This piece is a little long, friends, but I hope that it sheds some light on a difficult subject.
“WE ARE ALL EVERYONE”:
LESSONS OF THE PARIS ATTACKS
In the aftermath of the Islamic State’s cruel and vicious attacks in Paris, one is tempted to declare, “Nous sommes tous Paris” (“We are all Paris”). Before November 14, however, virtually no one in the West was heard to declare, “We are all Beirut” – or Baghdad, Ankara, or Moscow – notwithstanding that civilians living in all these places were killed en masse by IS militants. Nor have we ever identified ourselves in slogans or Facebook profiles with the innocent Shia, Yazidis, Assyrian Christians, and other non-Westerners executed as apostates by fighters of the Islamic State.
Our real slogan, I want to suggest, should not be “Nous sommes tous Paris,” but “Nous sommes tous tout le monde.” We are all Everyone, even those misguided enough to strap on a suicide belt in the cause of what they believe to be Islamic liberation.
“We are all Paris” is a mostly unconscious acting out of the late Samuel F. Huntington’s theory of the clash of civilizations. Its subtext is, “We are all educated, civilized, well employed, (mostly) white, (mostly) Christian Westerners” – an identity threatened by what French President Hollande calls IS barbarism. Of course, the jihadist attackers also believed that they were civilized people endangered by barbarism – in this case, the “perversions’ (as they put it) of a Parisian night life featuring commercial and nonprofit sex, illicit drugs, and rock and roll.
One side’s civilization is the other side’s barbarism. If we must have a clash of civilizations, as Huntington observed, we must also prepare for war. And the war drums have already started to boom, beaten not only by the usual suspects – Donald Trump and his ilk – but by ordinarily judicious commentators like Roger Cohen of the New York Times.
In a recent op-ed, Cohen calls for a NATO army, including U.S. forces, to “crush” the Islamic State by invading and liquidating its territorial base in Syria and Iraq. “Enough is enough,” Cohen declares; “the barbaric terrorists exulting on social media at the blood they have spilled cannot be allowed any longer to control territory on which they are able to organize, finance, direct and plan their savagery.” Some people will say that an invasion would be counterproductive and useless, since you can’t defeat terrorists this way, he adds. But such arguments, while “seductive,” should “be resisted. ””Crushing ISIS in Syria and Iraq will not eliminate the jihadi terrorist threat. But the perfect cannot be the enemy of the good. Passivity is a recipe for certain failure” (NYT, 11/14/15).
There are three questions, however, that Roger Cohen and the war party will not raise, because they either cannot or will not answer them.
First, what induced IS to decide to launch attacks outside Syria and Iraq, when doing so would clearly tempt their victims to launch counterattacks, perhaps even to invade their territory? The answer, it seems fairly clear, is that their offensive in the Middle East had bogged down. They were beginning to suffer serious defeats at the hands of the Kurds and other local forces, and limited military interventions by outsiders like the U.S., Russia, Iran, and Turkey were helping to shift the local balance of power against them. The Islamic State struck outside its territory out of desperation, partly to raise the cost of intervention to the outsiders, partly to demonstrate their courage and willpower to potential recruits, and partly out of desire for revenge. But a powerful motive was to tempt the great powers to do what Roger Cohen and others now advise – to send a NATO army to invade Syria and Iraq.
This poses the second question: why does the Islamic State want NATO to invade the Middle East? The answer, again, seems clear. IS leaders believe that the Muslim world would view any such invasion as a return of the despised Crusader Army to their region, and, therefore, as the cosmic climax of an ancient struggle between Christianity and Islam. Combined with repressive measures directed against Muslim populations in the West, an invasion would increase their recruitment by a hundredfold and position them as the natural leaders of the anti-Crusader resistance. From Egypt and Turkey to Afghanistan and Pakistan, the Sunni masses would rally to their support.
In fact, this is a fairly typical terrorist scenario. The idea (an old one originally expounded by secularist radicals) is that provoking the authorities to overreact will catch the discontented masses in the crossfire, further radicalizing the people and bringing them to the terrorists’ side. This prediction often turns out to be a false, but it has proved most accurate when the authorities are foreigners and the militants seek to unite a native resistance against them. (Think Ku Klux Klan or I.R.A.) There is a substantial danger that it would prove accurate in this case because of the difficulty of answering a third question: what happens after a successful invasion?
