By Kelsey Eiland
On November 13th, 2015, breaking news of a string of terrorist attacks flooded media outlets. News correspondents across the nation narrated video footage of Parisians in panic and shock as the city shut down. 130 civilians were left dead.
The attacks were attributed to the operations of the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS), an organization that declared itself an Islamic caliphate after it launched an offensive in Mosul, Iraq in 2014. In an analysis by Graeme Wood in The Atlantic, the writer claims two ways in which the US and others have fundamentally misunderstood ISIS: For one, while bin Laden’s terrorist networks were working across geographical spaces and worked flexibly, ISIS has required defined territory and a highly-organized hierarchy of organizers to remain in power. Secondly, he claims that ISIS is misunderstood as being a “modern” militant organization, when in fact most of the Western world denies what he calls the “medieval” religious rhetoric used by ISIS to fuel its campaigns.
Based on Wood’s analysis, the misunderstandings of how militant groups operate leads to dangerous and oversimplified judgements not only about ISIS, but about Muslims around the globe. Yes, ISIS does claim to operate in the name is Islam and follows the prophecy of Muhammad, but an important distinction to make, according to Wood, is that most Muslims reject the Islamic State’s exploitation of religious doctrine.
But in a response to Wood’s piece, Caner Dagli points out that Wood’s argument is flawed. Dagli makes a striking critique: Many Muslims have been arguing that ISIS absolutely does not take Islamic texts seriously, which counters Wood’s claims. According to Dagli, how is it that “non-Muslims retain the right to judge how ‘serious’ ISIS is in its understanding of core Islamic texts?” And further, who are critics like Wood to determine what Islam looks like for other practicing Muslims in the context of trying to invalidate ISIS’s Islam?
Essentially, it’s complicated. And not a “complicated” that should be ignored or oversimplified, but one that takes many perspectives and conversations to begin to understand. Even Wood may have gotten a lot wrong. But he engaged in the conversation, and Dagli responded thoughtfully and critically.
Still in the wake of Paris, the response was either the right responding with blatant xenophobia or the left tiptoeing around critical conversations about geopolitics, religion, and privilege in the context of Paris. And another tragedy became a process of “us” versus “them” grouping, of romanticising violence, of ignoring the complexities of the situation. No one listened, but everyone had something to say.
Westerners, and Americans specifically, as writer Teju Cole has pointed out, are really good at either choosing complacency/despair or adopting the “fix it” savior-like (typically White savior) complex. Both are often void of critical thought and of meaningful engagement. Both are dangerous.
The complacency and despair mentality is largely perpetuated by news outlets and our culture’s lust for sensationalized information delivered straight and fast and most importantly, with answers–but also laden in rhetoric of fear and panic. Fox News correspondent Steve Emerson, who has described himself as a “terrorism analyst”, reported that there were “no-go zones”, or Muslim communities, in France and elsewhere where police officers and non-Muslim folks don’t even venture into. This is not true, and was disproven by NPR and Salon not long after. Besides falsifying the narrative by aligning ISIS-led attacks with Muslim communities in Europe, Emerson used the opportunity to coerce already fearful viewers into bigoted and racist rhetoric.
Then, there was the “fix-it” moment: change your profile picture to the French flag, Tweet #istandwithfrance, or provide a rant about why it’s time to “take on ISIS”. Moreover, selective coverage was not just happening by chance. The lack of coverage for the 147 dead in an attack in Garissa, Kenya last April spoke loudly to which voices in our mediasphere get to speak up–and thus, whose stories are told.
Very few voices in the conversation, so it seemed, took a step back and looked at where the Paris conversations were situated in global systems of power and privilege. The answer–or answers–were and still are a lot more complicated than Emerson and his colleagues wished to interrogate. And while #standingwithfrance in such moments can express shared grief and solidarity, it needs to be more complicated than that, too.
Nationalism, in the context of “standing with France”, can perpetuate pan identity, silencing intersectional voices like French Muslims, and really only validates those who are already accepted by French “standard”: White, French speaking, born-into-citizenship Frenchfolk. This alignment of standing with France–or any socially constructed label like a nationality or an identity constructed by borders–is overgeneralizing and otherizing. What does it mean to “stand with France”? Maybe because the French stood beside the US in the wake of 9/11, there was a sense of solidarity already established. But does one also support and condone a history of colonialism? Is one also complicit in the militarization of the global south? Does one stand with those who use anti-Muslim rhetoric to fuel the conflation of ISIS’s self-described caliphate with all of the Middle East?
This is not to say that it doesn’t make sense to stand with those who are grieving, who faced great personal and public danger, who have now lost a sense of safety in their community. But what about the French who remain entrenched in the daily threats of systemic racism? To align one’s self with France so unconditionally, so unquestionably, is to create an enemy of what and who is considered “non-French”. Further, this conflation does a dangerous disservice to Middle Eastern immigrants who are also escaping the wrath of ISIS’s mission.
This comes back to the importance of not ignoring what France (and all post-colonial nations) has been complicit in as a colonizing power. One of the many reasons terrorist organizations exist, argue columnists in The Week magazine, is to exercise their beliefs (no matter how disagreeable) in a way that will be heard. Nations like France, England, and the US have historically imposed their beliefs and systems on other countries, taken them over, displaced their native peoples, waged war on innocent civilians–but because it was done in the name of “democracy” or “revolution” or to simply maintain the military industrial complex–it isn’t seen as being as dangerous, threatening or destructive as what happened in Paris.
Terrorism, in its most straightforward definition, is the use of violence as a way to achieve political goals. Was the invasion of Iraq by the US military not an act of terrorism? Was the colonization of the Americas by the French not an act of terrorism? To only call out violence when it is perpetuated by rebel organizations is to ignore the blasphemous double standards of colonialist powers who believe that the death of civilians in the name of democracy or freedom is somehow acceptable.
This is not to say that the conversation be void of compassion and concern for the grieving, nor should it be void of possible reform. But I also recognize that my access to information via social media is determined by whom I interact with; that is, mostly White, liberal, college-age Americans who will be the first to call out systemic injustice in moments of tragedy but then fall short of continued activism and allyhood (which I am complicit in often).
And solidarity can happen via social media, which has proven to be an instrumental force in creating social change in recent years–indeed, in Egypt and Baltimore and for LGBTQ rights across the nation. Yet it is necessary to continue the activism, the resistance, the solidarity, beyond a hashtag or a re-post. And it is necessary to use social media as a platform to call out unjust and libelous mainstream media reporting that is so common on Fox News, CNN and others.
The conversation also needs to be, well, a conversation–one that includes understanding of situated power, one that includes underrepresented voices, and one that includes listening to those we purport to be in solidarity with. Without such, we will not be able to reach beyond borders and transform our conversations about terrorism, colonialism, and other forms of cyclical violence.