The terrorist attacks that shook Paris last week fall under the category of unimaginable – because of their spectacular, yet unexpected quality. From piloting jetliners into iconic skyscrapers to massacring a roomful of popular cartoonists, these attacks push us out of our comfort zone and challenge us to our core.
The list of “unimaginable” acts includes the 2001 attack against the World Trade Center and the Pentagon in the United States, the 2004 train bombings in Madrid, the July 2005 bombings of the London Underground, the 2011 massacre of scores of teenagers by Anders Breivik in Norway, and the December 2014 massacre of 132 schoolchildren by the Pakistani Taliban in Peshawar.
Because of their spectacular and transgressive nature, these attacks are potentially transformative events. The US Patriot Act, signed into a law in October 2001, is perhaps the most striking such example. And because they are so shocking, these attacks tempt those targeted into reacting in a knee-jerk way, ultimately playing into the hands of the attackers and becoming self-fulfilling prophecies of sort. In fact, this is the greatest threat they pose.
On the domestic front, the biggest issues raised by the Paris attacks relate both to questions of free speech and to public attitudes and policies vis-à-vis France’s Muslim population.
Free speech in France is somewhat ambiguous, especially when seen from the US. On the one hand, public discourse, including the standard of a widely acceptable sense of humor, tends to be much more provocative compared to the US, especially when addressing religion and other sensitive issues.
This ambiguity was in evidence in the reaction generated by some of the cartoons published by Charlie Hebdo, many of which struck some American liberals unfamiliar with the French public sphere as indicative of bad taste at best and racism at worst. In contrast, most French would deem some American public conventions as reflecting a puritanical spirit.
On the other hand, however, there are certain areas in France where free speech is legally restricted in a way totally out of place in the US. The Gayssot Act for instance, voted for in 1990 by the French Parliament, makes it illegal to question the existence of crimes deemed to be crimes against humanity, especially denial of the Holocaust. Despite all this, the long tradition of France’s provocative bent makes the imposition of additional restrictions or the emergence of self-censorship unlikely. If anything, the most likely outcome, as evidenced by the immediate reaction generated by the attacks, is defiance.
The status of the Muslim population in France is a complicated question that has generated interminable debates but limited research. For example, there are problems with the integration in French society of immigrants in general and specifically marginalized second-generation immigrant youth.
Conversely, a large segment of the French Muslim population is gradually becoming part of the French middle class and social fabric, as evidenced by the fact that two of the victims of the Charlie Hebdo attacks, copy editor Mustapha Ourrad and policeman Ahmed Merabet were Muslims. Likewise, one of the victims of 2012 attacks in Toulouse was Imad Ibn-Ziaten, an off-duty paratrooper who also happened to be Muslim.
True, there were reports of sporadic attacks against mosques in the aftermath of the Paris attacks. If anything, the Paris attacks will cause the French political class to redouble efforts toward integration, if only to fend off political inroads by the anti-immigrant National Front party. Obviously, these are long-term efforts unlikely to have immediate effects.
In contrast, one should not take too literally either the French “declaration of a war on terrorism” or the references to the “permanent threat” posed by radical Islam – and, thus, not reach the facile conclusion that France in particular and Europe in general are about to launch a crusade à la US in the aftermath of the September 11 attacks.
Unlike the US, France’s limited military capacity outside its territory ensures that large-scale foreign adventures with pronounced counterproductive downsides, like the US invasion of Afghanistan and Iraq, are unlikely.
One issue likely to attract more immediate attention is prison reform. Among the most striking elements of the Paris attacks is the realization, confirming previous trends, that the radicalization of marginalized youth often takes place inside French prisons. This is where petty criminals are most likely to come into contact with hardened radicals.
That was the case for both Cherif Kouachi and Amedy Coulibaly, radicalized in the prison of Fleury-Mérogis under the influence of the radical Islamist Djamel Beghal who was serving time for his involvement in a planned attack against the US Embassy in Paris. Prisons have been traditionally the ideal recruitment ground for radical movements. The hero of the film The Battle of Algiers, a petty criminal named Ali la Pointe, becomes radicalized in prison.
This is hardly an isolated anecdote. ISIS grew out of the US detention facility of Camp Bucca in Southern Iraq. Hence, it’s not surprising that French Prime Minister Manuel Valls announced in the aftermath of the Paris attacks a number of measures to isolate radical Islamists in French prisons.
In the international realm, it is worth highlighting two key issues. One is related to the ongoing conflicts that are rocking the Middle East and Central Asia: Afghanistan, Pakistan, Iraq, and especially Syria, but also Libya and Yemen, all of which have become wounds that feed radicalism. The transformation of the Syrian Civil War in particular into a recruitment ground for disaffected
Muslim youth is particularly worrisome, and Coulibaly’s widow, Hayat Boumediene, seems to have escaped to Syria It’s perhaps farfetched to expect that the Paris attacks will have an impact on the Syrian war, but it is likely that voices arguing for resolution and end to the military stalemate in Syria will strengthen.
The most likely policy outcome is cooperation among European Security services. A generalized sense that cooperation was lagging, thus facilitating arms trafficking and unhindered movement of radicals across borders – this is likely to change. Various European officials have already pledged to reinforce cooperation in the fight against terrorism.
Valls promised more funds for the French secret services and surveillance. At a security summit last weekend in Brussels, European states pushed for the adoption of a European-wide passenger data system forcing airlines to retain passenger records for five years. Of course, such programs pose a considerable danger for the infringement of civil liberties.
At the end of the day, it must be recognized that radical Islam cannot be defeated only through policing, for it takes only a handful of people to commit spectacular acts of terror. Its defeat will entail a war of ideas within Muslim and, in particular, Arab societies – ultimately coming as a result of failure to offer solutions to their many problems.
Radical Islamist terrorism constitutes what political scientist David C. Rapoport has dubbed the fourth global wave of terrorism. The previous three waves – the Anarchist wave, which began in Russia in the 1880s, the Anticolonial wave which took off in the 1920s, and the New Left wave of the 1960s and 1970s – eventually extinguished themselves when their political agendas proved inadequate. In the short term, we can most effectively shorten the life of radical Islam by refusing to assume that it represents a majoritarian or even significant segment of Islam.
Stathis N. Kalyvas is Arnold Wolfers Professor of Political Science and director of the Program on Order, Conflict, and Violence at Yale University. This is reprinted courtesy of the Yale Center for the Study of Globalization