Editor’s note: This article was initially published in The Daily Gazette, Swarthmore’s online, daily newspaper founded in Fall 1996. As of Fall 2018, the DG has merged with The Phoenix. See the about page to read more about the DG.
Looking at a timeline, one may notice that the history of Paris appears to switch between immeasurable beauty and spontaneous violence. It is the city of lamplights; romance over red wine; cobbled boulevards full of friends in the cafés; marble monuments colored in pinkish hues. It is also the city of revolution; blood watering a guillotine; mobs sticking heads on pikes; haphazard barricades in the streets; a struggle against tyranny, foreign or domestic. A dualistic definition? Yes, though not without its fair share of truth.
Last week, I briefly glimpsed that second side in that same city thousands of miles across the pond. Thankfully, talking with friends was easy and confirming their safety was heartening.
After horrific events, shock and awe typically set in and then slowly dissipate. After mourning for the victims and hunting for the surviving culprits, such shock has transformed into more airstrikes. NATO is beginning to rumble with rumors of invoking Article 5, which states an attack upon one member is an attack upon all; the only one to invoke this ‘three musketeer code’ in the organization’s history was the United States after 9/11. François Hollande, current leader of the fifth republic, called the attack “an act of war” and the future French response “merciless.” As an American, I do well to caution il Président of our own clumsy response to a terrible tragedy that caused even more disastrous blunders, for us and millions else. Therein lies this problem in what I may call the Occident, the so-called ‘West.’ The attackers were mostly French citizens; most were born on French soil and lived in French cities and spoke French. Yet due to some deep recess of fanaticism in themselves, they killed scores of their countrymen before detonating bombs strapped to their chests.
Understanding the individual roots of extremism in seemingly benign settings is possibly futile; we try to rationalize why humans slaughter other humans, including themselves, without concern or regard. I don’t claim to possess insight into the existence of barbarity; nevertheless, I’m inclined to agree that this new wave of terror we are facing — coinciding with and bolstered by the self-proclaimed Islamic State (who affirms responsibility for the attacks) — is nothing less than an identity crisis of continental proportions. France, for the past year, is front and center in this violent debate — expressed in both words and bullets — over what constitutes being ‘European,’ ‘global,’ and ‘modern.’ The ramifications extend beyond borders. Military action, though inevitable, will not solve this problem that is gripping a continent by the throat.
The difficulties are enmeshed in the fractious politics of the French state itself, but Europeans everywhere are confronting this same problem (especially now with thousands of foreign refugees pounding on the front door to let them inside). In the last few years, the popularization of far-right parties promoting strict nationalism is a worrisome trend. France is home to one of the most notorious, the National Front (‘front national’ in French), which loudly advocates for anti-immigration, Euro-skepticism, familial conservatism, and economic protectionism. Its founder Jean-Marie Le Pen has been nicknamed ‘The Devil of the Republic.’
The newfound strength of political rightism has nurtured a new group of rightists who challenge the public intellectual, as it has thus far existed. The simple philosopher as guide for society, in its modern incarnation, was born in France; the traditional liberals must now contend with formidable foes who style themselves in the same tricolor of erudition. According to them, they defend the ordinary Frenchmen who feel like aliens in their own country; they fight the status quo that imposes restrictions on “ethnic French” people; they give credence to such knee-jerk parties like the one founded by the republic’s devil. Most — like Finkielkraut and Zemmour — deny however to be racists or reactionaries, claiming they stare directly into the tense reality of modern multicultural life. I, personally, find them blunt and dangerous; but then again, I’m not French.
An example that has preoccupied my attention of late: recall the controversialist Michel Houellebecq. His latest novel Submission reflects on the fictitious possibility (or not so fictitious depending on who you ask) of an Islamic France, ruled by strict sharia, and the unmoored life of one Frenchman who wonders if following Allah will lead to a better life under the new religious regime. The book was first published unknowingly on the day of the Charlie Hebdo shootings. An enfant terrible in the most egregious sense, Houellebecq remains under police protection for his provocative works that often skirt too close to the taboo. His writing — which I’ve yet to read but have read much about — and it’s surrounding publicity reflects the horror of looking into a mirror, and fearfully, being unable to discern who’s looking back at you.
While mainstream elements are engaged in this clash over identity, minority groups who feel marginalized by laws and customs often become the worst victims. They find themselves knowing only one life whilst that same life apparently rejects them. The assimilationist policies of France — which emphasize core values of secularism and citizenry in place of cultural difference — have failed to instill complete camaraderie. Rather, minorities feel their uniqueness is challenged and ignored by a callous country. They believe themselves to be unwelcome in a country which fluctuates between mild indifference to outright racism. To them, they are fundamentally at odds with such a society given the evidence of their own isolated experiences. The result is an environment ripe for absolutism, like the one followed by intolerant jihadists, to grow in cities from cold Calais to warm Marseilles.
It is impossible to stop all alienated people with a crazy death wish to commit heinous, and frankly idiotic, atrocities; a harsh fact of exported and borderless violence in the twenty-first century. It is not only wrong but despicably crass to paint an entire belief with the single color of extremism. Yet it is ignorant to assume that people naturally integrate whatever their differences; the sad events of last week prove as much.
Bruno Tertrais wrote for The Guardian that, “The French government cannot ask every foreigner, every member of a minority, to be a Voltaire.” That’s a shame. The ideas embodied by the old philosophe shouldn’t have to be embroiled in bloody conflict in multicultural places like France — reevaluation of identity, but never appeasement to those who attack it, is necessary. The task ahead is convoluted.
The domestic backlash is no doubt prepping to hit France; the far right will surge forward, a hardline agenda could dominate near-future administrations. We in the United States are still reeling from the damage done to our republic, by others and by ourselves. I hope the French will not go down the same path; after all, they’re on their fifth attempt at a republic and this crisis is markedly virulent for Europe proper.
Maajid Nawaz — a Briton of Pakistani descent, former Islamist and co-founder of Quilliam, a think-tank that confronts Islamist extremism at the grassroots level — is one of many who understands that terrorism is not solely a cause; it is a symptom. I quote Mr. Nawaz to highlight the dualism that seems to lie at the heart of our dysfunctional world: “One extreme calls for the Qur’an to be banned, the other calls to ban everything but the Qur’an. Together, they form the negative and the positive of a bomb fuse.”
Let’s try to identify as those who cut the fuse rather than light it.
Featured image courtesy of The Atlantic.
FYI, it now appears that two of the Paris attackers snuck into France posing as Syrian refugees.