An Attack on France, an Attack on Europe, an Attack on the West
To say it is too soon to attempt to understand what has happened in Paris – and what may still be happening as I write these lines from Montreal in the early evening of 13 November – is to state the obvious. But amidst these horrific events, here is an attempt to set out some of the parameters.
A first question is who the perpetrators are. According to early reports, the gunmen that have perpetuated the atrocities in Paris cried out Allah Akbar as they went about their evil. But this does not take us very far. To what extent are the terrorists foreigners, to what extent are they home grown, to what extent are they returnees?
A second question concerns the loyalties and affinities of the terrorists. Are they members of the Assad fan club? Are they agents of the Islamic State? Or are they neither, driven by a desire to use the Syrian crisis to deal with issues that have only marginally to do with Syria or even other troubled parts of the Middle East?
And thirdly, why has France been the target? Other states of the European Union have large Muslim populations, even if France’s is the largest. Other European states have to contend with difficult colonial legacies in the Muslim world. Other European states have been involved in the multilateral coalitions opposing either Assad or the Islamic State. And all face daunting challenges when it comes to integrating people who come from other places, of different colour, different moral convictions and different religious confession.
All that said, here is my very preliminary take.
I expect that the perpetrators are a mixed bag, with both internal and external actors being involved. It is difficult to imagine that foreigners could have engineered these attacks without internal support. It is also difficult to imagine that internal actors would have been able to put such attacks together without foreign inspiration and complicity.
I also expect that the perpetrators have an agenda that largely surpasses the Syrian crisis, even if the latter may have served as the key catalyst.
And France as the target? The country faces a Presidential election campaign in 2017. Today’s terrorist action –whoever its author, whatever its purpose – enhances the prospects of France’s extreme right –Marie Le Pen’s National Front – to come out on top. Le Pen’s party is anti-Muslim, anti-immigration and anti-EU. To say it is politically Luddite would almost be a compliment. Should it win in 2017, its ascendancy would likely usher in a witch hunt against France’s domestic Muslim population. As in Donald Trump’s would-be America, this is a recipe for stigmatisations, state-tolerated violence and expulsions, with debilitating implications for the national economy. Should France go this route, the already much-weakened European Union would find it increasingly difficult to maintain itself as a viable actor for its 500 million citizens. France is for the EU an indispensable nation.
It gets worse. A critically-dysfunctional EU also translates into a strategic eclipse of the West. As a concept and a community, the West needs a viable union of Europeans to survive: without such a union, the North Americans lack an effective partner, and without effective transatlantic partnership, there can be no West. These are dangers, of course, that were not just born on 13 November 2015.
The terrorist onslaught in Paris may not have had this complex in its sights. I expect it had. But even if not, it has dealt the notion of domestic civility, European solidarity and Western civilisation a stunning blow.
How to respond? Here is a short-list. The French establishment needs to embed the toughness of its anti-terrorist response in a message of inclusion to its Muslim population. France’s Muslim leadership needs to make crystal clear its solidarity with the majority population of which it is part. France’s European and North American partners need to do likewise. Crucially, the leaderships of Muslim countries – I think in particular but not only of Saudi Arabia – need to take a more strident step into the 21st century, making it clear to their religious hierarchies that they can continue to fight lost obscurantist battles or embrace societal change, however meekly and slowly this can only come.
The terrorist attacks in Paris say that France, the EU and the Western community need to do a whole bunch of things differently, more resolutely and effectively. If we want to honour those that have fallen in Paris, this is really the only way we can proceed.