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Farhad Mirza

We can't fight terrorism while exploiting its victims

Victims of the Paris attacks have been exploited for political gain, writes Mirza [AFP]

Date of publication: 19 November, 2015

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Comment: Appropriating the grief of others to further our own agendas risks adopting a distorted us-and-them world view advocated by those we wish to defeat, writes Farhad Mirza.

Antoine Leiris, the husband of a woman killed in the Paris attacks that left at least 129 people dead, had words for Islamic State group leaders:

"I won't give you the gift of hating you. You're asking for it, but responding to hatred with anger is falling victim to the same ignorance that has made you what you are. You want me to be scared, to view my countrymen with mistrust, to sacrifice my liberty for my security. You lost."

After a group of at least seven attackers launched a devastating series of coordinated shootings and explosions across the French capital, President Hollande vowed to respond with "a pitiless war" against IS.

Such decisive language may reflects the general public sentiment, but obscures the fact that France has already been at war for quite some time, and one hopes to believe that western pity is not the reason why such atrocities take place. 

     Antoine's beautiful and powerful words speak louder than Hollande's promise of a 'merciless' and 'pitiless' response

Here, Antoine's beautiful and powerful words speak louder than Hollande's promise of a "merciless" and "pitiless" response. If pity is something we derive from context - from the ability to humanise our enemies - then he is promising a tactless and de-contextualised war against IS.

This is the last thing we need. 

At this point, it becomes very important to articulate our grief and anger in cautious ways, because it is bound to have significant and far-reaching consequences for the Muslim and refugee communities in France and elsewhere.

If we value the sanctity of life and wish to preserve it, we must not use language that can create an incubating space for narratives that harm the physical safety of vulnerable minorities. 

True to its nature, popular media has exploited the temptation to blame religion and race by focusing on the sensational elements of the aftermath: police hunts, anti-refugee rhetoric and of course, the identity of the killers.

The victims themselves have been subject to objectification by nearly every strata of political commentary. 

Whether its at the hands of "tragedy hipsters" who dismiss France's grief by citing salient asymmetries in the West's response to non-white tragedies, or American commentators quick to argue that European gun regulations prevented people from defending themselves against terrorists, the victims (in Paris, Beirut, Baghdad and more) have been silenced once again by the bigotry and bitterness of the living who wish to use their silence as a political prop for their own agendas. 

Little attention has been paid to the fact that the victims included people of various nationalities, ethnicities and religions - including Islam. According to the official APS news agency, two Algerians were killed. Two Senegalese nationals also died in the attacks. A Moroccan architect and teacher, Amine Ibnolmobarak, aged 29, has been named by the Moroccan Times newspaper as one of those killed at the Carillon bar. 

The selective neglect with which the victims of these attacks have been presented in the news has cultivated an atmosphere of exclusive mourning, and has thus compromised our ability to engage in holistic reflection.

Even the ever-so-cautious BBC failed to present a balanced report on the victims, sending many non-white names into the solemn confines of the footnotes. 

The media's overriding concern right now is to figure out if the attackers entered Europe as refugees, whether they were of Algerian descent and whether they lived in familiar neighbourhoods.

Out of its obsession with the countenance of terrorism, the media has focused on cultural signifiers such as race, religion and nationality. As a consequence, the attacks have been framed through a culturalist lens, where they become a product of a wider conspiracy that threatens French society from within - a spiritual confrontation between "us" and "them".

This is exactly what IS would want us to believe. Unlike the Charlie Hebdo shootings, this attack was not on precise targets.

This was an indiscriminate assault on cultural symbols of leisure - freedoms that define the grandiose concept of "Western civilisation". The aim was to turn cafes and concert halls - places that epitomise the cultural tapestry of daily congregations - into spectacles of murder and horror, making French people feel as though their way of life was under attack - by "them". 

The reality is that IS has never purposed its terrorist activities towards anything other than consolidating self-serving power. Culture and religion play into it by virtue of being loose reference points that give people a sense of belonging.

And IS manipulates this sense of belonging to radicalise vulnerable segments of the Muslim diaspora, that feel as if their way of life is being threatened by Western imperialism and violent Islamophobia. In other words, IS wants the west and its allies to fight a "pitiless" war that will polarise stakeholders and create favourable conditions for it to operate beyond its physical boundaries.

     We must not use the grief of others as an excuse to deny our humanity and our responsibility to see the humans in the monsters we fight

This is a strategy we must not become part of. 

IS benefits from misguided perceptions of cultural incompatibilities, deriving its legitimacy and power from intimidation of its opponents and the cynicism of its sympathisers. It fosters a narrative in which the West's alleged "cultural decadence" becomes the cause of its "political sins" against the Muslims of Iraq, Syria, Libya and so on. 

By attacking cultural symbols, IS has laid down the "us-and-them" trap, and the world seems to falling for it.

Poland has boarded up its borders against refugees. Three anti-refugee petitions have gathered almost 100,000 signatures. A mosque in Canada has been set on fire in an act of racial violence. 

Europe is obsessing about the identity of the Paris attackers, but one ought to question what we mean by "identity". No doubt, physical threats go hand in hand with a sense of existential insecurity, and it becomes important for us to identify the contours of our own fear - to give them an external shape. 

But rather than outlining the physical appearance of terrorism, it would be wiser to focus on the heterogeneity of its victims, the loss of love it inflicts into the lives of ordinary people - and in doing so, we could cultivate a more inclusive form of mourning.

Moreover, by looking at this atrocity through a culturalist lens, we risk adopting a world-view advocated by the very terrorists we wish to defeat. 

This horror, fear, grief and loss felt by Antoine is a regularity outside of those moments it pierces the bubble of the global north, and France must not claim an exclusive right to respond as if it were the only victim of such atrocities.

Not in Antoine's name, not by objectifying his loss.

We must not use the grief of others as an excuse to deny our humanity and our responsibility to see the humans in the monsters we fight. We must lay our condolences beside the truth that we either fight this together, or IS has already won.

Farhad Mirza is a writer, journalist and educator. He is a regular contributor to various publications in Pakistan, Europe, the US and the Middle East. Follow him on Twitter: @FarhadMirza01

Opinions expressed in this article remain those of the author and do not necessarily represent those of al-Araby al-Jadeed, its editorial board or staff.

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