William Crona delves deeper into the atrocities of last week.
Soon after 21.00 GMT on Friday evening, the French capital was subjected to a display of violence and terror in its streets that has no equal in recent history.
I am sure we have all read the details. In a streak of synchronised attacks, gunmen wearing explosive vests opened fire outside bars, restaurants and cafés in the central districts of Paris.
The bloodiest attack, on the Bataclan concert hall, left some 80 people dead.
In the north of Paris, president Francois Hollande was one of 80,000 people in attendance at a friendly game between France and Germany at the Stade de France stadium when explosions went off outside the stadium that left 3 people dead. Combined, the attacks took 129 lives.
On Saturday, Islamic State released a statement claiming responsibility for the attacks. In an undated video released by the terrorist organisation, an IS fighter claims that the attacks are a response to French airstrikes in Syria. He says in Arabic, “as long as you keep bombing you will not live in peace. You will even fear travelling to the market.”
President Hollande described Friday’s atrocities as an “act of war”. He continued to say that, “the country must take appropriate action… France will be pitiless in its response to the Islamic State militants,” promising to “use all means within the law… on every battleground here and abroad together with our allies.”
Within 48 hours, France launched airstrikes, coordinated with the help of United States’ intelligence, against Islamic State targets around al-Raqqa, Syria.
If the Islamic State’s claims of responsibility are true, then, as BBC’s Security Correspondent, Frank Gardner states, ”taken with their claim of bringing down the Russian airliner over Sinai in October, it marks an alarming step-up in their global reach.”
This is not the last attack on the West that we will see perpetrated by the self- styled jihadist organisation, IS, and its affiliates. What each act of terror on western soil since 9/11 has served to underscore is that the illusion, built up in the decades after World War II, of the West’s impenetrability is no longer sustainable. The self-preserving belief that we are at a safe distance from this conflict is wrenched from us with each act of terror carried out on our doorsteps.
This war instantly becomes something far more than a story in the newspaper, something that we can freely and dispassionately devote a few minutes of our time to as we travel to work or watch the evening news. The militants are among us, it seems they want us to understand, and we are being confronted with a frightening reality.
Another important question is why France has emerged recently as one of the primary targets for the so-called jihadists? The combination of factors is too broad and complex to investigate fully here, but a few will be noted, none of which, I hope it is understood, are intended as any sort of justification for the violent acts of terror that have taken place. No provocation of any kind can be rightfully offered as justification for this kind of inhumane brutality.
We don’t need to be reminded that the responsibility for violence always lies with those who perpetrate it. Nevertheless, this violence has not, is not, taking place in a vacuum and it is necessary to explore the context if there is to be any hope of understanding the nightmare that is invading our reality.
Firstly, French policy regarding the conflict in Iraq and Syria has been more direct than any other European country. IS cite directly, as the reason for this latest attack, France’s role alongside the United States in launching air-strikes in Syria and Iraq, “striking Muslims in the lands of the caliphate.”
Another factor that demands attention is France’s historical role in the areas in which IS is currently operating. For the twenty-six years between 1920 and 1946, France ruled Syria as a mandate.
Unsurprisingly, French rule was unpopular and repeated uprisings in Syria throughout the mandate period faced ruthless suppression by French forces, with casualties sometimes numbering in the thousands.
This legacy of violent rule, it would appear, has not gone out of popular memory. It is not inconceivable that in targeting France, jihadists carry with them a memory of France’s bloodstained colonial past that serves, from their perspective, as a justification for their acts of terrorism.
There are numerous instances of more recent problematic foreign intervention in the Middle East, involving many countries other than France. What the historical context underscores, however, are the deep roots of the grievances that underlie current hostilities.
Furthermore, there is a more pronounced split in French society than in Britain for example, resulting from what some consider to be failed assimilation policies. Controversial policies, such as the burka ban, have contributed to a sense that in order for Muslims (among others) to assimilate into French culture, they are forced to surrender symbolically important aspects of their identity.
The marginalisation of minorities in France and the sense of a societal divide has only been exacerbated since the Charlie Hebdo attacks last January.
As of February 2015, the National Observatory Against Islamophobia reported 116 acts of anti- Muslim behaviour, including vandalism at holy sites, acts of violence against individuals and threats. This figure records just two months of data for 2015 and is higher than the overall figure for 2014.
It is dificult to take a stand on whether this latest act of violence, which surpasses the Charlie Hebdo massacre in both scope and severity, is intended to provoke the French into further armed conlict in Syria and Iraq.
On the one hand, it’s difficult to think that such an act of terrorism against France could fail to produce anything but a radical response. On the other hand, Aris Roussinos of VICE News offers a persuasive argument that when IS suffers humiliating defeats in its heartlands, as has occurred over the past two weeks, they employ a compensatory “grim PR strategy” of sensationalist attacks such as the ones witnessed in Paris and Beirut.
Currently, France’s response has been an immediate act of revenge. I do not think I am alone in saying that the news of France’s airstrikes has given me no solace and so sense of justice. It is simply satisfying a lust for revenge.
It is sinking to the level of those we claim to be superior to. If we truly believe in the human value of the 129 people who died in Paris on Friday, then how can we fathom standing in support of an immediate, uncalculated response that spills more blood?
Meanwhile, Friday’s attacks have initiated a tightening of security across several European countries. Poland has announced that it can no longer accept the share of migrants it had been allocated under an EU plan approved in September, many of whom are Syrian refugees.
In light of this, there is something else that we, as representatives of a culture that prides itself on liberty, tolerance and openness, must ensure.
Regardless of how France chooses to proceed, we – I am speaking to anybody who esteems the above principles – cannot allow acts of evil like these to discourage us from upholding the very tenets upon which our culture prides itself.
We must do the opposite. We must stand firm and united by empathy and compassion for all the victims of terror: at home and abroad. We must take the mud of terrorism and turn it into the gold of humanism. We must ensure that innocent people are not made to suffer at our hands by false association with acts of cruelty with which they have no involvement.
Muslims everywhere must not be made to pay for the crimes of IS. Refugees must not be made to pay for the crimes of IS. It must be ensured that refugees, victims running from the very same groups who caused devastation in Paris on Friday, are not made to suffer as a result of these groups’ brutality.
We must ensure that people in the West are mobilised not only to feelings of mourning and empathy for any and all those affected by the attacks in France and Lebanon; but also feelings of empathy for refugees who are fleeing countries where IS’s terror is felt every day.
We must not let the barbarity of an evil minority impact the possibility of providing safety and welfare for a victimised majority.