The Paris massacre and the Syrian refugee crisis

Two dramatic events, one unfolding over the last several years, the other a sudden shock, currently eclipse all other issues. Syrians desperate to escape their broken country enter neighbouring and European countries in huge numbers, and a handful of bloodthirsty fanatics have killed over a hundred random, innocent people in Paris. These events both form part of a larger, unsettling picture. They are interconnected, and reveal important features of the world in which we all currently live.

First of all, regional asymmetries have to be taken into account as underlying causal factors. The northern coast of the Mediterranean consists of stable, prosperous and mainly peaceful states, while the southern and eastern coasts are dominated by unstable, autocratic or collapsing states, inequality, insecurity and stagnation. While the European population has grown slowly (from 350m to 450m in sixty years), the population of Europe’s neighbours has exploded from 163m to 587m in the same period. North Africa and the Middle East have young populations, poorly functioning labour markets and uneven opportunities for higher education. In many cases, gender segregation adds further to the inefficiency of labour markets and public institutions. The pressure on the Mediterranean as a membrane separating opportunity from stagnation is gaining strength.

Secondly, the value of human lives varies depending on where you live and who you are. This may be stating the obvious, but there is rarely if ever a major outrage in the rich countries when a drone attack or a missile targeting a terrorist leader instead ends up killing dozens of innocents, including children. Yet this happens routinely and frequently. Not everybody agrees that it is acceptable that the rich countries murder civilians in poor countries, and the Paris terrorist attack can thus be understood as an act of retribution.

Thirdly, the growing impact of identity politics creates a double polarisation in Western Europe. The first is the symbolic competition between Islamists and nativists, the second the conflict between identity politics and secular politics. In Sweden, which has been among the most accommodating countries in the ongoing refugee crisis, asylum centres have been burnt down, and the latest opinion poll indicates that an unprecedented 25 per cent of the Swedish population presently supports the right-wing Swedish Democrats. France, which has a secularist political identity (all citizens are in principle equal, regardless of their culture or religion), has seen the upsurge of identity politics both among nativists (Front National) and Muslim extremists. More than a third of the European IS fighters in Syria come from France. Instead of accepting the polarisation of opposing identity politics, many insist on basing political projects on other principles than religion or group membership. To them, Islamism and nativism are two sides of the same coin.

Fourthly, ideological conflicts, events and acts of violence can now rarely be contained geographically. The Danish cartoon crisis of 2005-06 was a telling reminder of the increasingly deterritorialised nature of conflicts: A Danish newspaper published cartoons of the prophet Mohammed, leading eventually to riots in Nigeria and demonstrations in Lebanon. Today, the Syrian conflict, the rise of IS/Daesh, the flows of people out of the country and the mixed, ambivalent reactions with which they are being met in Europe, the feeling of disenfranchisement and marginalisation prevalent among youths of North African origin in France, and the Western countries’ active destabilisation of Iraq, Afghanistan and Libya cannot be seen independently of each other. Whether or not they are de facto causally connected, they form part of a cognitive package shared by many Muslims, most of them committed to living in peace with their neighbours; many of them are not even religious believers. The view shared by many Muslims on both sides of the Mediterranean is that they are consistently being treated as second-rate people. In France, the colonial experience adds insult to injury among its Muslims, most of whom have a background in the Mahgreb.

The most obvious connection between the Syrian refugee crisis and the terrorist attack on Friday 13 is its common denominator, namely IS or Daesh. Its primitive brutality chases people out of Syria, strengthens the polarisation in Europe by giving Islamophobes a field day, and destroys even the faintest trace of civilisation wherever it goes. Nevertheless, there are two analytic concepts that may be even more helpful in understanding the current situation and the kind of vulnerability which has been palpable at least since the 9/11 attacks on the United States.

The first is deterritorialisation. In the present age, nothing can be contained geographically. Protecting the borders of a country is less feasible than it has been, and securitisation will only give a false sense of security. Responding to violence with more violence is unlikely to solve anything and more likely to fan the flames than to quell them. Suicidal religious fanatics arguably have to be countered with violence, but getting rid of these individuals does not address the underlying, structural contradictions. The solution to both threats of terrorism and ungovernable flows of refugees is a more equitable global distribution of dignity and opportunity, not barbed-wire fences and surveillance. On the other hand, nobody knows how to get there, but addressing symptoms without taking causes into account is rarely recommended as a cure.

The second concept is schismogenesis. Taken from Gregory Bateson’s mid-century writings about intercultural encounters, it refers to self-reinforcing, spiralling conflicts. The more you threaten me, the more I shall threaten you. As extreme, intolerant religious preachers spread their poison, nativists and Islamophobes respond in kind by denouncing any form of Islam as anti-democratic and inimical to European societies. Unless a third, mediating instance enters into this dance of destruction and offers an alternative approach, the result can be catastrophic.

