The European roots to today’s jihadism

When looking for answers to events such as Paris on November 13th, we ignore history at our peril.

Public housing blocks in Aulnay-sous-Bois, near Paris, France


2015/12/04 Issue: 34 Page: 5


The Arab Weekly
Stephen Starr



Why, when events such as the Paris attacks happen and are carried out by Arab men or men of Arab descent, does the Arab “nation” refuse to act as in a way to solve the region’s various conflicts from whence, in some instances, these terrorists have operated?

There’s little doubt the violence engulfing the Arab world from Yemen to Iraq to Tunisia has now entered the European theatre. However, when looking for an­swers to events such as Paris on November 13th, we ignore history at our peril: The Arab world was occupied and brutalised by Eu­ropeans throughout the 19th and 20th centuries. European leaders put their own “tough” men — brutal individuals — in charge of countries they were decolonising in the most violent of ways with permission to carry out atrocities on their peoples. Europe figured that they, the people of Syria, Libya, Egypt and Algeria, didn’t need democracy back then.

In February 1942, Britain med­dled in Egypt’s affairs to such an extent that the British ambassador had tanks and soldiers surround King Farouk I’s palace and forced his abdication. Britain’s puppet­ting of consecutive monarchs angered the population at large, some of whom were jailed and tortured for their activism.

In Syria, the CIA instigated sev­eral failed coups in the 1950s that thereafter drew Syrians, exhausted by years of political unrest, to the iron-fisted stability that Hafez As­sad introduced and refined in the 1970s.

And as recently as the 2000s, abuse and torture was conducted by American soldiers within a few dozen kilometres of where the Islamic State (ISIS) openly oper­ates in Iraq. When the individuals detained are let free, they are in no fit state to partake in modern society — suicide missions are much less wrong after one has been tortured by an invading force for months at a time. It’s no coincidence the proclaimed leader of ISIS spent time in a US prison in Iraq.

The second explanation for why Arab Muslim men are attacking Europe surrounds the situation facing second- and third-genera­tion Arab immigrants in Europe who feel neither Arab nor French/ British and are thus easy picking for radicals.

Their parents — the first to take the boat or plane from Algeria to Paris — have already formed a strong identity — they are Arab and Muslim. They didn’t come to France (or London) to take on the local identity but their offspring are left with no such simple choice when the Moroccan homeland for them is simply an idea, not a reality.

They see few French or Brit­ish politicians, or actors in films, who look like them; there are few famous people to represent them or to aspire to. These young men have bad jobs and even worse prospects.

According to a 2006 book titled Integrating Islam and published by the Brookings Institution: “The de­sire to integrate in French society is something of a double paradox: not only have most beurs [second-generation Arab immigrants] always lived in France but because of racism and discrimination many also have been denied the very opportunities — in terms of good jobs and well-situated housing, for example — that would help them integrate.”

So, when we ask why and who would carry out events such as Paris or the destruction of Pal­myra, there are two clear answers: One, they are often people who spent years or decades being tor­tured and dehumanised in prisons run by Saddam or the Assads, and two, as Arab-Europeans, they suf­fer from identity trouble.

It is easy to fall into the trap of focusing on the breaking TV news cycle that attempts to extrapolate the causes of violence such as Par­is, with 30-second sound bites and to read too much into grandiose statements on Twitter proclaiming who is right and wrong.

But if we take the time to un­wind history a little, read the work of scholars such as Olivier Roy or Gilles Kepel, we might learn and understand something from all this horror. We might just see the solution.


Stephen Starr is an Irish journalist who lived in Syria from 2007 to 2012. He is the author of Revolt in Syria: Eye-Witness to the Uprising (Oxford University Press: 2012).


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