By Juan Cole
After 9/11, French President Jacques Chirac rejected the “war on terror” proposed by George W. Bush, urging the United States to treat terrorism as a form of criminality. His refusal to go along with Bush adviser Karl Rove’s Orwellian use of language is perhaps the only thing that Chirac will be remembered for, but in some ways it’s legacy enough. In contrast, after the November terrorist attacks on Paris, President François Hollande, a Socialist, made the grave error of announcing that France is now at war. Actual states should not grant such legitimacy to small bands of violent criminals, and the deployment of the language and techniques of war is the best way to lose a campaign against them.
The language of war elevates terrorists to the very status to which they aspire: that of legitimate combatants. The fevered hothouses of extremism, whether in Belgian slums or Saudi Wahhabi mosques, generate a narrative that serves as the pretext for violent action. A country like France is depicted as engaging in monstrous acts, killing defenseless children and women from the air. Gullible teenagers are challenged by a jihadi recruiter with the need to do something to halt the atrocities. They are groomed as heroes, as soldiers saving their people. War is, after all, the one social context in which heinous actions are permitted. The innocent civilians whom these recruits will murder are depicted as enemy combatants: Did these people not vote for the government committing the atrocities? Do they not support it? And even if they’re actually innocent, isn’t it necessary that they be sacrificed so as to produce a public backlash, pushing the government to overreact in a direction favorable to the terrorists?
The young men recruited by the late petty thief Abdelhamid Abaaoud were, it should go without saying, not soldiers; they were delinquents outfitted with bombs and machine guns instead of stilettos. They were marginalized people, the people discarded by the sluggish capitalism of Belgium or France, given no purpose in life by their squalid environs, humiliated by quotidian racism, denied the dignity of productive labor, and, in the case of Belgium, poorly educated by a mediocre state-run school system. Others from their milieu, however, made respectable lives for themselves (Abaaoud’s own family, filled with shame, hoped last year that he was dead), and saw their circumstances as a challenge, not an excuse for crime. Abaaoud and his partners in crime deserve no military stripes.
Talk of fighting a war against these criminals bestows on them a dignity that their despicable life choices should not warrant and inadvertently covers them with glory. They plotted out a spectacle in a soccer stadium in which they would blow themselves up, along with other spectators in the stands, before TV cameras beaming the events to the world. But only one of them was able to scalp a ticket, and French police were not so stupid as to admit someone with an explosive vest under his coat. The panicked killers had to detonate their payloads uselessly outside the stadium, and some of their bombs malfunctioned, killing only the wearer. The others shot up restaurants, cafés, and a concert hall off-camera, and thus were denied a televised horror-movie production. Nevertheless, American TV provided us with so-called counterterrorism experts who declared that this sad-sack carnage was superbly planned and executed.
Murders in restaurants are hardly an act of war, and can be accomplished by anyone with a firearm. Our biker gangs and the mentally ill—whom the National Rifle Association insists should be amply supplied with assault weapons and extra-ammunition magazines—routinely achieve that sort of mayhem in the United States, and we not only don’t declare war, we don’t even take practical steps to stop it. The Paris terrorists bear much more resemblance to biker-gang members and unbalanced mass shooters than they do to the special-forces operatives of a proper state.
Hollande’s rhetoric of war conflates two quite different policy challenges. One is to deal with security in Europe and work against the radicalization of the slums; the other is to roll back the minions of Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi and his so-called Islamic State in eastern Syria and western Iraq. Even in the latter case, rhetoric matters: It’s a huge error to dignify that group—more akin to desert pirates than a government—as a “state” (much less an Islamic one) on which one might wage war as an equal. Baghdadi is the nom de guerre for a minor Iraqi academic, Ibrahim al-Samarrai, who would not have gotten tenure in a good Islamic-studies program. The rest of the Muslim world falls down laughing at his declaration, made while flaunting a Rolex, that he is a caliph, a successor of Harun al-Rashid.
For Baghdadi to call his band of human traffickers, rapists, drug smugglers, and looters the “Islamic State” is rather like a Mexican drug cartel adopting the moniker “the Vatican,” and our adopting that term thereafter (“The Vatican kidnapped 30 people today”) when reporting on its violence. Journalists would resist such linguistic coercion in the case of Catholics; they should resist it in the case of Muslims as well. The name commonly given to the group in the Arabic press is “Daesh,” which is what we should call it as well to avoid being enlisted as its propagandists. To the objection that Daesh holds territory, it may be replied that narco-terrorist groups in the Global South often do too, without being dignified as states.
A “war” on terror that characterizes, for example, all Syrian refugees as potential combatants thus plays right into the hands of recruiters like Abaaoud, who aim to “sharpen the contradictions” between Muslims and those of Christian heritage. We should rather be observing that some Syrians have joined a criminal cartel that has taken over some desert towns at gunpoint, but that most Syrians have not done so. Indeed, large numbers have voted with their feet: When Daesh took Mosul, 500,000 residents fled immediately in horror and disgust, and many more got out later. Hundreds of thousands of Syrians—and not only Kurds—have fled Raqqa Province (pre-2011 population: 900,000), Daesh’s current headquarters. Those are the refugees on the backs of whom US politicians are now wretchedly grandstanding. (The Daesh cartel has probably kidnapped on the order of 3 million people—not the 8 million that many observers cite, since the latter neglect to figure in the masses who have fled the territory of the phony caliphate.)
Daesh flourishes in areas where the central state has lost legitimacy and collapsed. The rural Sunni Arabs of eastern Syria may despise Daesh, but some despise it less than they do the murderous Stalinism of the Baath Party still holding Damascus. Mosulis may be miserable under al-Samarrai, but they would also be humiliated and marginalized by the hard-line Shiite militias who dictate politics in Baghdad. Any attempt to roll up Daesh needs to reckon with its popularity in some quarters. For a minority of Sunni Arabs in the wastelands left behind by decrepit, corrupt, and discriminatory governments, it is the lesser evil.
Those demanding easy answers or immediate results in Syria and Iraq are being childish, and the rhetoric of war is puerile. If it were easy to defeat organizations like Daesh, many contemporary long-term conflicts could have been avoided. In the Democratic Republic of Congo, Daesh-like groups duked it out from the 1990s until 2003, engulfing central and southern Africa in an apocalypse that killed 5.4 million people. One of those groups, the Uganda-based Lord’s Resistance Army, bears a special resemblance to Daesh, albeit with a Christian background. The Colombian government has spent decades trying to wipe out the FARC (which also at some points held territory, inducted minors, and committed atrocities, though its ideology is as far left as Daesh’s is far right). Simply bombing Raqqa, with no practical plan for a ground force to take territory away from Daesh, won’t improve the current situation, however much it may appease public anger.
As for the quite separate challenge of dealing with the radicalization of youth in Europe’s bidonvilles, many experts argue that it’s more like a public-health problem than it is a war. Urban best practices such as community policing and proactive government intervention to improve the dignity of people (much more important even than addressing poverty) have been shown to yield results. Demonizing immigrant Syrians, or all Muslims, as potential Daesh recruits may actually drive some into the arms of the extremists. Policy-makers who wish to address this crisis need to use the tools of public policy and enlightened police work rather than the blunt instruments of war. Above all, they need to stop buying into Daesh’s attempt to provoke a clash of civilizations.
Juan Cole is the Richard P. Mitchell Collegiate Professor of History and director of the Center for Middle Eastern and North African Studies at the University of Michigan.
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