After Paris: time to rethink the usual responses


Professor Lee Marsden discusses how in light of the Paris attacks, we should rethink the usual responses and think again.

The coordinated terrorist attacks in Paris brought the carnage and bloodshed experienced on a daily basis in Syria and Iraq to the European mainland. The latest in a series of attacks following the massacre of holiday makers on a Tunisian beach, bombings in Ankara, Baghdad and Beirut, and the downing of a Russian airline portends a cycle of violence that David Cameron previously declared as a generational struggle. While the world mourns with the people of Paris who have lost loved ones politicians rush to knee jerk responses that proclaim the mantra of ‘something must be done’.

After each major terrorist atrocity a trigger mechanism ensures that the same Pavlovian response is generated without the need to question whether the response and overall strategy actually work. When attacked hit back hard, bomb the enemy in its heartland, declare merciless war on barbarians and infidels. Dehumanise the ‘other’ side so we kill ‘animals’ not parents, sons, daughters, sisters, brothers, friends or just human beings, and so the cycle of violence is maintained. In addition extra security and surveillance measures are put in place, budgets once depleted are suddenly resourced, and suspect communities identified to include those who are ‘other’ – young Muslims at risk of radicalisation, all refugees but especially those from Syria, petty criminals who have converted to Islam through the prison system, and so the list goes on.

All of which generates a climate in which suspicion of the other is encouraged, never directly by Government but as a direct consequence of their actions. Populist politicians and media sell papers and shape debate through a thinly veiled islamophobia, leading to division and increased alienation and the cycle continues. The 21st Century has witnessed permanent conflict between Islamists and the West, among Islamists, between Islamists and fellow Muslims, and between Sunni and Shia. The usual responses are not working and will not work. David Cameron’s attempts to use the massacre in Paris to win a vote in favour of bombing ISIS in Syria are destined to repeat the mistakes of the past. Jeremy Corbyn’s overwhelming victory in the Labour leadership election provides a unique opportunity to question the knee jerk response whereby violence begets more violence by slowing some Labour MPs instinct to bomb. What then needs to be considered before rushing headlong into the escalation of conflict?

Why did the Paris attacks occur?

Is it because the perpetrators hate our values, our liberté, égalité, fraternité? In part this is true. The statement issued by Islamic State claiming responsibility describes attacks on ‘pagans gathered for a concert of prostitution and vice’. France is targeted because it is ‘the lead carrier of the cross in Europe’. The statement begins and ends with Qur’anic verses in justification of the atrocities and in condemnation of the ‘crusaders’. The act is portrayed as a religious act perpetrated in furtherance of the Caliphate, a religious cause. Ordinary people going about their business and pleasure are targeted on the basis of being ‘unbelievers and the perpetrators hailed as ‘martyrs’. For Islamic State the ‘other’ is the liberal, the unbeliever, the one who does not share their religious ideology or methodology. There is another reason identified in the statement which ascribes the act to retaliation against French actions in ‘boast[ing] about their war against Islam in France and their strikes against Muslims in the lands of the Caliphate with their jets’. There is a warning that other states bombing Islamic State in Syria and Iraq will also be targeted.

A further reason for the attacks can be understood in terms of the propaganda war being waged by IS against rival groups such as Al Qaeda for the obeisance of Islamists around the world. The targeted assassination of Mohammad Emwazi and loss of Sinjar in the same week of the attack are defeats that end up replaced in the international media and online by the Paris attack. Terrorism is a mediated event designed to maximise the influence and reputation of the group in order to attract support and finances, while creating fear for victim populations. The state inevitably overreacts, increasing levels of fear, and by scapegoating sections of the population thereby increases the prospects for further alienation and support for the terrorists’ cause.

What can be done?

David Cameron in his Commons statement following the Paris attacks has outlined a ‘full spectrum’ response, a key component of which is bombing IS positions in Syria. What is omitted from this full spectrum and indeed the Prevent programme is an acknowledgement that French, British and US foreign policy does play a significant role in people joining jihadist groups.

