This Changes Not Very Much: Reflections on the state reaction to the Paris murders
“To all those who have seen these awful things, I want to say we are going to lead a war which will be pitiless.” said Francois Hollande after the murders in Paris on November 13th. It sounded dramatic and the impression we were given by sensational headlines and news reports was (to misappropriate Naomi Klein) ‘this changes everything’. Angela Merkel, Queen Elizabeth II, David Cameron, the Dutch foreign minister and the NATO secretary general were all among those who said they were ‘shocked’ by the murders. Yet, if we look at what Cameron said three days later at the Lord Mayor’s Banquet [insert joke about pigs, snouts and troughs], we see something more real to the facts: “The more we learn about what happened in Paris the more it justifies the approach that we are taking in Britain.” We see that the PM does not see UK’s response as a change in direction but a ‘redoubling’ of efforts for an ‘approach’ Britain was already perusing.
Of course, change in global politics does happen. The end of the 20th century marked the end of a clash of superpowers. There was even for a short period, between the fall of the Soviet Union and the start of the ‘war on terror’, no official enemy. It did not last long. With the attacks on the Pentagon and the World Trade Centre, the so called ‘liberal democracies’ of the world found a new enemy to their ill-defined ‘values’. Now we are back to a McCarthyist witch-hunt for the enemy in our midst (with an added racism: just being Muslim in the West automatically makes you a subject for suspicion) with surveillance techniques and methods of control that the Stasi could only dream of. All this in a neo-liberal utopia, where the primacy of the financial industry and private enterprise has led to ever rising inequality. In some ways we could say that no one won the Cold War, we just got the worst of both worlds.
Far from their own militarised borders, the West’s ludicrously expensive state military pursue permanent warfare. Ever since October 2001, when the US armed the Northern Alliance and sent its bomber planes to smash up Afghanistan, ‘Operation Enduring Freedom’ has produced Situation Enduring War.
So yes, there have been important changes in international relations, but rather than being new, they are further developments of what was going on already. The Balkan War formed the pattern for the 21st century’s ones. NATO war planes smash up a country whose leadership has been dismantled and which has fragmented along ethnic lines. The Cold War discourse, says Eric Hobsbawm, presented wars as “zero-sum games between moral absolutes between which compromise was impossible”. After a short hiatus, this discourse is back again. Although the moral ‘absolutes’ evolve – the Taliban, Hosni Mubarak, Muammer Gaddafi, Bashir Assad and the Iranian State have all moved (one way or the other) between being forces of ‘evil’ and key actors in the creation of regional stability – there is always an unquestionable ‘evil’ which is being fought against. And indeed, this is hardly new. These contortionist twists of rhetoric even stretch from this century back into the Cold War years. The US funded the Mujahidin to overthrow the Communists in Afghanistan. Saddam Hussein was supported in his war against Iran for eight years. Now, after executing Saddam and setting up a minority Shia government, the US have “turned Iraq into an Iranian ally”.
The rate at which news gets to us is also dependent on the state of international relations. Slowly, it has dawned on people that not all NATO allies are as ‘liberal’ as one might expect for an alliance engaged in ideological warfare, “confronting the [ISIS] ideology with our own liberal values”. Saudi Arabia is at last being publically discussed as a problem. This discussion is not unrelated, I suspect, to the fact that US-Saudi relations are starting to cool. This falling out may help explain why we now are hearing stories about a Saudi royal rape or why the BBC chose to air a very critical arty doc in the form of Adam Curtis’s ‘Bitter Lake’. Stories of Turkish support for ISIS have not been as prominent, I think. Recep Erdogan’s turn towards religion, homophobia, authoritarianism and war on his own citizens did not stop the Metro describing his AKP party simply as ‘pro-Western’ in a report of their recent election victory.
But is the rise of Salafist/Wahhabi Islam entirely due to the fact that the West turns a blind eye to Saudi Arabian manoeuvres, as ‘Bitter Lake’ suggests? Or are there other motivations?
In a book about cricket, I came across a story about the writer Saadat Hasan Manto, who, as far back as the 1950s, in the newly-formed, two-winged state of Pakistan, recognised the paradoxical appeal of conservative Islam to the Christian-liberal west. He wrote satirically in Letters to Uncle Sam shortly before his death at just 44 years old: “our mullah is the best antidote to Russian communism. Once military aid starts flowing, the first people you should arm are these mullahs.” Conservative and authoritarian religious doctrines, like nationalism, are not dangerous to the internal order of the nation-state of the Global North. Communism was. Ultra-conservative religion is on the rise and in many places across the world spills over into sectarian violence. Islam is the focus for much of the media, but weird Christian cults and hardline churches are mushrooming across West Africa and South America, Hindu nationalists are now in power in India, Buddhist monks in Burma have taken up militancy and we all know about Israeli settlers. Marxism and its various spin-offs were for much of the 20th century, the meaningful centre for the oppressed people of the world. By the end of the century it was discredited and for many that void has been filled by religion.
