From Paris to Polarization
What were Islamist terrorists trying to accomplish when they attacked Paris on Friday, killing over 120 French civilians? A growing number of analysts now agree with Juan Cole’s theory about the extremists’ strategy in France, which he raised after the the Charlie Hebdo attacks, writing:
“The problem for a terrorist group like al-Qaeda is that its recruitment pool is Muslims, but most Muslims are not interested in terrorism. Most Muslims are not even interested in politics, much less political Islam. France is a country of 66 million, of which about 5 million is of Muslim heritage. But in polling, only a third, less than 2 million, say that they are interested in religion. French Muslims may be the most secular Muslim-heritage population in the world... In Paris, where Muslims tend to be better educated and more religious, the vast majority reject violence and say they are loyal to France.
Al-Qaeda wants to mentally colonize French Muslims, but faces a wall of disinterest. But if it can get non-Muslim French to be beastly to ethnic Muslims on the grounds that they are Muslims, it can start creating a common political identity around grievance against discrimination.”
Cole likened this strategy to the early 20th century communist revolutionaries in Austria who would launch attacks for the express purpose of provoking a police crackdown on left-leaning citizens in order to radicalize them. From the perspective of the vanguard of the proletariat:
“…the fact that most students and workers don’t want to overthrow the business class is inconvenient, and so it seemed desirable to some of them to “sharpen the contradictions” between labor and capital.”
This is the strategy explicitly professed by ISIS, the group that almost surely perpetrated the Friday attacks. Also shortly after the Charlie Hebdo attacks, in its official magazine Dabiq, ISIS ran an article titled, “The Extinction of the Grayzone.”
For the authors, the “grayzone” is the middle ground between extremist, Salafi, terrorist theocrats (i.e., themselves, whom they exclusively regard as the “camp of Islam”) on one side and an imperialist, war-waging, western “crusader camp” on the other.
In other words, the gray zone is the realm of coexistence, communication, cooperation, and commerce among people of different creeds. The gray zone is where civilization resides.
ISIS hates the gray zone and wants to see it eliminated. As Arab Spring activist Iyad El-Baghdadi put it, ISIS wants to erase all gray areas and make the world as starkly black and white as their flag. So the authors rejoiced in its belief that:
“The grayzone is critically endangered, rather on the brink of extinction. Its endangerment began with the blessed operations of September 11th, as these operations manifested two camps before the world for mankind to choose between, a camp of Islam… and a camp of kufr — the crusader coalition.”
The authors celebrated that the 9/11 attacks:
“…quickly exposed the different deviant ‘Islamic’ movements… as all of them rushed to serve the crusaders led by Bush in the war against Islam. And so, the grayzone began to wither…”
The authors cite Osama bin Laden favorably quoting President George W. Bush after 9/11:
“The world today is divided into two camps. Bush spoke the truth when he said, ‘Either you are with us or you are with the terrorists.’ Meaning, either you are with the crusade or you are with Islam.”
Four years later, in Star Wars: Episode III — Revenge of the Sith, George Lucas scripted this exchange between Anakin Skywalker (who had just turned to the Dark Side, becoming Darth Vader) and Obi-Wan Kenobi:
Anakin: “If you’re not with me, then you’re my enemy.”
Obi-Wan: “Only a Sith deals in absolutes.”
Lucas was likely thinking of President Bush when he wrote those lines. But, as we saw above, it would apply just as well to bin Laden, Al Qaeda, and ISIS. The Islamist Sith also deal in absolutes, working to polarize the whole world into an apocalyptic Manichean struggle between two absolute and irreconcilable camps. And of course, they expect their own camp to ultimately vanquish the enemy camp.
But they are not the only ones who dream of a dualistic Ragnarök. There are “Crusader Sith” as well, who also deal in such absolutes. Again Bush pre-echoed Anakin’s “either/or” line. And many neocons and rightwing nationalists have embraced Samuel Huntington’s thesis of a necessary “Clash of Civilizations” between the West and Islam. Marco Rubio, that dutiful apprentice of the Neocon Sith, sought to revive that formula in his response to the Paris attacks.
And as they reveal with their own words, some Crusader Sith unabashedly yearn for terrorist attacks in their own country, similarly hoping that such atrocities will “sharpen the contradictions” between the opposing camps and fill their warmongering ranks with former moderates.
It should be no surprise that leaders in both the Islamic State and the United States seek to polarize the world into enemy camps. After all, war is the health of the State.
And it should also be no surprise that Western states respond to attacks exactly the way the terrorists want them to: by, as Cole put it, being “beastly” toward Muslims, thus radicalizing many of them, and thus helping the terrorists to “wither the gray zone.”
After 9/11, the West launched beastly wars on one Muslim country after another. The chaos and atrocities of those wars drove many men out of the gray zone, swelling groups like ISIS and Al Qaeda.
And now after the Paris attacks, the West, and France in particular, are preparing to ramp up the beastliness, which will surely vacate the gray zone still further.
This is happening with foreign policy. The day after the attack, France bombed the ISIS-controlled city of Raqqa, quite likely killing civilians in the process. And both France and the US have promised to escalate their bombing of Syria and Iraq.
And it is also happening domestically. On top of a wave of raids arresting suspect Muslims, there is already talk of France resorting to the internment of “potential jihadists" and the forced closing of mosques. And as The New York Times reported, a "darker mood toward Islam" has emerged in the country following the attack.
Since the attack, tribal animus toward Muslims has spiked in both France and the US. Frightened and angered by the attack, ever more people are perceiving all of Islam, a religion of one billion people, as one big undifferentiated menacing herd or enemy camp. And this induces them to become more herd-like themselves, and more like a radicalized "crusader camp." Such herd-minded indiscriminate hatred is what undergirds the beastly policies ISIS is hoping for. And those policies in turn will drive more Muslims into the extreme Islamist camp, whose future attacks will start the polarizing cycle all over again.
For the sake of humanity, we need to break that cycle. We must stop letting ourselves be manipulated into serving as ISIS's recruitment force. We must stand up for the “gray zone” realm of civilization and stop working toward the fulfillment of ISIS’s nightmarish black and white dreams.