On Paris: setting the record straight

Trigger warning: terrorism, racism, islamophobia

On Friday, Paris was rocked by a series of coordinated attacks. In the wake of a blast just outside of a France-Germany soccer game, which sitting French President François Holland was attending, it became clear that this was mass terrorism but also something else. It was a deliberate attack on the French state and its officials in addition the type of general violence that’s unfortunately become familiar even to first world populations in this post-9/11 world. We have been here before. We will, I fear, be here again.

With familiar tragedies come familiar narratives. Here are five stories printed at some point over the past couple days which I think do the important work of moving past the well-trod paths that have already led to France’s greater role in Syria and hate crimes throughout the Western world.

Whose lives matter?

As the New York Times noted, the global response to what happened in Paris on Friday was intense and far-reaching-

Monuments around the world lit up in the colors of the French flag; presidential speeches touted the need to defend “shared values;” Facebook offered users a one-click option to overlay their profile pictures with the French tricolor, a service not offered for the Lebanese flag. On Friday the social media giant even activated Safety Check, a feature usually reserved for natural disasters that lets people alert loved ones that they are unhurt

Every part of that contrasted with the response to a similarly coordinated attack in Beirut, Lebanon on Thursday. The asymmetry was just so horrifyingly consistent, from the details like the failure to active Safety Check for Beirut residents to the systemic devaluing of Arab life they quoted one Lebanese blogger on:

“When my people died, no country bothered to light up its landmarks in the colors of their flag,” Elie Fares, a Lebanese doctor, wrote on his blog. “When my people died, they did not send the world into mourning. Their death was but an irrelevant fleck along the international news cycle, something that happens in those parts of the world.”

The implication, numerous Lebanese commentators complained, was that Arab lives mattered less. Either that, or that their country — relatively calm despite the war next door — was perceived as a place where carnage is the norm, an undifferentiated corner of a basket-case region.

This is unfortunately how the social imagination seemingly will remember the dead in Paris – as less expected to be killed and in a way more dearly felt losses from a war that could have (perhaps it thinks “should have”) stayed distant. That honors Parisians because Beirutis are perceived as so much more expendable. That’s not a compliment to either really.

What of the refugees?

Almost immediately on Friday, at least within the Western media I read and watched, the possibility of refugee involvement in the attack was considered. Numerous voices have stepped forward to dismantle that flawed and reflexive judgement of people fleeing the very group that has now claimed responsibility for the attacks in Paris. Suzanne Harrington’s column in the Irish Examiner deflated it with what I consider admirable gusto with particular attention paid to the words of one refugee himself:

Here is what [Akram] has to say about the terrorism in Paris: “Horrible ..The refugees in Calais are completely against this because we already had this bad experience in our home country. THIS IS WHY WE ARE HERE. We need peace and we really feel for the victims, and we are with them.”

Akram is currently living in horrendous conditions in the Calais refugee camp, less than two hundred miles from Paris. […] What is not being reported is how the Calais refugees held a vigil in empathy for their Paris counterparts attacked by “Islamic” State. The Calais camp – and the Greek Islands, and Lampadusa, and all the other frontline EU borders where the desperate boatloads are landing – is full of people whose innocent ordinary lives have been destroyed by terrorism, both state-sponsored and freelance.

The idea that refugees fleeing extremist violence and related problems in Syria and Iraq (and other areas) are somehow an opposite to the Parisians who experienced the attacks (who are assumed to be predominantly White and French),  is to categorize them by race far before thinking about their experiences with Daesh. That is, by some definitions, racist, or at the very least some sort of xenophobic nationalism. That’s precisely what Suzanne describes ultimately, saying,

[L]et us stop being massive xenophobic ostriches, and move from Porte Ouverte to Frontieres Ouvertes, and offer proper refuge and sanctuary to those who have experienced the Paris bombings and shootings a thousand times over in their home cities.

Much of Europe closed itself in fear of and disgust towards the refugees. Now that they have seen more directly and personally what they have fled, can they perhaps be moved to a different course of action?

Who is Paris?

You may have caught a hint of this in the past section, but one in depth article by the Wall Street Journal made clear a particularly narrative-destabilizing point. The explosion outside of the soccer stadium, which was intended for the French President and to create public panic, was one of the attackers detonating their bomb while being confronted by security.

We know this because of the video footage and testimony released by a security guard in another part of the stadium – who asked only to be identified by his first name, Zouheir. In case you missed it, that’s not an ethnically French name.

As I noted before the presumption that the French targets – in the stadium, at the concert hall, in the bombed McDonald’s – were not only predominantly White but were overwhelmingly ethnically French is just that, an assumption that reinforces the way we think about their status among the dead or the survivors without necessarily any meaning to it.

The Paris that survived the coordinated bombings is typical of many modern urban environments in that it is rich in ethnic, racial, and religious diversity. Like many such cities in Westerner former(ish) colonial powers, a large part of the diversity has come about in the form of people immigrating from former colonies or other places of exploitation.

The very ethnic identities held collectively responsible by some for these attacks were among those who were targeted. To deny that, is to deny the realities of the world we live in.

What next?

As I mentioned above, the immediate response to this from France was militant. Air strikes began on Raqqa, the purported capital of the neo-caliphate, within hours. Raqqa Is Being Slaughtered Silently, an anti-Assad and anti-ISIS organization, posted some shocking claims on twitter about the strikes:

If these are to be believed (and Raqqa Is Being Slaughtered Silently is considered a reputable source by many), then French forces and others are responding to this with an emotionally untethered place. They are neglecting to check their activity to avoid unnecessary and civilian deaths, or even worse may be celebrating those and other effects of their violence. The only person who benefits from that, I would say, are the extremist factions within Syria.

Extremism, everywhere, and not a place of peace

Speaking of extremist groups, the violent blowback hasn’t just been French and hasn’t just been directed towards Syrian Muslims, but towards all sorts of the more than billion members of that faith. Among those affected are the Muslim residents of Ontario, Canada, where a mosque was targeted by an arsonist on Saturday. The place of worship had previously had several windows broken after the 9/11 attacks, so few doubts were had within the community about the motivation behind the bombing.

As mentioned in the Irish Examiner column above, a fire in a refugee camp in France was feared (mistakenly) to be a similar act of islamophobic violence. Instead, it’s thankfully noted that it was just the causes of the fire were “overcrowding, zero amenities, and zero health and safety” – all aspects of a situation well within the control of French and other European authorities.

The same dehumanizing logic that makes Beiruti deaths forgettable, Parisians of Arab or other Middle Eastern or North African backgrounds invisible, and Syrians in Raqqa expendable makes the quality of life for refugees in that and other camps unimportant. Now a sizable swathe of their camp has burned, leaving them with even less. Can a France drunk with bloodlust feel for them? Can it help them live somewhere safer and better?

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The featured image for this article is of peace activists in Turkey’s capital in October whose protest was bombed, killing 95. More information here.

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