Eric Hobsbawm analysed the new world order even before September 11th and I believe rightly observed the changing global trends along a timescale that is more reasonable. He calculated that by the 1960s the number of conflicts within states had passed the number of international conflicts, although those conflicts within a state became internationalised by foreign intervention. Since 1989 and the fall of Actually Existing Socialism, he decided that “the world situation is neither classifiable as either peace or war. The USA may be a single power with 5% of world population, but it cannot absolutely dominate. The world will have to remain a game for several players. Post-USSR, the world is now filled with portable, if limited weaponry and the balance of power has therefore now changed. In most parts of the world, states are disintegrating or ceasing to function. Small unofficial armed groups can maintain themselves for decades even when they cannot threaten the stability of strong states. The blood-stained combination of internal conflict and foreign intervention means that the suffering of civilians is today always disproportionately greater than military operations.”
The job of nations states therefore becomes avoiding inter-state war and maintaining their own internal stability. They bomb, knowing that they cannot defeat this new enemy (“small unofficial armed groups”), but comforted that they can economically ruin vast areas with the massive power of weaponry dropped by bombers or fired by drones, without risking serious casualties to their own military. They then use the spiralling violence of these unwinnable wars to justify authoritarian repression back home.
The real threat to the state is not terrorism. After the Paris murders, the French parliament voted (unanimously) to declare a state of emergency and then to extend it (with six abstentions). They cancelled the protest against the Climate Change Conference and reinstated border controls with their EU neighbours. In Britain, the Tories used the opportunity to call for the snoopers’ charter to be rushed through parliament, ordered an increased budget for the already massively overfunded intelligence services, and of course called for another vote to join in with the bombing of Syria. As Zaher Arif points out on LibCom, “A quick look at the recent history of terrorism between Sep 2001 and the Paris attack on 13/11/15, and the one in Nigeria and Egypt soon after 13/11, shows us that all these attacks targeted people rather than the state and the current system. … Terrorism does not threaten the integrity of the state. In fact, it makes it stronger”
The murders in Paris were traumatic. Much of the public response has been genuinely made in solidarity with the victims. Nevertheless, the response of the state, which has deliberately manipulated public fear and turned solidarity with the victims into racial hatred, has created more trauma again. On Friday 13th November, 129 people were killed in Paris. On the following Wednesday, Interior Minister Bernard Cazeneuve announced that the police had conducted 414 raids across the country over three nights. Sixty people were arrested and an additional 118 people were put under house arrest. To all the people affected – arrestees, family, friends, neighbours – this is also, to differing extents, traumatic.
These raids were all carried out in the deprived suburbs of French cities. There is an implicit acknowledgement in such a response that socio-economic alienation leads to these acts of violence. Yet, the media and politicians can only call the murderers ‘monsters’ and deny any psychological explanation of their monstrous acts. Of course the media was full of voices that blamed immigration for the ISIS-inspired deaths, although almost all the murderers themselves were at least second generation. This discourse allowed the state to counter the summer’s surge of public sympathy for refugees and to justify their continued militaristic and racist border controls.
The post 9-11 wars in the Middle East constitute a new phase in the pattern of international relations that emerged during the Cold War. In 1952, British General Gerald Templer declared that victory in the war against the Malayan communist uprising, “lies not in pouring more soldiers into the jungle, but in the hearts and minds of the Malayan people.” This round of wars seems to have once again placed faith in this tenet. Once the tyrannical government (Taliban, Saddam, Gaddafi) was removed by military might, elections were to be set up and somehow from there, having won ‘hearts and minds’ through elections, stability would be guaranteed. The US-led intervention has stopped hundreds of thousands of beating hearts and traumatised millions of minds but on the metaphorical level, it has spectacularly failed.
ISIS and the US use military might (‘shock and awe’ or ‘terror’ depending which side you on) to cow opposition, but in terms of ‘hearts and minds’, what the two sides offer is asymmetrical. The invaders offer universal suffrage, perhaps a job in the security industry and the promise of secular consumerism. How can this counter the fervency of religious experience? During the Cold War, the US used this very weapon – religion – in the Middle East to counter the appeal of a workers’ state and now they have nothing to oppose it with. On many occasions, the US-trained Iraqi army has been hopelessly overrun by smaller groups of much more committed ISIS fighters.
