We Are All Everyone: Lessons of the Paris Attacks

by Rich Rubenstein on November 17, 2015 · 12 comments

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This piece is a little long, friends, but I hope that it sheds some light on a difficult subject.



Rich Rubenstein

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.

{ 12 comments… read them below or add one }

Anje November 17, 2015 at 7:43 am

Brilliant piece, Rich. However, I have to disagree with one of your conclusions. The fact is that rich and poor are not affected the same or in any way, in fact, that would promulgate unity among all people. The rich BENEFIT from global terror, much more, in fact, than the terrorists themselves, and they are the main perpetrators of terror that kills millions, especially in the Middle East. They make money off of war and the more destabilized the world is, the more the Cheneys and Halliburtons and other purveyers of mass destruction are able to laugh with glee all the way to the bank, which they also happen to own.


Terri MacKenzie November 17, 2015 at 3:11 pm

So right on, Rich! Thanks for your logic, clarity, and especially for the needed foundation for any problem-solving of this magnitude: We are all Everyone. I shall forward this far and wide, and hope it’s widely read. BTW, my parish has been making plans to adopt a Syrian family as soon as one is cleared.


Megan Rice November 17, 2015 at 5:49 pm

I may seem blatantly clear to many within the whole horizon of our Planet, with whom we surely Are one, as said by each of the commentators thus far, and so thoughtfully shared already by a few. I just feel sad that the basic, root causal mistake has not yet been acknowledged nor even admitted or apologized for. What about the illegal and immoral role which the US, and in time, other states have played initially by the history of intervention, regime change, mass destruction by violent bombings? Certainly all tactics of undeclared wars. Indeed we are all equally responsible in sharing in the guilt as long as these crimes remain unacknowledged as terrorism, which only evokes “terrorism” on the part of victims. These wounds of both perpetrators and victims may be healed by the practice of conscious nonviolence, and humble acceptance of the truth.


Ramzi November 17, 2015 at 6:43 pm

Thank you for this, Rich. One of the things I appreciate most about the article is that it gets us past the “they hate freedom” and “radical jihadi” tropes. There is a cult-like aspect to terrorism that seems particularly pronounced with IS, that’s true–but it’s unlikely their ultimate goal is simply to kill random numbers of civilians (in Paris, Beirut, or elsewhere). They’ve secured too much territory to be regarded as just nihilists. Beyond perhaps hoping to draw Western troops into a guerrilla/propaganda war in the ME, I wonder if they’re not also hoping to worsen the refugee crisis, both to help with recruitment and to (further) destabilize their neighbors?


Rich Rubenstein November 19, 2015 at 3:22 pm

That’s a frightening but probably accurate speculation, Ramzi.


Hannes November 19, 2015 at 2:48 am

These are admirable thoughts and ideals, but the reality is an ongoing war and humanitarian catastrophe with 300,000 casualties and millions of refugees cascading further and further afield. Outside countries (I wouldn’t even use the term international community) are locked in opposing positions feeding the vortex, and once again the world waits for the essential mover, the U.S. to take leadership in breaking the deadlock. Not doing Gulf War III with armored divisions steamrolling the opposition, but something like Bosnia or Camp David with a credible commitment and seeing it through. The guiding principle should be protecting civilians and making space for peace, and those that have the power and influence should take the lead. (and I hope this doesn’t have to be Iran and Russia..)


Rich Rubenstein November 19, 2015 at 3:26 pm

Thanks for your comment Hannes, but recent examples of the U.S. “taking the lead” are not encouraging. Bosnia isn’t really a comparable situation. We need an immediate cease-fire in Syria, and the way to get it is by cooperating with Iran and Russia as well as Saudi Arabia, and Gulf States, and Lebanon. I think that the day for unilateral U..S. leadership is over.


