By INcontext Ministries — Originally published in A World In Motion, Issue 137, Nov 19, 2015
French, Russian, British and US warplanes struck Islamic State targets in Syria and Iraq as the harrowing attacks carried out by the jihadi group in Paris spurred international efforts to crush the terrorist organisation. The collective resolve on Tuesday came as police forces across Europe stepped up investigations into Friday’s wave of shootings and suicide bombings in Paris bars and restaurants, a packed concert hall and a sports stadium. But four days after the bloodshed, French authorities admitted that the extent of the Syria-run, Brussels-based terror cell that carried out the attacks, the worst in France since the second world war, was still unclear. “We don’t know if there are accomplices in Belgium and in France… we still don’t know the number of people involved in the attacks,” the prime minister, Manuel Valls, told French radio. Iraqi intelligence officials have said their information suggests up to 24 people were directly or indirectly involved. (The Guardian)
What was different about the Paris attacks?
In the wake of Friday’s Paris attacks, in which 129 people were killed, the international outpouring of shock, horror, grief, condemnation and support was widespread, from global leaders to the average man on the street. Many voices on social media, however, soon started to question why this particular tragedy was receiving so much more attention than other attacks in Africa, Asia and the Middle East in which countless more innocent people had died. On the same day as the Paris attacks, the Islamic State (IS) had claimed responsibility for suicide bombings in Beirut (Lebanon), and on the previous day in Baghdad (Iraq), but neither of these received anywhere near the amount of attention that Paris did. Nor did the Al-Shabaab attack at Garissa University in Kenya earlier this year in which more than 100 students were killed, or the Taliban attack on the school in Peshawar in December 2014 (when more than 130 children were killed).
Brian J. Phillips, assistant professor of international studies at CIDE (Centre for Research and Teaching in Economics), explained some reasons for this in an article for the Washington Post. Phillips says that while there is some problem with the imbalance of reporting, there is more to it than ‘Western racism’ or the idea that Western lives ‘matter’ more than Arab or African lives.
Firstly, there is the fact that France is an ‘unusual’ target – yes, the Charlie Hebdo offices and a kosher supermarket were attacked early in 2015, but terrorism in France (and the wider EU) is far from the norm. Compare this to Lebanon, which had more than 200 terror attacks in 2014, and Kenya, which suffered more than 100 terror attacks in the same year (Global Terrorism Database). This does not make any attacks in those countries any less serious or the lives lost any less tragic – it just explains why the Paris attacks dominated the news so much more. Secondly, the global response had to do with the fact that Paris is a top tourist destination – France is the most visited country in the world, and at least 25 foreigners died in the attack, which creates an “it could happen to me factor”. Thirdly, random civilians were targeted in multiple public locations instead of a single specific target (like the Charlie Hebdo offices, or the Russian flight brought down in Egypt). This made the attacks especially terrifying, and it will create a new fear that similar attacks could happen anywhere, at any time, to anyone. In this regard, IS would consider the attacks highly effective in terms of the ‘terror’ agenda.
Finally, the Paris attacks signify a definite shift in IS strategy. Other IS-related attacks in the Western world have mostly been carried out by ‘lone wolves’ supporting and inspired by the Islamic State, but this attack appears to be the first actively planned by IS extremists from within Iraq and Syria, and is the first confirmation of fears that EU citizens who fought with IS in Iraq and Syria could return home with jihadi missions. The attacks were complex and coordinated, and the fact that an estimated 5 000 EU citizens (approximately 1,200 from France alone) are fighting alongside IS will now be an even greater concern.
What happens now?
The Paris attacks are unquestionably going to mark a turning point in the West’s approach to IS, though time will tell how great of a turning point it will be. The Guardian writes that France has “taken the EU into unchartered territory by obliging the other 27 member states to come to its defence” by invoking article 42.7 of the EU treaty (a “never used clause”) – the request by France drew unanimous support in “an emotional and highly charged meeting” of EU defence ministers, but decisions still need to be made about how this will be done. Priorities are likely to include attempts for increased intelligence sharing, reinforcing external borders (with a possible military border presence), and France possibly scaling back its foreign military commitments (such as UN missions in Africa and the Middle East) in order to focus more on domestic security risks.
The US is also facing critical decisions, especially as an IS video released after the Paris attacks warned that Washington would be targeted in the same way. Similar threats have been made before, but domestic security and surveillance of suspected ‘sleeper agents’ is likely to be stepped up in the coming days and months.
In the wake of Russian investigators declaring that an IS bomb had brought down the airliner in Egypt, Russian and US forces have exchanged military information during air strikes for the first time, and Russia now appears to be targeting IS more than anti-Assad rebels in Syria. This may be early signs of a ‘thaw’ between Russia and the West, however temporary it may be. Muslims in Western nations around the world have also expressed fears for their future, especially after several mosques were vandalised and suspected ‘hate crimes’ were carried out in the US in the days following the Paris attacks.
What about the refugees?
Not surprisingly, hundreds of thousands of refugees in the EU are fearing for their future, and US politicians have announced their intentions to deny refugees access to their states. Much of this has to do with a Syrian passport found near the body of one of the Paris attackers, indicating that he had passed through the EU with the influx in recent months. While evidence exists that the passport was faked, it is likely to still impact critical decisions about refugees from the Middle East.
Madeleine Albright, former US Secretary of State, wrote in TIME Magazine that “by making Syrian refugees the enemy, we are playing into their [our enemies’] hands”. Zack Beauchamp, writing for Vox.com, expands on this idea – he says that IS “despises Syrian refugees… it sees them as traitors to the Caliphate”. He goes on to explain that “the more the West treats [refugees] with suspicion and fear, the more it supports IS’ narrative of a West that is hostile to Muslims and bolsters IS’ efforts to recruit from migrant communities in Europe”.
FROM A CHRISTIAN PERSPECTIVE
In the hours following the attack, “Pray for Paris” was seen on social media around the globe. As others raised their voices for Lebanon and Iraq, this soon expanded to “Pray for the World”. However, Charlie Hebdo illustrator Joann Sfar published the following: “Friends from the whole world, thank you for #PrayForParis, but we don’t need more religion! Our faith goes to music! Kisses! Life! Champagne and joy!”
The classing of all religion, including Christianity, with the religion of Islam that motivated the attacks is heartbreaking, but yet unsurprising in the increasingly secular West. So how is the Church to respond? Yes, to still pray – fervently and enduringly – for all victims, targets and perpetrators of terror even when prayers are discounted. But also to ACT, especially so that refugees, even the very few who might mean harm, can see the face and feel the heart of forgiveness and unconditional love, care and welcome.
PRAY > For global leaders to make wise decisions in the wake of the attacks > For comfort for all those who mourn and fear > For the EU Church to continue reaching out to refugees.