even after the famous ‘red line’ was crossed. Unable to secure direct support from the US, the various, increasingly fragmented rebel groups looked for arms and aid wherever they could find them: Turkey, Qatar, Saudi Arabia and sheiks and businessmen in the Gulf. The support came with strings attached: namely, ideological guidance, and an increasingly assertive anti-Shia orientation. Thanks to the recklessness of Erdoğan and the Qataris, jihadist groups from Jabhat al-Nusra to IS hijacked the rebellion, while the West turned a blind eye, until it was forced to create its own, ineffectual ‘moderate’ rebels, who didn’t stand a chance against the Islamists. By insisting that Assad step down before any transition, Washington prolonged the war, and made the European refugee crisis inevitable: only so many refugees could be dumped in Lebanon, Turkey and Jordan.

All the actors in the Syria cauldron – the Gulf states, Turkey, Hizbullah, the Russians, the Americans – have had a hand in creating this monster, but no one seems to want to fight it, apart from the Kurds. The question of Assad’s fate has prevented the emergence of a unified Russian-American front against IS. Assad’s forces and their allies, including Hizbullah and the Iranian Revolutionary Guard, have focused their attacks on Syrian rebel groups which, unlike IS, have directly challenged the regime. The Gulf states, whose imams have played no small part in the expansion of jihadist extremism, are too worried about Iran’s nuclear programme and the Houthis of Yemen to lift a finger, particularly if their actions end up strengthening Assad. Erdoğan’s main concern is not IS but the Kurdish rebels. The Americans and the French, until last year, took comfort in the notion that IS was a local actor, loathsome to be sure, but unlikely to strike at Western interests: an irritant, rather than a national security threat.

Now IS is unrivalled among jihadist groups, and no one knows quite what to do that won’t make the problem worse. Anything that can be done now risks being too little, too late. It’s true that IS is no match, militarily, for the West. The attacks of 13 November were in the anarchist tradition of the ‘propaganda of the deed’, and we shouldn’t fall for it: the social order of Europe isn’t in jeopardy. But it would also be a mistake to underestimate the problem. IS has managed to insert itself, with no small amount of cunning, and with acute sensitivity to feelings of humiliation, into two of the most intractable conflicts of our time: the relationship of European societies to their internal, Muslim ‘others’ and the sectarian power struggles that have engulfed the lands of Iraq and Syria since 2003.

In an earlier era, these conflicts might have remained separate, but they are now linked thanks to the very devices that are the symbol of globalisation, our phones and laptops. It no longer makes sense to speak of near and far, or even of ‘blowback’: the theatre of conflict has no clear borders, and its causes are multiple, overlapping and deeply rooted in histories of postcolonial rage and Western-assisted state collapse. The attacks in Paris don’t reflect a clash of civilisations but rather the fact that we really do live in a single, if unequal world, where the torments in one region inevitably spill over into another, where everything connects, sometimes with lethal consequences. For all its medieval airs, the caliphate holds up a mirror to the world we have made, not only in Raqqa and Mosul, but in Paris, Moscow and Washington.

20 November

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Letters

Vol. 37 No. 24 · 17 December 2015

Adam Shatz presents as ‘fact’ the notion that 70 per cent of France’s prison population is Muslim (LRB, 3 December). There can be little doubt that Muslims are over-represented in the prison population compared to the population at large, but the figure of 70 per cent is highly contentious and almost certainly wrong. The Gatestone Institute, a New York-based think tank on Muslim affairs whose board of governors is chaired by the neocon John Bolton, estimates that ‘more than half of the inmates in French prisons are believed to be Muslim, rising to 70 per cent in some urban areas.’ In January, after the Charlie Hebdo killings, the centre-right deputy Georges Fenech asserted that ‘roughly 60 per cent’ of the French prison population was Muslim; he cited a parliamentary report which said that this figure represented the proportion of prison inmates who ‘may be considered to be of Muslim religion or culture’. These figures appear to derive from a survey published in 2004 by the Franco-Iranian sociologist Farhad Khosrokhavar, L’Islam dans les prisons. The sample on which he based his findings comprised 160 inmates of four penal institutions in areas around Paris and in northern France, where there are high concentrations of residents of Muslim ancestry. He concluded that the proportion of Muslims in these institutions varied ‘between 50 and 80 per cent’. However the reliability of his sampling has been disputed.

