The horrors unleashed on the streets of Paris on Friday night took place against the background of two major ongoing international crises: The first is the Syrian conflict and the war against the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL), and the second is the refugee crisis that now besets Europe.
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The entry of Russia has escalated the conflict in Syria. The day before the Paris attacks, an American air strike was believed to have killed “Jihadi John”, a British national who had joined ISIL and become an important propaganda tool.
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Many have inevitably looked to these two crises as explanations for the Paris atrocities. Some have seen the terrorism as the consequence of French foreign policy in Syria, others of lax immigration controls that have allowed terrorists to enter Europe. Both arguments seem superficially self-evident. But both are profoundly untrue.
ISIL has officially claimed responsibility for the attacks. One of the terrorists in the Bataclan theatre, where about 80 people were slaughtered, was said to have shouted: “This is for Syria.” Yet we should be wary of seeing these attacks as a response, however perverted, to French, or Western, foreign policy.
Refugees and migrants are often attempting to flee just the kind of carnage that came to the streets of Paris on Friday. And far from waving migrants across Europe’s borders, the EU has spent 25 years building a fortress against migration, protected by militarised border controls.
The terrorists did not target symbols of the French state, or of French militarism. They did not even target tourist spots. They targeted, rather, the areas and the places where mainly young, anti-racist, multiethnic Parisians hang out.
The cafes, restaurants, bars and music venue that were attacked – Le Carillon, La Belle Equipe, Le Petit Cambodge, and the Jewish-owned Bataclan – are in the 10th and 11th arrondissements, areas that, though increasingly gentrified, remain ethnically and culturally mixed and still with a working-class presence.
The other venue attacked was the Stade de France, the national football stadium. France and Germany were playing a game there on Friday night, and French President Francois Hollande was in attendance.
But the Stade de France, like France’s national football team, also has great cultural resonance. “Les Bleus” – as the team is known – are seen by many as an embodiment of multicultural France, a team consisting of “noir, blanc, beur” (black, white, Arab) players. It was in the Stade de France that Les Bleus, led by Zinedine Zidane, a Frenchman of Algerian descent, famously won the World Cup in 1998.
What the terrorists despised, what they tried to eliminate, were ordinary people drinking, eating, laughing, and mixing. That is what they hated – not so much the French state as the values of diversity and pluralism.
This is in keeping with the character of many terrorist attacks, in Europe and elsewhere. Terrorists often claim a political motive for their attacks. Commentators often try to rationalise such acts, suggesting that they are the inevitable result of a sense of injustice created by Western foreign policy or by anti-Muslim attitudes in the West.
Yet most attacks have been not on political targets but on cafes or trains or mosques. Such attacks are not about making a political point or achieving a political goal – as were, for instance, the IRA bombings in Britain in the 1970s and 1980s – but are expressions of nihilistic savagery, the aim of which is solely to create fear. This is not terrorism with a political aim, but terror as an end in itself.
If many on the left have tried to blame terror attacks on Western foreign policy, many on the right have tried to use the Paris carnage to ramp up rhetoric against migrants and refugees. Had France (and Europe) maintained tighter border controls, they suggest, the carnage could have been avoided.
We don’t yet know the backgrounds of the Paris killers. They may have been recent migrants or refugees. Yet, even if they were, the arguments linking the Paris attacks to the refugee crisis are questionable.
For a start, refugees and migrants are often attempting to flee just the kind of carnage that came to the streets of Paris on Friday. And far from waving migrants across Europe’s borders, the EU has spent 25 years building a fortress against migration, protected by militarised border controls.
Whatever may eventually turn out to be the identities of the Paris killers, until now, the problem of terrorism in Europe has not been created by terrorists smuggling themselves onto refugee boats.
It has, rather, mostly been the work of home-grown jihadis. The Kouachi brothers, for instance, who were responsible for the Charlie Hebdo killings in January, were born and raised in Paris.
So was Amedy Coulibaly, the gunman who, that same weekend, attacked a kosher supermarket in Paris and killed four Jews. Three of the four suicide bombers responsible for the 7/7 attack on London tubes and a bus were, similarly, born in Britain.
Most of the 4,000 or so Europeans who have joined ISIL as fighters have been European-born, and many have been professionals and well-integrated into society.
Pointing the finger at refugees not only sidesteps the problem of home-grown jihad, but it also foments more anti-immigrant hatred, further polarising European societies.
It is understandable that in the wake of a horror such as that in Paris, we should seek quick, easy solutions. But the problem of terrorism is more complicated than that. If we really want to address the issue of terrorism we need to address the complexities, too.
Kenan Malik is a London-based writer, lecturer and broadcaster. His latest book is The Quest for a Moral Compass: A Global History of Ethics. Previous books include: From Fatwa to Jihad, shortlisted for the 2010 George Orwell Prize. He writes at Pandaemonium: www.kenanmalik.wordress.com.
The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera’s editorial policy.