This is not to say that there cannot be secular philosophies strong enough for people to give up their lives. From my time spent with the refugees of Western Sahara, I have spoken with veterans of a liberation struggle who achieved seemingly impossible military success and maintained the hope of resistance despite the military and political odds. The underpaid soldiers who fought in the Saharawi army against Moroccan invaders were prepared if necessary to give up their lives not from religious duty or a ‘poisonous extremism’ but because they were part of something real and tangible that they believed they could achieve in this lifetime. As I dramatise one veteran saying in my poem Bendir:
“A [Moroccan] soldier here
works to take money home for his family …
I am fighting to go home.
That is the difference.”
The states of Europe and North America wage war to maintain their global dominance, using ‘democracy’ as a moral pretext in the same way their pre-Enlightenment predecessors used ‘Christianity’ to justify their political ambitions. In so doing they have deliberately conflated ‘democracy’ with suffrage, so that their public imagine that ‘democracy’ means parliamentary elections. But do we have democracy in the West? There is a certain freedom of speech, limited on certain points and increasingly encroached upon; and a very unequal distribution of information. How many people in the UK can say how many people have died in the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq? How come the images of dead civilians that so many British Muslims have seen have not made the mainstream UK press? I can freely publish this blog post, knowing that, despite having a reach of no more than about 500, it may well attract the attention of intelligence agencies. There is freedom of assembly, but, especially since the ‘rave laws’, any gathering can be legally shut down at any point the police wish to do so.
“Politics,” says Murray Bookchin, “should be conceived as the civic arena and the institutions by which people democratically and directly manage their community affairs.” People in the West have no experience of this. Yet, it is no coincidence that the only successful resistance to ISIS, has come from Kobane, the Bookchin-inspired eco-feminist-confederalists in Syrian Kurdistan. Ironic then that the USA must rely on the world’s only real democracy to bring their version of it against the committed soldiers of ultra-conservative religion. Sobering that the Left in the West with all their freedom of speech in the internet age have taken so little notice of the most exciting democratic development since the Spanish Civil War.
The world post-Paris has not radically changed. USA leads its allies into a war without end, bombing a new version of an old evil that will survive, perhaps multiply, and certainly mutate again. When, as in Paris earlier this year, some of this far-off war spills over into the cities of the NATO powers, ordinary people will die and the state will attempt to continue its inexorable progress towards authoritarianism. It will ramp up the militarisation of its borders, increase surveillance, shut down protest and step up its bombing campaigns. All in the name of democracy. Yet, bombing foreign countries has never been a popular option. Protests continue. The experiment in Kobane, the rise of Syriza and Podemos and the election of Jeremy Corbyn all suggest that people are tired of democracy-without-the-demos. If we can recognise that these ‘crises’ are simply continuations of an on-going situation and if we can refuse to accept Western double standards on morality, then we can condemn both the “awful” Paris murders and Hollande’s “pitiless” response. We accept that ‘something must be done’, but let us not forget on whose behalf it should happen and who should lead any external intervention.
 In his preface to the latest Prevent review document, Lord Carlisle writes that the government is providing what he calls “interested organisations” with “an opportunity they should welcome to declare unequivocally that they oppose extremism and all its consequences. Nothing less will do if they wish to enjoy any confidence and cooperation from the British Government and public.” This definition of the British ‘public’ clearly excludes Prevent’s ‘interested organisations’. And who are these organisations which are not part of the social body? “It is clear that Prevent work must be targeted against those forms of terrorism that pose the greatest risk to our national security. Currently, the greatest threat comes from Al Qa’ida, its affiliates and like-minded groups”. That’s right, folks, it’s Muslims. British Muslims should not only avoid ‘radicalisation’, but also publically declare themselves against it. And “they should welcome” the chance to do so. https://www.gov.uk/government/uploads/system/uploads/attachment_data/file/97976/prevent-strategy-review.pdf
 Eric Hobsbawm, ‘The New Century’; 2000
 Serge Halimi, editorial, Le Monde Diplomatique, December 2015
 Cameron, November 16th, ibid.
 Quoted in The Unquiet Ones: A History of Pakistan Cricket, Osman Samiuddin, Harper Sport 2014
 Settled Wanderers, Sam Berkson, Influx Press; 2015
The Communalist Project, Bookchin 2002; published in The Next Revolution, Verso; 2015