The French administration as a matter of principle does not break down population data by race or religion. The precise number of prison inmates of Muslim religion or culture (not the same thing) will never be known. The only relevant official data come from a report by the prison administration in 2013 to the effect that out of a total of 67,000 inmates, 18,300 – 27 per cent – had registered as wishing to observe the dietary customs prescribed for the month of Ramadan.

Bernard Besserglik
Paris, France

‘Before the Lebanese civil war,’ Adam Shatz writes, ‘Beirut was known as the Paris of the Middle East. Today, Paris looks more and more like the Beirut of Western Europe.’ Perhaps the more cautious view on that point expressed by Patrick Cockburn in CounterPunch on 16 November is preferable: ‘The violence experienced hitherto in Paris is not comparable with Belfast and Beirut in the 1970s or Damascus and Baghdad today. Contrary to the hyperbole of wall-to-wall television coverage, the shock of living in a city being bombed soon wears off.’ Cockburn also draws attention to the possibility that instead of the atrocities acting as an incentive for effective action, the angry words may become a substitute for a real policy. On that point he and Shatz agree.

Those interested in the history of Northern Ireland – Belfast was often ‘twinned’ with Beirut by commentators from the mid-1970s onwards – will be familiar with the phrase ‘politics of the last atrocity’, coined by Erskine Holmes, chair of the Northern Ireland Labour Party. Holmes was taking Conor Cruise O’Brien to task for some of the things he said in the immediate aftermath of Bloody Sunday in January 1972, among them that British troops should withdraw from Northern Ireland and that civil war was imminent. The Provisional IRA took up the phrase in describing responses to terrorism which didn’t address the reasons behind it and didn’t look for a strategic way forward.

The pieces by Shatz and Cockburn show that this is still to a large extent the approach of the main actors, as evidenced by Obama’s ‘red lines’, or Hollande’s ‘Nous sommes dans la guerre.’ One can only hope that some sort of impetus can be generated in the Vienna talks of the kind which produced the Taif Agreement for Lebanon in 1989.

James Grainger
Bishop’s Stortford, Hertfordshire

Adam Shatz gives a good account of the French reaction to the recent outrages from a Parisian perspective, both in terms of national politics and in terms of the reactions of Parisians on the spot. The view from the depths of the countryside is somewhat different. In particular, I think he has the wrong idea about the function of laïcité in French life. It is, he says, something that ‘many feel is code for keeping Muslims in their place’. If he is talking about the feelings of French Muslims, a few of them may feel that way: but many of them also feel that France is run by Jews, that Charlie Hebdo was attacked by the CIA, and so on. I doubt if many non-Muslim French people feel that way, anyway.

La laïcité clearly exists to keep not Islam but the Catholic Church in its place. Hilaire Belloc argued in an idiosyncratic but learned study of Cardinal Richelieu that modern France is the product of a religious rather than a strictly political project (specifically, an attempt to keep the French church separate from a Habsburg-dominated Vatican). Napoleon actually imprisoned Pope Pius VII during lengthy manoeuvres to see who would be master. The compromise that has been found to prevent similar conflicts of interest arising in more recent times is twofold: on the one hand, there are institutional measures to separate church and state, as in other countries, and on the other there is a broad social taboo on the discussion of religion in public. From kindergarten on, French children have it drummed into them that religion is a private matter, something not to be discussed in the large area of French life that is in one way or another connected with the state.

With these latest attacks (it didn’t happen with Charlie Hebdo), the taboo on talking about religion appears to have been broken. Islam is suddenly being discussed. I don’t know whether this is a good thing or a bad thing. The level of discussion may not be very elevated – but it is a significant psychological change.

Christopher Lord
Jours-en-Vaux, France

Vol. 38 No. 2 · 21 January 2016

Adam Shatz writes that Sarkozy was the last French president before Hollande to have declared a state of emergency (LRB, 3 December 2015). In fact it was Chirac during the riots in 2005, at which time Sarkozy served as minister of the interior in the Villepin government.

Roland Zumkeller
New York

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