January 12, 2015

Behind the Paris killings

The media increasingly defines crises by only their most recent manifestations. Thus the recent killings in Paris were an act of “terrorists,” a broad contemporary brand for any violence not approved by a nation state. The fact that state sanctioned violence is typically far more deadly is generally ignored as is the fact that “terrorist” acts typically have roots in the violence of nation states.

Contrary to what the media teaches us, our reaction is not best occupied with blame, anger, and reprisal, but with confronting and comprehending the context of the incidents the media blasts in our faces. Here is some useful background to the Paris killings, especially relating to Algeria:

Sam Smith, 2002 - The media and politicians call what has happened terrorism. This is a propagandistic rather than a descriptive term and replaces the more useful traditional phrases, guerilla action or guerilla warfare. The former places a mythical shroud around the event while the latter depicts its true nature. Guerillas do not play by the rules of state organization or military tactics. This does not make them cowardly, as some have suggested, but can make them fiendishly clever. The essence of guerilla warfare is to attack at times and places unsuspected and return to places unknown. You can not invade the land of guerillas, you can not bomb them out of existence, you can not overwhelm them with your technological wonders.

This was a lesson we were supposed to have learned in Vietnam but appear to have forgotten. The journalist Bernard Fall early noted that the French, after Dien Bien Phu, had no choice but to leave Southeast Asia. America, with its vast military, financial, and technological resources, was able to stay because it had the capacity to keep making the same mistakes over and over. Our war against "terrorism" has been in many ways a domestic version of our Vietnam strategy. We keep making the same mistakes over and over because, until now, we could afford to. One of these has been to define the problem by its manifestations rather than its causes. This turns a resolvable political problem into a irresolvable technical problem, because while, for example, there are clearly solutions to the Middle East crisis, there are no other solutions to the guerilla violence that grows from the failure to end it.

In other words, if you define the problem as "a struggle against terrorism" you have already admitted defeat because the guerilla will always have the upper hand against a centralized, technology-dependent society such as ours. We will always be blindsided, just as Bernard Fall said the French were under much simpler circumstances: "What surprised the French completely was the Viet-Minh's ability to transport a considerable mass of heavy artillery pieces across road less mountains to Dien Bien Phu and to keep it supplied with a sufficient amount of ammunition to make the huge effort worthwhile."

There is one way to deal with guerilla warfare and that is to resolve the problems that allow it to thrive. The trick is to undermine the violence of the most bitter by dealing honestly with the complaints of the most rational. As we have demonstrated in the Middle East, one need not even reach a final solution as long as incremental progress is being made. But once that ceases, as has happened in the past year, the case for freelance violence is quickly strengthened and people simply forget that peace is possible.

In the present instance, we may have met our own Dien Bien Phu in our long, senseless, and self-defeating effort to subdue and control those of the Muslim states. The answer - humiliating as it may seem over the short run but courageous as it really would be - is not to commence yet another war of empire against the Muslim world, but to end the one we have conducted for far too long.

This is what France did. By 1961, with Kennedy contemplating involvement in Vietnam, General de Gaulle strongly urged him not to get involved in that "rotten country." Said de Gaulle, "I predict to you, that you will, step by step, be sucked into a bottomless military and political quagmire." The French had lost 55,000 troops there, almost as many as the Americans would. This was not the advice of a pacifist or a warrior gone soft, but of a hard-nosed general who understood the importance of reality in military and political strategy. A few years earlier he had become prime minister and begun not only France's extrication from but from its other colonies. In 1958 he had proposed the "peace of the brave" but within one year was supporting full Algerian self-determination. He held to this position despite an attempted coup by members of the Foreign Legion and a secret army organization determined to keep Algeria French.

Among those supporting the liberation of Algeria was the existentialist Jean Paul Sartre. As Danielle Costa has written, he "argued that the violence in Algeria was the French people's collective responsibility. He felt that the initial and fundamental violence in the Algerian situation was colonialism itself. He argued that the colonial system was based on violence - first conquest, then different forms of exploitation and oppression, and then pacification. By its own violence, colonialism had taught the natives to understand only violence. By colonialism's intransigence, it forced the native to resort to violence."

We have built our own colonialism using corporations rather than cavalry and with foreign trade rather than with the Foreign Legion. But the effects have been much the same.

Portside, 2014 - Twelve fellow Nobel Peace Prize laureates have written an open letter to President Barack Obama, urging the 2009 recipient of the award to finally close one of the "dark chapters" of recent U.S. history by first acknowledging, and then rejecting, the "flagrant use of torture and other violations of international law" that have been conducted in the name of "fighting terrorism" since 2001.

"When a nation’s leaders condone and even order torture, that nation has lost its way," the letter states. "One need only look to the regimes where torture became a systematic practice – from Imperial Japan and Nazi Germany to the French in Algeria, South Vietnam, the Khmer Rouge and others – to see the ultimate fate of a regime so divorced from their own humanity."

The laureates continue, "As torture continues to haunt the waking hours of its victims long after the conflict has passed, so it will continue to haunt its perpetrators."

