‘Belonging’ is both a fundamental human emotion and a political project that affects millions. Since its foundation in 1957, the European Union has encouraged people across its member states to feel a sense of belonging to one united community, with mixed results. Under current fractious conditions, it has become increasingly important to ask: Is there a European identity? Who determines who belongs? Is a single sense of belonging in Europe dangerous?
In this blog, Umut Bozkurt – a contributor to Do I Belong?, a collection of essays that seek to understand Europe in its current formation – examines the spate of terror attacks in Western Europe and asks how these horrific incidents reflect the economy, legitimacy, democracy, citizenship and multiculturalism of Europe’s ‘imagined community’.
The murderous attacks in Paris in January and November 2015 tell us a lot about the multidimensional set of crises unfolding in Europe.
On Wednesday 7 January, two masked gunmen, dressed in black and armed with Kalashnikov assault rifles, attacked the building of the French satirical weekly newspaper Charlie Hebdo, killing twelve people and injured eleven others. After leaving, they killed a police officer outside the building. It was later revealed that the gunmen were two brothers: Chérif and Saïd Kouachi identified themselves as belonging to the Yemen branch of the Islamist terrorist group Al-Qaeda, which took responsibility for the attack.
The brothers were later shot dead by police, following a hostage drama in the north of Paris. On the same day another terrorist, Amédy Coulibaly, having already killed a policewoman on the eighth, killed four hostages at a kosher supermarket in east Paris and was then killed by police when they stormed the building. On 13 November, Paris witnessed a series of coordinated terrorist attacks that killed 130 people. The attacks included suicide bombings near the Stade de France and suicide bombings and mass shootings at cafés, restaurants and the Bataclan concert hall. ISIS claimed responsibility for the attacks, saying that they were in retaliation for the French airstrikes on ISIS targets in Syria and Iraq. Seven attackers were killed at the time and two more five days later.
So how do we explain these attacks? Since Al-Qaeda and ISIS assumed responsibility, we need to start by discussing the role of Islam in these killings. Can we say that the attacks were inspired by Islam? Does Islam provide ethical justifications for killing? No doubt fundamentalist ideologues and demagogues have utilised religious ideas and images, as a contributor to the Immanent Frame blog put it, ‘in crafting worldviews of grand warfare’, spreading them through compelling internet videos. The role of religion can be problematic in the sense that it can be used as an excuse for violence. However, it should be emphasised that religion on its own cannot explain these attacks. First of all, Muslims do not form a monolithic community. Nor does their religion define their politics. The arguments that ‘Islam is inherently violent’ and that ‘Islam is inherently peaceful’ are both problematic because, as the journalist Gary Younge put it, ‘Islam, like any religion, is not “inherently” anything but what people make of it’. In the case of the Paris attacks some actors are using Islam to justify their violence.
Blaming religious beliefs and scriptures without looking at the socio-political and historical contexts leads to superficial explanations. In my view four conditions produced these attacks: the colonial legacy; the stagnation of the French economy and inequality; the failure of multiculturalism and increasing radicalisation of European Muslims; and political developments in the Middle East and France’s foreign policy.
According to Mark LeVine, the Charlie Hebdo killings are ‘rooted in generations of violence, hypocrisy and greed’ generated by French colonialism. Two perpetrators of the Charlie Hebdo attacks and one perpetrator of the November attacks were reportedly of Algerian descent. France’s invasion of Algeria in 1830 led to 130 years of murder, expropriation, racism, exploitation and misrule that only ended after a vicious anti-colonial struggle. The bloody war that continued between 1954 and 1962 led to the death of 1.5 million Arab Muslims and many thousands of French men and women. A bloodbath of massacres, disappearances and torture continues to poison the relationship between Arabs and French to this day. In 1961, 200 Algerians were massacred in Paris as they were participating in an illegal march against France’s colonial war in Algeria. As Robert Fisk explained in Counterpunch in November 2015, ‘Most were murdered by the French police, many were tortured in the Palais des Sports and their bodies thrown into the Seine.’
In his 2015 book, Who Is Charlie? Xenophobia and the New Middle Class, the controversial French thinker Emmanuel Todd claimed that ‘France is a kind of pseudo-republic favouring only the middle class while the working class and children of immigrants have been excluded… Its economy is faltering, unemployment is sky-high, inequality is the norm.’ Since 2008, like the rest of Europe, France has been gripped by the banking and sovereign debt crises. This also led to a political crisis and a questioning of the government’s legitimacy, which became a significant factor behind the rise of Marine Le Pen’s Front National.