    1. One of the first steps in recalibrating responses to Paris and jihadism more broadly is recognition of our historical and current legacy in the Middle East. Over the course of the last hundred years Britain, France and America have sought to micromanage the region with disastrous consequences. From the Sykes-Picot agreement of 1916, which divided up the spoils of the Ottoman Empire (the last Caliphate) with artificially created state boundaries, regime change, overthrowing democratically elected and autocratic regimes, to the invasion of Iraq and bombing of Libya leaving behind contested spaces which have become dominated by Islamist groups. Our track record in the region is appalling and there needs to be a recognition that our involvement has contributed to present problems rather than the hubristic assertion that further involvement will bring peace and stability to the region.
    2. There needs to be honesty with the British people that national interest and national security is not the same thing. Successive governments have sought to present these as indivisible. National security, the first priority of government, should be to protect its citizens, however, national interests consistently trump such concerns. National security is not served by invading Iraq and Afghanistan or bombing Libya or Syria. Terrorist plots are as likely to be hatched in Hamburg or Brussels as they are in Raqqa or Kandahar. Indeed the actions in invading Iraq led not to the diminution of threat but to its increase as Al Qaeda expanded far beyond its Afghan base into Iraq, North Africa and the Arabian peninsula. Bombing Syria and Iraq does not make Britain safer rather it directly increases the threat to British citizens on a beach in Tunisia or on the streets of our cities. The government may feel this to be a price worth paying but it is a reality nonetheless.
    3. National interest persuades the government that trade with Saudi Arabia is more important than holding such regimes accountable for financing and propagating Wahhabism in mosques and madrassas worldwide, an extreme Islamist doctrine not that dissimilar to the ideology advanced by Islamic State. National interest means that our relationship with NATO ally Turkey is so important that we overlook abuses of the Kurds, the ease with which IS recruits enter and exit the country, and black market purchase of IS oil. National interest means subjugating British foreign policy to US foreign policy in order to have increased authority on the world stage. National interest is about keeping markets open for British goods and services including arms sales to some of the most repressive regimes in the world.   All these actions undermine the security of citizens.
    4. The principles of sovereignty and non-intervention should be revisited. The track record of outside intervention improving already troubled situations in the Middle East is very poor. Syria is being fought over as proxy war by great powers in the region and beyond with little regard for the suffering of the Syrian people. The West encouraged an uprising against the despotic Assad regime inspired by a willingness to use force to depose Gaddafi in Libya. Such expectations went unrealised as Western states considered their own national interests and ignored the mounting death toll, insistent on their own preference for rejecting any solution which included Assad. Russia’s intervention to protect its national interests with access to ports and military bases in the region. Saudi Arabia, Qatar and the Gulf States equipping their own favoured terrorists principally against the Assad regime, backed by Iran and its preferred terror networks. Saudi Arabia and Iran engaged in a proxy war for the hearts and minds of the faithful. Turkey in the meantime pursuing its national interest by fighting Kurds rather than Islamic State making the overthrow of Assad a precondition for any peace negotiations. Islamic State changing the map in the region through a combination former Baathist forces and jihadist recruits from around the world.   Outside intervention or interference, whether malign or well-intentioned has consistently led to worse outcomes in the region.
    5. The Islamic State problem is theological as well as strategic. Military victory is no more likely than against Al Qaeda. IS hold territory and could conceivably be driven from that territory or killed in the process by armed force. The difficulty is that jihadist ideology would not be defeated and that we would simply await the next iteration of the phenomena. The restoration of the concept of jihad as an inner struggle over one’s self rather than as violent conflict is a task of Muslim theologians and not government and is taking place across the world. In the meantime rather than creating more martyrs through acts of retribution a strategy of containment could be pursued awaiting a negotiated peace process in the Syrian civil war, which involves Assad in a process of transition to a post Assad polity.
  • The threat of another attack on British soil is real and the exodus of hundreds of young people to leave and fight in Syria highlights the challenge the country faces. In order to lessen the appeal of jihadist groups many aspects of the Prevent strategy are helpful and it is welcome that the Prime Minister has changed his rhetoric about denying Islamic State’s religiosity. This enables organisations such as Quilliam and the Muslim Council for Britain and individual imams to challenge IS theologically. The homogenisation of Muslim populations in Britain is unhelpful as though this is the primary identity for communities rather than recognising that all communities comprise collections of very diverse individuals. In lumping together non-violent Islamists and violent jihadists and refusing to deal with either the government risks losing a valuable source of intelligence.


In responding to the Paris attacks surely the time has come to think again rather than resume the cycle of violence.


Lee Marsden, Professor in International Relations, University of East Anglia

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One thought on “After Paris: time to rethink the usual responses

  1. COMMENT 1
    UEA’s Prof Marsden proposes here that there should be no outside intervention in Syria. But nowhere in his three-page analysis does he mention the humanitarian crisis in Syria, and it would seem that he is proposing this should be left alone to sort itself out? Although he does criticise the West and its past policies, nowhere does he acknowledge that the IS murders in Paris are evil and inhuman, though he does outline, without any condemnation, why IS may believe they have religious justification for these murders.

    Yes, it’s definitely not complete, but at least recognises that the negative impact of western intervention (historic and current) and the religious nature of IS are both factors we need to think about when considering responses. It doesn’t have to be one or the other. It would be interesting to see what Marsden believes should actually be done, if anything. What he thinks would work. He might be on the ‘the West should keep out of it and let them fight it out amongst themselves/it will go away if ‘we’ don’t interfere’ side of the argument, but I think he might have something to say on it. It’s a shame he didn’t go on.

    REPLY 2
    In my view the only defensible reason for outside (our) intervention in Syria would be to try to halt the humanitarian crisis there. My criticism of Marsden is that he did not even acknowledge this crisis, possibly forgotten already?

    COMMENT 2 Good points. I think (Barbara here) that he correctly points to baleful Saudi international influence – for example through madrasahs that inculcate a fundamental interpretation of Islamic texts – that sits uneasily with British foreign policy courtship of the Saudi money pot

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