Adam Shatz, London Review of Books, January 2015 - The Kouachi brothers were products of the West – and of the traumatic collision between Western power and an Islamic world that has been torn apart by both internal conflict and Western military intervention. They were, above all, beurs, French citizens from the banlieue: Parisians of North African descent. It’s unlikely they could have recited more than the few hadith they learned from the ex-janitor-turned-imam who presided over their indoctrination. They came from a broken family and started out as petty criminals, much like Mohamed Merah, who murdered a group of Jewish schoolchildren in Montauban and Toulouse in 2012.

Their main preoccupations, before their conversion to Islamism, seem to have been football, chasing girls, listening to hip hop and smoking weed. Radical Islam gave them the sense of purpose that they couldn’t otherwise find in France. It allowed them to translate their sense of powerlessness into total power, their aimlessness into heroism on the stage of history. They were no longer criminals but holy warriors. To see their crimes as an expression of Islam is like treating the crimes of the Baader-Meinhof gang as an expression of historical materialism. And to say this is in no way to diminish their responsibility, or to relinquish ‘moral clarity’.

Last night I spoke with a friend who grew up in the banlieue. Assia (not her real name) is a French woman of Algerian origin who has taught for many years in the States, a leftist and atheist who despises Islamism. She read Charlie Hebdo as a teenager, and reveled in its irreverent cartoons. She feels distraught not just by the attacks but by the target, which is part of her lieux de mémoire. A part of her will always be Charlie Hebdo. And yet she finds it preposterous – and disturbing – that even Americans are now saying ‘je suis Charlie.’ Have any of them ever read it? she asked. ‘You couldn’t publish Charlie in the US – not the cartoons about the Prophet, or the images of popes getting fucked in the ass.’ Charlie Hebdo had an equal opportunity policy when it came to giving offense, but in recent years it had come to lean heavily on jokes about Muslims, who are among the most vulnerable citizens in France. Assia does not believe in censorship, but wonders: ‘Is this really the time for cartoons lampooning the Prophet, given the situation of North Africans in France?’

That’s ‘North Africans’, not ‘Muslims’. ‘When I hear that there are five million Muslims in France,’ Assia says, ‘I don’t know what they’re talking about. I know plenty of people in France who are like me, people of North African origin who don’t pray or believe in God, who aren’t Muslims in any real way. We didn’t grow up going to mosque; at most we saw our father fasting at Ramadan. But we’re called Muslims – which is the language of Algérie Française, when we were known as indigènes or as Muslims.’

She admits that more and more young beurs are becoming religious, but this is as much an expression of self-defense as piety, she says: French citizens of North African origin feel their backs are against the wall. That they are turning to an imported form of Islam – often of Gulf origin, often radical – is no surprise: few of them have any familiarity with the more peaceful and tolerant Islam of their North African ancestors. Nor is it surprising to find an increasing anti-Semitism among French Maghrébins in the banlieue. They look at the Jews and see not a minority who were persecuted by Europe but a privileged elite whose history of victimisation is officially honored and taught in schools, while the crimes of colonisation in Algeria are still hardly acknowledged by the state....

To say that France has an integration problem, and that it’s in urgent need of repair, isn’t to let the killers ...off the hook. It is to take the full measure of the moral and political challenge at hand, rather than to indulge in self-congratulatory exercises in ‘moral clarity’. If France continues to treat French men of North African origin as if they were a threat to ‘our’ civilization, more of them are likely to declare themselves a threat, and follow the example of the Kouachi brothers.

Mark LeVine is a professor of Middle Eastern History at University of California, Irvine

Mark Levine, Al Jazeera, January 2015 - Twelve people were massacred in Paris on Wednesday merely for expressing their opinion through art. Many might not like the art that prompted the carnage. They may consider it obscene and even an attack on their faith. But in the 21st, 15th or 57th century - whatever your religion, calendar, or country - there is no excuse or justification for responding to art with murder.

But there is a clear and frightening explanation for this violence, one that demands not merely outrage at the act itself, but at the system that has made it both predictable and inevitable. The problem is that this system is hundreds of years old, implicates most everyone, and has only become more entrenched in the last several decades as the world has become ever more globalized.

Where does the story begin? Quite simply with colonialism. It's no mere coincidence that at least two of the Charlie Hebdo attackers are reportedly of Algerian descent and the third from Senegal. France's 1830 invasion of Algeria began a 130-year odyssey of murder, expropriation, racism, exploitation and misrule that only ended after a vicious anti-colonial struggle costing well over one million Algerian lives.

"Colonization brought the genocide of our identity, of our history, of our language, of our traditions" is how President Abdelaziz Bouteflika well described it. French rule in sub-Saharan West Africa was even more costly, particularly in the context of the centuries-long slave trade.

Of course, as in so many newly independent countries, post-independence Algeria and Senegal were ruled by governments that were tied umbilically to the former colonizer and which, however "postcolonial" their official ideology and credentials, became increasing authoritarian and corrupt.