Civilisation or barbarism. Civilisation ou barbarie. Attacking innocent people is barbaric, regardless of whether they are brown or white, poor or rich. Finding ways of living together in this overheated, interconnected world is a civilised and civilising act. The real danger today is that divisive identity politics, from ethnonationalists and jihadists, succeeds in taking the majorities hostage to their destructive ideologies. Their world of preference would be one of suspicion rather than trust, withdrawal rather than openness, retrograde nostalgia rather than acceptance of the impurities and frictions that inevitably characterise a world which is on the move, literally and metaphorically. As my friend Khalid Salimi once said – he was the founder of the Anti-Racist Centre in Oslo and currently runs the Mela music festival – we should stop talking about building bridges. Instead, we must come to realise that we all live on the same island.

18 thoughts on “The Paris massacre and the Syrian refugee crisis

  1. I think you fail to understand Thomas Eriksen that “identity politics” is the problem. Identity politics are embedded within secular politics. This is exactly the point Jean Luc Nancy, Georgio Agamben and Roberto Espositio have consistently been making for the past decade.

    • Thank you for your comment. There may be a misunderstanding here. By contrasting secular politics with identity politics, I draw attention to the difference between ideologically based, or even interest-based politics (e.g. the politics of class or of human rights), and the politics of secterian group membership (ethnic group, religion etc.). There is no clear-cut boundary, but the distinction is necessary.

      • Thank you for the additional comments.

        I still don’t understand why you wish to maintain the troubling distinction between “interest-based politics” and ” sectarian politics”. Making such a distinction is reproducing what Jean Luc Nancy and Giorgio Agamben call the failure of identity politics. We need to move beyond the identitarian malaise. Nancy deals with the question how we can still speak of a ‘we’ or of a plurality, without transforming this ‘we’ into a substantial and exclusive identity. Your distinctions are contributing to the reproduction of an exclusive identity (an identity of “human rights” or an identity of “ethnic group membership”).

        If we stand back it strikes me that we can understand your analysis as symptomatic of what Latour calls a dual process of “purification” and “hybridization.” One the one hand you want a clean construction of differences (as “distinction”) which separate the categories of secular and identity politics; whilst on the other hand you want a hybridization (e.g. “there is no clear cut boundary”) which mixes politics and culture.

        Agamben explains in ‘The Coming Community’ that “What the State cannot tolerate in any way, however, is that the singularities form a community without affirming an identity, that humans co-belong without any representable condition of belonging…the possibility of the whatever itself being taken up without an identity is a threat the State cannot come to terms with” (86).

        A more minor point but William Connolly is helpful in this respect when he says “There is more in my life than any official definition of identity can express. I am not exhausted by my identity” (45)

      • I still think you misunderstand, and perhaps — with all due respect — that you are unfamiliar with my academic work about the different meanings of the word ‘we’. When I use these distinctions, it is because of an attempt to describe conflicts unfolding in the real world. Empirical descriptions, not wishful thinking. If we deny the reality of ethnic and religious organisation and their fraught and often conflictual relationship to political identities based on other principles, analysis of this and many other tensions in the contemporary world becomes difficult. France is interesting in that it, as a state, does not recognise the existence of religious and ethnic communities; as a result, it is difficult to address, in an effective way, ethnic discrimination and racist exclusion.

  2. Thank you. Lots of truth here and a nice description. However, isn’t the reduction of the problems in Syria to the presence of the ISIS there somewhat oversimplifying, even misleading?
    We will soon need good proposals for moving forward. These will be harder to formulate…

    • Yes, of course the troubles of Syria began before the emergence of ISIS, which merely exploited vacuums and vacant niches left by the already destabilised and volatile situation. Thank you for the comment!

  3. Thanks for the blog, please let me add: There have indeed been huge problems before ISIS in Syria, which have their roots in resources water, hydrocarbons [oil, gas] and geopolitical aspects. While there are large increases of population with an undeniable pressure on local politics, I think more important factors are the intervention of resources greedy powers. Israels push for water on the Golan and natural gas offshore, the US interests in a gas pipeline to the Mediterranean, Turkey’s problem with the Kurds and Russia’s interest in Syrian port facilities. The uncontrolled land-grab of Israel and it’s plans to establish a ‘biblical’ homeland expanding far beyond any internationally agreed borders are to my mind the most decisive and explosive reasons for what happens now. While I agree that actions by ISIS and other terrorist units are one of the causes for the recent mobility of refugees, the fact that the UN announced it would probably not be able to provide the existing refugee camps with food and heating this winter for lack of funds seems to have been a massive trigger. Syrians who have been in tent camps for up to four years decided that too much is too much. [It also does not help to know that Palestinians have been kept in camps for over sixty years!].

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  8. You touched briefly on the role Western powers had in the destabilization of the Middle East/predominantly Muslim countries. France in particular is criticized for having a revisionist view of history and failing to recognize their colonial history notably in Algeria (see “Colonisation : Commémorations et mémoriaux. Conflictualité sociale et politique d’un enjeu mémoriel” by Bancel and Blanchard). How much of an effect would the admission and repentance of said role by Western powers have in decreasing the ideological gap between “East/West” or “Islam/democracy”? Might it not serve as a) the first step towards easing the tensions and b) revelatory for Westerners? That is to say, we would realize our own state of inhumanity in dealing with the Middle East and Muslims as being just as brutal as their responses to such violence?

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