By Gordon Adams, November 17, 2015
Once again, a violent jihadi terrorist attack has hit France, this time with at least 450 victims, 129 of them fatal. Rallying around the French flag, even pasting it over our Facebook avatars, follows, because an attack on European soil somehow “exports” the war in the Middle East to our front doors. We remember and mourn Berlin, Madrid, London, and New York. But deaths at the hands of terrorists in Beirut on Nov. 12 (43 dead; 200 wounded), or Baghdad the day after (26 dead; 46 wounded); Dhaka on Oct. 24 (1 dead; 104 wounded); or in Ankara on Oct. 10 (95 dead; 246 wounded) have not brought the same outpouring of grief and flag-draping. Even the killing of 224 passengers on a commercial Russian passenger plane, brought down by a terrorist bomb over the Sinai Peninsula, pale by comparison to the outpouring of emotion following the attacks in Paris.
The war against terrorists, especially the Islamic State — reputed sponsor of all those non-European attacks — has “come home,” we say. In reaction, French politicians, like former President Nicolas Sarkozy, demand “total war.” Republican presidential candidates thump the tub to escalate a ground war in Syria.
There’s something fundamentally disturbing, even dangerous, about the responses to terrorist violence in Europe and America, especially the French response. As we scramble to deal with the latest outrage, we need to keep in mind that this war was never far away or distant, certainly not from France. The outrage, shock, and grief needs to be tempered by a realization that our selective attention about the violence is rooted in denial. It ignores the long history of conflict, empire, religious war, colonial intrusion, disrespect, racism, and invasion that has characterized the relationship between France and the Muslim world. If we fail to come to terms with fundamental historical realities, we are condemned to repeat the cycle of violence for years to come.
Upon hearing the horrific news on Friday, this history came back into view. I was reminded, once again, as I was during the Charlie Hebdo attacks in January, of the legacy of France’s ancient confrontation with Islam and of more recent French colonial history, and how it influences today’s violence and the response. For France, the origins of the Islamic State attacks (and the French reaction to them) aren’t just about the French air force’s role in Syria. They go back much further.
Back in January, I wrote a column telling the story of my drive with fellow American students through Bordeaux in 1961, when our car was searched twice as part of then-President Charles de Gaulle’s drive to roll up an irredentist French-Algerian paratrooper invasion brought about by the president’s decision to abandon the colonial war in Algeria. It may seem like ancient history, but the Algerian war and the revolt of the French colonial pieds-noirs is well within the memory of both countries today.
Indeed, France has been a central arena for the confrontation between Islam and political-religious Christian Europe for 1,300 years. When we were searched in Bordeaux, we were returning to school, in Tours, near the town of Poitiers. Students of French history know those city names well, for they are a significant historical marker. It was in the Battle of Poitiers (also known as the Battle of Tours) in A.D. 732 that Charles Martel, the Frankish military leader (and Charlemagne’s grandfather) defeated the Umayyad Caliphate and its leader, Abd-ar-Rahman, who ruled the Iberian Peninsula, and part of what today is southern France. This victory permanently halted the expansion of Islam into Europe and began the expulsion of Islam from the continent.
This victory is still celebrated; all French students are taught its history — in depth — and are aware that the line of demarcation between Muslim and Christian Europe was drawn, in part, in their own country. A sense of cultural, military, and political conflict with Islam and a fear of Islamization have never been far from French consciousness, as a result.
That feeling of historic conflict and threat was amplified by the more recent, 200-year-old pattern of French colonialism in North Africa and the Middle East, France’s “near abroad.” What French colonialism added was the brutal confrontation between French settlers and their heirs and the people of Algeria, beginning in the 1830s and ending with Algerian independence in 1962. Add to this rich, conflict-laden history the French colonial role in Morocco and Tunisia, with whom there are still deep and continuing cultural and economic ties. Many Moroccans and Tunisians also migrate north to France. Add to all that the French mandate, after World War I, in Lebanon and Syria, which left a legacy of cultural and economic ties between modern Syria, Lebanon, and France.
Given this history, it is hardly surprising that there has been a long experience of Muslim migration from North Africa and the Middle East to France, giving it the second-largest Muslim population — 4.7 million — and the largest Muslim share of its national population (7.5 percent) of any western European country. (Some 4.8 million Muslims constitute almost 6 percent of the German population, the 3 million in the United Kingdom about 4.8 percent of the population). Equally, that history goes a long way toward explaining the ambivalence of the French toward Islam and this migrant population.
France has accommodated its almost 5 million Muslims badly. The result has been tension, violence, and radicalization — both among the French right, and among Muslim activists. Today, France experiences that clash across the board: from the economic isolation of Muslim families; to the episodic upsurge of street confrontations between authorities and young men in Muslim neighborhoods, especially on the north side of Paris; to the legal battles over the veil. The two populations — France’s secular and Christian, and France’s Muslim — scarcely mix. When they do, the consequences are explosive, as the New Yorker’s George Packer recently documented.
This history helps us understand why France represents a particular target for the Islamic State. These extremists aren’t simply trying to send a general message to President François Hollande about ending the French campaign against the Islamic State. It is now clear that some of the Nov. 13 attackers had lived in France, or even were French citizens. The revulsion that follows the attacks is understandable, but draping one’s face in the tricolor is not a very meaningful response. Total war would be fraught with downside risks. Islamic extremism, in France or in the Middle East, is a catastrophic response to history, not just a near-term response to the use of French fighter-bombers in Syria.
A more nuanced response than total war is needed to deal with the underlying rage that fuels this confrontation. And that is almost impossible to imagine in the current atmosphere. Islam has not been welcome in France, and the hostility of non-Islamic France is only growing.
Conflict with the Islamic State may be inevitable. The West — the French and many others, including the United States — are already at war with radical jihad, so certainly the Islamic State will see the battlefield as global. Indeed, it seems to relish the opportunity to confront the non-Islamic world in a cataclysmic struggle. But attack and response, attack and response, are not enough. And given the history, tit for tat will prove counterproductive as a long-term strategy. Total war will only breed resentment and recruit more terrorists, while fomenting instability and cultural and political conflict at home. Creating more fear and division will not win this battle.
Alongside what may be necessary violence against the Islamic State, we need a renewed focus on addressing this historically rooted conflict. There needs to be much more understanding of the history — and, for the French, the role that it has played in exacerbating the clash. In particular, France needs to undergo a deep self-examination, and a fundamental revision of the current practice of sidelining its large Muslim population, leaving them disaffected, poorly educated, underemployed, and ripe for recruitment to terrorism. We may all be French for a day, but stepping through the anger and fear, we all need to become Muslim as well, and begin to build the lines of communication and integration that are the only sure hope to end the cycle of violence.
Gordon Adams is a professor of international relations at American University’s School of International Service and is a distinguished fellow at the Stimson Center. From 1993 to 1997, he was the senior White House budget official for national security.