Jack Gilroy November 19, 2015 at 12:55 pm

Yes, good piece. Especially reference to Michael Lerner’s and others who for years have tried to educate the West that generosity and compassion through a Global Marshall Plan is essential. In fact, this is supported by a growing number of legislators in the European Community and in the United States House of Representatives led by Muslim Rep. Keith Ellison of Minnesota.
It’s time to write more letters to editors, blog writers and to visit congressional district offices to educate congressional staff on the need for generosity and care over Hellfire missiles and boots on the ground. Google Global Marshall Plan to learn more before you visit. National Co-Chairs of the Networkwork of Spiritual Progressives are Princeton University Professor Cornell West, Benedictine Sister Joan Chittister and Rabbi Michael Lerner


Aslam Kakar November 25, 2015 at 7:59 am

Salam Professor,

As usual, a very brilliant piece. Spot on many key issues. And absolutely agree with you on almost all of them.

But, I have few comments to make. And I would love to know how you respond to them.

True that Islamist militant groups like the Taliban and IS have emerged in revenge to the interventionist policies of the West in the Muslim world, but they are also as much a product of militant Islamic ideology. If you look at dozens of post-colonial colonial countries in Asia, East Indies, and in South America, you will not find a semblance of the like of terror and violence that has wrecked havoc in the Muslim world, not only as a revenge to the West but also against its very own people. In my view it is because there is something wrong about Islam and the kind of narrative justified on its basis.

Therefore, I think it becomes extremely important to also talk about reforms in Islam. These groups have killed more Muslims and Muslim minorities like Shia Muslims and others than Non-Muslims and Westerners. Viewed from this angle, their fight is not only against the West but against modernity that also includes the Muslim world itself. And hence, these groups, regardless of the West’s influence, are a potential threat to our existence in the Muslim world. And that is precisely because they have the support of religion, militant Islam.

It becomes even clearer when one reads the godfather, Syed Qutub, of the modern day radical Islam. In his book, Milestones, Qutub calls the entire non-Muslim West ‘Jahiliya’ (ignorant) and states that there in no country in the Muslim world that is ideally ‘Islamic’. Works such these and conservative religious texts are at the core of the pathological worldview of the present day militant groups like Taliban, IS, and Boko Haram.

Another problem is that every time these groups carry out an act of terror in the Muslim world or in the West, Muslims, rather than seriously engaging in critical and open debate on the source of violence–that is a radical and exclusivist Islamic worldview– disassociate Islam from such ungodly acts. That kind of narrative only further confounds the problem for us. Even scholars like Tariq Ramazan do not openly debate the issue.

Therefore, in my view, along with criticizing Western imperialism, it become equally important to highlight the failures of Muslims, particularly moderate Muslims, and Muslim states in taking control of radical Islam form militant groups and reinterpreting it to the needs of modern times and societies. Unless this is done and unless a secular worldview prevails in our part of the world, blaming the West for the mess that is our own created too, and in a huge way, we, Muslims, will only get so far in the fight against forces of darkness, and will barely improve our systems and societies in context to global development.



Rich Rubenstein December 3, 2016 at 1:11 pm

I apologize for my long delay in responding to this thoughtful letter. It makes some good points; certainly, Islamic authorities as well as the West must bear a share of the responsibility for Islamist violence. But I fear that the writer errs in separating these two sources of responsibility and in alleging that “there is something wrong with Islam.” Muslim moderates who look upon the West as a source of moral values and financial/political support are largely disabled from offering their people an effective alternative to extreme Islamism. They can condemn the extremists til the cows come home, and few will listen. One could argue that the Islamic authorities made a historic mistake at the time of al-Ghazzali in refusing to allow their theology to be transformed by Aristotelianism as Roman Catholic theology was being transformed by Bonaventure and Aquinas. (The West, of course, made other mistakes.) But what is “wrong” with Islam, in my view, is not its theological or ethical doctrines, but its identification with a sociopolitical culture forced to choose between submission to the Westerners or local extremists. The answer, which we are searching for in the U.S. as well, has got to be a critical politics free of globalist elitism and religio-nationalist craziness.


David Vyorst February 29, 2016 at 7:17 pm

keep up the good work!


Rich Rubenstein March 1, 2016 at 9:09 pm

Thanks, bro!


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