In Algeria, the petroleum-rich FLN state - known as "the pouvoir" because of its all-pervasive power - went so far as to launch a brutal internal war that claimed 100,000 lives in the 1990s with the direct support of the West, all to preserve its absolute grip on power. Nigeria, another major oil producer, received similar support for its even more ruinous war against Biafra in the late 1960s. The devastation it caused, including at least one million dead, is one of the rarely discussed causes of the Boko Haram phenomenon.

The experiences of Algeria and Senegal are in no way unique. They comprise the story of the modern Muslim world, where with the exception of Turkey, Iran and part of the Arabian peninsula most every society from Morocco to Indonesia fell under generations of European rule in the 19th and 20th centuries. The collective wound of colonialism, its distortion and often destruction of existing pathways to modernity, is for all practical purposes immeasurable. As with a body that takes only seconds to stab or shoot, the deep wounds of foreign domination and postcolonial dictatorship can take a lifetime to heal properly, if ever.

Indeed, the chances of healing - of some level of local, democratically accountable control of political and economic development - have become even more remote in the era of neoliberal globalization, which has been rightly seen by many across the region as essentially colonialism dressed in new clothes (IMF and World Bank policies strongly resemble those of the international banks that brought Tunisia, Egypt and the Ottoman Empire to bankruptcy, and ultimately foreign control, between 1863 and 1875).

Decades of the combined onslaught of extreme capitalism and extreme religion have shaped a necropolitics of the oppressed that is the mirror image of the necropolitics of local and western governments, and the oppression and violence they've imposed.

Radical Islam has today charted a path that mirrors radical capitalism, using violence only shocks "us" because we've managed to make the violence unleashed and supported for so long in our name morally and politically invisible.

A Craig Copetas, Quorz - The inconvenient truth driving these events and the politics surrounding them isn’t mentioned in French class, however. For that, you must go back to May 8, 1945, the official end of World War II, Victory-in-Europe Day. Yet 5/8/45 was also the moment France experienced its 9/11/01, and the cascade effect of the massacre in the Algerian market town of Setif continues to provoke a theological fear that the gargoyles atop Notre Dame Cathedral could never muster against the pope’s blasphemers.

Algerian Muslims demonstrating for independence from their colonial French masters slaughtered more than 100 Europeans, known as pieds noirs, in five days of fighting. Official reports from the region, as assembled by the historian Andrew Hussey, stated that the mob castrated men. “Women were raped; local religious leaders called it a jihad and declared that it was the religious duty of all Muslims to kill all unbelievers,” the dispatches read.

David Blair, Telegraph, UK - For over a century, the Mediterranean heartland of Algeria was a “department” of France. Teeming Arab cities like Algiers and Oran were not colonial outposts, but – in the eyes of the law - just as integral to France as Calais, Marseille or Paris herself.

So the travails of Algeria have never been entirely foreign to France. The fact that Cherif and Said Kouachi, the brothers suspected of carrying out the Charlie Hebdo massacre, are of Algerian origin will come as little surprise.

For generations, Algeria’s agonies have infected Paris. During the country’s bitter struggle for independence between 1954 and 1962, the French army killed as many as a million Algerians – about a tenth of the entire population - in a futile effort to crush the freedom movement.

This brutal war caused the downfall of six governments in Paris. When Charles de Gaulle began to negotiate a settlement, the French army mutinied against him in 1960, joined in revolt by the French settlers in Algeria.

Tanks were deployed outside the National Assembly in Paris to guard against a possible military coup: for a moment, the war in Algeria came close to becoming a civil war in Paris.

In the end, Algeria won its independence in 1962 and one million French settlers, known as the “pieds noir”, were expelled.

Hundreds of thousands of Muslim Algerians also moved to France, including the forebears of the Kouachi brothers. Today, Muslims of Algerian origin comprise the largest single minority in France.

Given the bitter memory of the independence struggle, migrants from Algeria have always had a difficult relationship with their adopted country. And many have been closely linked with events back at home.

From 1993 onwards, radical Islamists waged a guerrilla war against the Algerian state. The North African branch of al-Qaeda arose from this shadowy conflict, which claimed at least 100,000 lives.

Inevitably, the bloodshed spread to France. The Armed Islamic Group – which later became “al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb” – bombed the Paris metro in 1995, killing eight people and wounding 100. Behind the scenes, Algeria’s struggle against the Islamists was aided by the DGSE, France’s equivalent of MI6.

Just as Britain has been affected by turmoil in Pakistan for reasons of history and demography, so France has an even closer connection with Algeria – and an infinitely more tormented legacy.

Wikipedia - The Paris massacre of 1961 was a massacre in Paris on 17 October 1961, during the Algerian War (1954–62). Under orders from the head of the Parisian police, Maurice Papon, the French police attacked a forbidden demonstration of some 30,000 pro-FLN Algerians. Two months before, FLN had decided to increase the bombing in France and to resume the campaign against the pro-France Algerians and the rival Algerian nationalist organization called MNA in France. After 37 years of denial, in 1998 the French government acknowledged 40 deaths, although there are estimates of over 200. The 17 October 1961 massacre appears to have been intentional.

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