Paris massacre highlights deeper political problems

A French policeman looks on as several thousand people gather to pay tribute to the victims...
A French policeman looks on as several thousand people gather to pay tribute to the victims following a shooting by gunmen at the offices of the satirical weekly newspaper Charlie Hebdo in Paris. Photo by Reuters
Much more needs to be done to reduce the appeal of  the ideas that inspire Islamist terrorism, writes Robert G. Patman.

In the aftermath of the appalling attack at the Paris office of French satirical magazine Charlie Hebdo, some hard political truths have to be faced.

Since 9/11, the international community has made a concerted effort in the words of John Kerry, the United States Secretary of State, to ‘‘confront'' the extremism of militant Islamist terrorism from groups like al Qaeda and ISIS.

Throughout this period, and particularly after the brutal murders of 12 people in Paris, there has been a tremendous focus on dealing with the symptoms of the terrorist problem.

Commentators and politicians constantly ponder law enforcement capabilities, intelligence issues, the identity of the terrorists, progress of efforts to capture or kill terrorists, and the continual need for vigilance against violent militants dedicated destroying civil liberties bestowed by democracy.

To be sure, those responsible for criminal acts like the Paris massacre must be brought to account and no effort should be spared in doing so.

But that in itself is not enough. Above all, the struggle against terrorism is a political one.

While terrorist acts like the 9/11 and Charlie Hebdo attacks are counterproductive in terms of winning public support, they are not designed to be populist.

Rather, by provoking a response, terrorist Islamist groups seek to advance their narrative that the West is at war with Islam, boost their ‘resistance' credentials, and thus generate new recruits from a pool of disaffected and angry Muslims.

To date, international efforts to counter the political narrative of militant Islam have been constrained by a reluctance of three key actors to place the political struggle above their own particular interests.

First, the moderate majority of more than 1 billion Muslims and the governments that rule them have hitherto remained largely silent about the rise of a militant minority, which has hijacked Islam's identity and branded their terrorist activities as an honourable religious defence.

The ambiguity and silence of many Muslim countries should end. Fears about antagonising groups of armed extremists in their ranks must be weighed against a much greater risk - that groups like al Qaeda and ISIS misrepresent and distort the interests and values of Islam and contribute to a false but damaging ‘‘clash of civilisations''.

It would be helpful, for example, if more Muslim states publicly challenged the claim by heavily armed gunman in Paris that they murdered 12 people in the office of the Charlie Hebdo magazine to ‘‘avenge'' the enemies of the Prophet.

Second, despite public opposition to terrorism, Vladimir Putin's Russia and, to a much lesser degree, China, have propped up the Assad dictatorship in Syria and helped fuel a brutal civil war that, among other things, spawned the rise of ISIS, an Islamist terror group which now threatens both Syria, Iraq, and beyond.

Between 2011 and 2012, Putin's government vetoed three US-UN Security Council resolutions calling for the departure of the Assad government and the establishment of a political transition in Syria.

By consistently blocking UN efforts to stabilise a bloody civil war and generously arming the Assad regime, Moscow has maintained a tenuous foothold in Syria but it has done at the cost of inflating the Islamist presence in the country and the region.

If the Putin regime is serious about confronting militant Islam, it would reverse its disastrous policy in Syria.

Third, US policy in the Middle East seems to have been shaped more by domestic politics than the strategic goal of winning the ideological battle with Islamic terrorism.

Indeed, many elements in American media and political circles seem strangely blind to the traction that Islamic terrorists derive from Washington's policy.

Two factors loom large here. The impact of the 2003 US-led invasion of Iraq, a country that had nothing to do with the 9/11 atrocity, continues to convulse the Middle East.

Among other things, the US invasion gravely weakened central authority in Baghdad, provided a foothold for militant Islamists in the region, and fuelled anti-American sentiments in the Islamic world, trends that outlasted the withdrawal of US combat troops from Iraq in 2010.

At the same time, President Obama's early efforts to advance the establishment of a Palestinian state - a move considered vital by many Muslims to stem the hatred that fuels Islamist terrorism - quickly faltered after Israel's Prime Minister, Benjamin Netanyahu, effectively rallied opposition in the US to the idea.

It is not that groups like al Qaeda and ISIS care about the plight of the Palestinians. They don't. But these militant groups are happy to exploit the sense of anger and grievance that is widely felt in the Muslim world about the American failure to press Israel to end its occupation of the Palestinian West Bank territory.

If the US is serious about politically squeezing Islamist militants, it should as a matter of urgency back the creation of a Palestinian state.

Thus, the attacks in Paris are a stark reminder that much more needs to done to reduce the political appeal of the ideas that drive and inspire the violent activities of Islamist terrorism.

- Robert G. Patman is a Professor of international relations at the University of Otago and is at present a visiting senior scholar at the Centre of International Peace and Security Studies, McGill University, Montreal.

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