Charlie Hebdo Shootings 
Je Suis Charlie

In the aftermath of the Charlie Hebdo shootings, Western powers need to critically reassess their entire approach towards the Middle East

The attacks on Charlie Hebdou represent a very specific type of terrorism, one which aims to intimidate journalists into silence and acquiescence. The gunmen in Paris and their associates undoubtedly understand that mockery, satire and humour are some of the most effective tools in our armory against the spread of their distorted version of Islam. Judging by the outbursts of solidarity across France and worldwide, with over 50 international leaders from Europe, Africa and Middle East descending on Paris to join a massive rally in defiance of terrorism and militant Jihadism, freedom of speech and expression is safe for now. But in the aftermath of these rallies and commemorative activities, governments across Europe must confront the dangers of homegrown Jihadists with a heightened sense of urgency, prompting renewed questions as to where the correct balance between civil liberties and national security lies.

It would be a tragedy for Europe and for Western liberal democracy if the only steps implemented in response to this atrocity were increased data gathering, intelligence sharing, border checks and national security legislation. These steps are undoubtedly necessary to some degree, but only if accompanied by effective checks and balances, and in any case they will do very little to curb terrorism in the long-run. Short of repudiating the very principles of free speech that the cartoonists at Charlie Hebdou steadfastly upheld and constructing a draconian security regime, intelligence agencies will never be able to detect and foil every single terrorist plot. Instead, it is time that we address the root causes of these problems.

The radical right portrays Islam as a warmongering religion and the hundreds of millions Muslims around the world as irredeemably anti-Western, irrevocably opposed to everything we stand for on account of a fundamental clash in values. Such a perspective is frankly speaking intellectually and morally bankrupt. Islamic extremism is not a phenomenon with deep roots in Muslim societies – for most of the 20th century the guiding principle of Middle East revolutionaries was not Islam, but secular nationalism. Even today, the Syrian Baathists, the Egyptian Nasserites and Fatah continue to subscribe to these doctrines. The likes of Macmillan, Wilson, Eisenhower and Kennedy obsessed over the dangers posed by modernizing, secular nationalists such as Nasser, not jihadist ideologies.

Simplistic and racialist explanations of jihadism are thus uniquely unhelpful for anyone trying to understand the realities on the ground today. They neither explain the roots of the problem nor provide any realistic solutions that could possibly be of use to contemporary policy-makers. Whether we like it or not, the Muslim populations of both the Middle East and Europe are growing and a growing segment of these groups are turning to radical interpretations of the Koran for one reason or another. The question facing us today is why exactly are so many young people across the region increasingly attracted to such ideologies, ideologies that are anything but deeply rooted in their culture and society.

This article will seek to focus on the mechanism of social alienation both within immigrant communities and in the wider Middle East. In the latter, there is a compelling case that the incompetence of the first wave of independent revolutionary regimes in terms of economic management, social provision and foreign policy, gradually fuelled societal discontent. Unrealistic promises of full employment and rising incomes for all went unfulfilled as rising populations, misguided economic policies and rampant corruption undermined the capacity of Arab governments to meet public expectations. At the same time, the inability of these leaders to liberate Palestine after the wars of 1967 and 1973 fuelled the rise of Palestinian terrorism, creating role models for extremist elements in other countries to build upon. Islamic extremists also benefited from the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan in 1979 as America, China and Saudi Arabia diverted vast sums of cash and modern weaponry in their direction so as to turn the conflict into the Soviet Union’s Vietnam. Beyond the thousands of foreign fighters in Afghanistan or Lebanon though were millions more who learned of their exploits through a variety of means and felt attracted to the puritan strain of Islam which they preached. From our perspective, Sharia Law sounds incredibly barbaric, backwards and frankly nonsensical, but in countries with dysfunctional legal systems, widespread corruption, nepotism and crumbling social infrastructure, the prospect of law and order delivered according to easily understood religious principles suddenly sounds rather more appealing. In a societal context where mosques and other religious establishments are the primary sources of education, healthcare and welfare, it comes as no surprise that millions of young people who see no prospects and opportunities in their lives find themselves attracted to a radical interpretation of their religion. It is only natural for human beings who are lost, confused and desperate to become susceptible to extremist and intolerant ideologies.

Homegrown Jihadism should in this context be viewed as a consequence of the marginalization and alienation of Muslim communities across Europe. In countries such as France and Britain, governments have failed to provide adequate education and employment for many of these groups, creating a situation where small minorities become attracted to doctrines that revolve around overthrowing Western democracy. Perceptions of racial stereotyping and stigmatization coupled alongside criticisms of Western foreign policy in the Middle East have unfortunately radicalized vulnerable youth who feel no sense of belonging to the society they currently live in. This suggests that the solution to this problem must invariably involve a wide range of policies across the entire spectrum. On the international level, it is time for us to recognize that countries such as Saudi Arabia are part of the problem. Not only are some of our avowed allies in the ‘War on Terror’ pursuing sectarian agendas of their own and funding organizations domestically across the globe which preach Jihadism, but their lack of internal transparency fosters rampant inequality, creating breeding grounds for extremist ideologies to take hold. In an encouraging move, a bipartisan group of current and former US Senators are pushing the Obama administration to disclose classified documents related to the actions of the Saudi government prior to 9/11. The socio-economic problems which plague the Arab World gave rise to the hope of the Arab Spring, but it is also fostering the conditions for terrorism or at the very least anti-Western sentiment.

What happened in Paris was a tragedy which should also serve as a wake-up call as to the time-bomb which now lies in our midst. The radical right is attempting to capitalize upon this horrific attack and gain broader support for its anti-immigration, anti-multiculturalism and anti-Islam narrative. As tempting as it is for mainstream politicians to jump upon this bandwagon and appeal to the baser instincts of voters with ever more draconian measures which will only serve to antagonize an already marginalized community, we should be reaching out to Muslim groups across Europe instead. At the same time, there is a need for us to reexamine half a century of misguided foreign policy in the Middle East. Consumed with the desire to secure oil supplies, we have succeeded in making the region more volatile, more unstable and less democratic than before. In the absence of stable, legitimate states that can uphold law and order, provide basic services and employment for millions of underemployed young people, support for Jihadist ideologies will remain a problem. Disengaging from the world won’t solve our problems in the 21st century and immigration from the Middle East, whether in the form of economic refugees or asylum seekers, is undoubtedly here to suis charlie