Suppose that a NATO army, with support from local allies, were to defeat the Islamic State and retake control of its territory. Then what? This is the question that turned American-led victories in Afghanistan and Iraq into the equivalent of defeats. Some war hawks may fantasize about replicating America’s semi-withdrawal from Europe following World War II, but current Middle East “realities” will clearly call for a lengthy period of occupation and political reconstruction by the victors – an imperial project almost certain to produce continued intra-regional conflicts and violent insurgencies.
When U.S.-led coalitions invaded Afghanistan in 2001 and Iraq in 2003, many of us protested each intervention loudly, insisting that victories in these lands could not be consolidated without a lengthy occupation that would inevitably generate popular rebellions and campaigns of state terror, inter-group wars, and foreign competition for regional control. We also insisted that there were alternatives to this sort of imperial intervention – not just the mere passivity denounced by Mr. Cohen and his hawkish allies.
What are these alternatives?
One, of course, is the current policy of the Obama administration, which attempts (in the President’s words) to “contain” the Islamic State by arming and training its enemies, attacking its facilities and fighters from the air, and inserting a limited number of American troops as advisors or special ops agents. This approach is certainly preferable to a full-scale invasion. As suggested earlier, its recent successes on the Iraq-Syria battlefield, while not yet decisive, are an important reason for IS attacks in Beirut, Paris, and elsewhere.
The problem is that this short term approach, relying on violence, doesn’t begin to solve the underlying problems that generated IS and other jihadist groups in the first place. As a result, even if defeated in its attempt to establish a viable state, the IS will remain active as a terrorist group, and new organizations will arise, just as IS did, to attempt to vindicate Arab demands for unification, dignity, purification, and power on the world stage.
Recall that the Islamic State is only the most extreme, disciplined, and best-armed wing of a massive Islamist movement agitating for change throughout the Middle East. Their success is based not just on terrorizing subject populations but also on offering solutions to problems endemic in the region: disunity and dependence on foreign powers; poverty, social inequality, and wholesale political corruption; denials of justice, and a pervading sense of impotence, humiliation, and ethical failure. The falsity of the jihadists’ purported solutions is less important than the reality of the problems they identify, whose persistence undermines the legitimacy of virtually every regime in the region.
How people in the Muslim world can be empowered to solve these problems once and for all is the unanswered question that must now be addressed. One hopeful sign in an otherwise grim landscape is the initiation of Syrian peace talks among Russians, Americans, Iranians, and Saudis, as well as representatives of the opposed parties in Syria. But a strategy for long term success in the region requires two simultaneous and inter-related movements: a Western renunciation of its traditional role as imperial master and “protector,” and the formation of a regional consortium capable of giving the Middle East an independent, global voice and conducting the kind of social-constitutional dialogues that can lead to sustainable peace.
Ironically, the very threat posed to diverse groups throughout the region by the Islamic State could set a genuine peace process in motion. A Syrian cease-fire might be followed by problem-solving processes in that country and its neighbors, by serious efforts aimed at deescalating and transforming the Shia-Sunni conflict, and by massive socioeconomic development programs owned and operated by the new regional consortium. The key is for the West and the Russians to help facilitate these processes without trying to control them. A great power withdrawal and autonomous regional development would eliminate the perceived need for organizations like the Islamic State and undermine their popular support. Why fight to re-establish the Caliphate when regional unity is achievable? Why attack foreign interests when they scale back of their own accord? Why struggle to purify the ummah when the sources of corruption have been or can easily be removed?
Of course, all this does not mean that the great powers should remain “passive.” They can supply money, technical aid, and other resources for development. They can offer facilitation services for dialogues and legal or political consultation for revising or creating constitutions. And, if asked to do so by the regional consortium, they can extend military aid to be used against IS die-hards or other groups attempting to sabotage the new collective.
The real choice, that is, is not between war and passivity. It is not even between “containment” and passivity. The real choice is between maintaining an empire that subordinates the peoples of the region to the interests of the Euro-American metropolis and letting exploited and oppressed peoples carve out their own destiny. Rabbi Michael Lerner, writing in Tikkun magazine the day after the Paris attacks, put it in a nutshell:
“As long as we in the most powerful countries of the world persist in supporting a global system that inflicts daily violence on the people of the world, there will be consequences that are predictable and yet unstoppable no matter how much force, violence, control of borders, spying on everyone’s emails and phone conversations, imprisonment or torture is used to protect us.”
May we soon learn the deepest lesson of the Paris tragedy: we are all bound together in an inextricable global unity that excludes no one – a system both causal and ethical that punishes the rich and privileged as well as the poor and despised for failing to recognize and deal with soluble social problems.
Nous sommes tous tout le monde. We are all Everyone.