After 2008 the top three French banks, Crédit Agricole, BNP Paribas and Société Générale, became the most systemically risky financial entities in Europe. In 2013, Standard and Poor’s downgraded France’s triple-A rating. It was clear that global capital wanted to see more drastic measures against French workers. In these circumstances, François Hollande was elected as the new president of France in the 2012 elections. Even though Hollande had promised to fight back against German-led austerity measures during his electoral campaign, as soon as he was elected he reneged on his promise and continued with Sarkozy’s austerity policies.
The Charlie Hebdo attacks also revealed the failure of multiculturalism in France and the increasing radicalization of Muslims. There are about 20 million Muslims in Europe. France is home to around 5 million, roughly 8 per cent of its population, compared with about 5 per cent in both the UK and Germany. The 2015 attacks in Paris need to be understood in the context of France being the European country that has supplied the most jihadis to the so-called Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (ISIS). But the problem is not only peculiar to France. Ruud Koopmans carried out a pan-European study in 2013 that was based on interviews with 9,000 European Muslims. The results were striking. They showed how large numbers believe in many of the ideas championed by ISIS: a return to the roots of Islam; the conviction that religious (Koranic) law stands above all secular laws; a hatred of Jews and homosexuals; and a view of the West as the enemy of Islam. Moreover, two-thirds of the Muslims interviewed across Western Europe said that religious rules were more important to them than the laws of the country in which they lived.
So why are Muslims being radicalised? If we just focus on the case of France – which has relevance for radicalisation in the rest of Europe – a few factors are worth noting. France is home to Europe’s biggest Muslim minority suburbs (banlieues) where large numbers of unemployed Muslims live, struggling with poverty, segregation, exclusion and marginalisation. Some are involved in crime and drugs and serve prison sentences, and some of those are radicalised in the process. What defines this French-born generation is grievance more than anything else. The perpetrators of the Charlie Hebdo killings were raised on such rough estates, involved in violence and crime as well as having unstable family lives. Chérif and Saïd Kouachi were orphaned brothers who grew up in foster homes. Amédy Coulibaly was also raised on one of the Paris banlieue’s most notorious estates. Both Chérif Kouachi and Coulibaly served time in prison, Kouachi for his involvement in a case involving the organisation of jihadis to fight Americans in Iraq, Coulibaly for his involvement in robbery. Prison seems to be playing a significant role in radicalising France’s Muslims. It was certainly the case with Chérif Kouachi who met Djamel Beghal, a jihadi convicted for attempting to bomb the American embassy in Paris in 2001 and introduced by him to Coulibaly.
Clearly, the fate of Muslims in foreign conflicts plays a significant role in radicalising European Muslims. In this sense, the 2015 attacks should be placed in the broader context of wars going on from Pakistan to Palestine. Without a doubt illegal wars, torture, civilian massacres, daily bombings, kidnappings in the Gulf and the Middle East, where the victims have usually been Muslim, informed the actions of the perpetrators.
I see the 2015 Paris attacks as the Pandora’s Box that brought into the limelight the multidimensional set of crises currently facing the European project. These crises pose significant challenges to people’s sense of belonging in Europe. The significant decline of trust in the EU, including among countries not under pressure from the EU and the IMF, is not surprising when a group of democratically unaccountable decision-makers run roughshod over the decisions of elected governments and impose unpopular decisions that impoverish millions of people.
My personal sense of belonging in the European project is also undermined as I observe that Europe today is busy turning itself into ‘fortress Europe’, trying to protect itself from the influx of refugees at a time when the world is experiencing the worst refugee crisis since the Second World War. This is a Europe where xenophobia and the far right are on the rise, European Muslims who live as ‘second-class citizens’ are increasingly radicalized and the post-war Marshallian citizenship model is evolving into an austerity citizenship that excludes many who were co-opted into the system in the past. It marks some as legitimate bearers of rights while creating millions of new rejects, some of whom carry the potential to engage in disruptive social upheaval.
It is neoliberal policies that generate the conditions for the exclusion, marginalization and victimization of certain groups in society and produce austerity citizenship. Europe remains a political construct that favours the white middle class, while the working class and immigrants are excluded. It persists with an economic model that appeals to the stability concerns of a small number of capitalists at the expense of a faltering economy marked by deepening inequality and high unemployment. As long as this is the case, it is hard to see how the sense of belonging and trust in Europe can be restored.
Umut Bozkurt is an Assistant Professor in the Department of International Relations, Eastern Mediterranean University, Cyprus. She is the co-editor of Beyond a Divided Cyprus: A State and Society in Transformation (Palgrave Macmillan 2012). Her latest work focuses on the political economy of the Justice and Development Party in Turkey and the nature of the economic relations between Turkey and North Cyprus.
Do I Belong? Reflections from Europe, edited by Anthony Lerman, is available from Pluto Press.