The barbaric attack on innocent citizens in Paris is meant to simultaneously be an act of psychological terror, geopolitical strategy and ideological proclamation. And the world is unsure how to respond. Like all barbaric acts of terrorism, this act induces fear. In the short term, we respond with the resolve not to bow down to barbarism. But early 21st-century terrorism has demonstrated just how easy it is to induce a perpetual state of global anxiety, leading to a vast diversion of resources and redefining ways of life. This is an element in the strategy of every terrorist group. But these overt effects are also accompanied by covert ones. The main effect is to introduce a certain kind of nervousness about the European model. Europe has become vastly more multicultural, accommodating unprecedented numbers of refugees and immigrants. Different countries have tried different models of integration, from Britain’s multiculturalism to France’s laicite. It would be belying the historical record to declare these models failures. But even their most ardent supporters wonder what their limitations are, that a small number of young men still seem allured to radicalisation.
But the attacks also come at a moment of a kind of cultural ennui, where Europe is struggling to define its place in the world. The European economic project is under strain. This attack will place further strain on its political project. The challenge for Europe is not just the possibility of a rightwing backlash against immigrants. It is the sense of cultural pessimism that precedes it, the kind reflected with a vastly exaggerated sense in the current toast of Paris, Michel Houellebecq’s Submission. The point of the novel is less the prospect of an Islamic takeover of Europe. It is more that a sense of ennui makes France vulnerable to looking for a higher cause, a faith that is not easy to define in the modern world. The European rightwing, of course, has an easy version of the higher cause, where nation, ethnicity and value are all fused. It sees this violence as the consequence of a lax migration, education and surveillance regime that allows subversion and radicalisation from within. Some compensate by a call to arms, a reinvention of the colonial civilising mission. But such calls run into the new geopolitical reality that it might be easy to destroy order, but it is harder to create it — a mistake the West has made repeatedly.
One of the silver linings of recent attacks, whether Mumbai or Paris, has been that ordinary people, while anxious, have probably been calmer than the ideologues looking to enlist them in a cause. Because ordinary people instinctively understand the limitations of instruments that can be deployed against terror of this kind. This doesn’t mean terrorism does not require a response. But prudence should not be mistaken for defeatism. A sense of perspective needs to be enlisted in keeping the best of the European project alive. But whether it can enlist enough passion on its side is an open question.
There are also two larger challenges in West Asia. The Islamic State (IS) is clearly playing a geostrategic game — it has expanded the theatre of war to everyone who is targeting it, from Russia to Beirut to Paris. It is counting on the fact that the disarray and contradictions among the objectives of the major powers will continue. A statement from the G-20 notwithstanding, it is hard to disagree. Further, despite the seemingly postmodern and transnational character of jihadi movements, their protest is against what they regard as the violation of their territory. The nihilistic act of terror is also an instrument for specific territorial goals. Will the expanding war draw in more recruits?
France has declared it is at war. That is entirely justifiable. But it is a strange kind of war. The nature of modern war has been such that it is largely civilians who have been at the front and centre. Ordinary citizens were targeted in Paris. But in wars in West Asia, largely prosecuted by air strikes and drones, it is difficult for any power to pretend this is just a war between combatants. In fact, combatants are, strangely enough, more shielded in these theatres than civilians. The point of the terror strike is to bring that seamlessness home with horrific consequences. It has to be seen if air strikes and police action can address this issue.
Having, state by state, destroyed all vestiges of state and order in West Asia, it is not clear that the West has the capacity or will to recreate them. The resistance to Syrian President Bashar al-Assad’s brutalities was homegrown and genuine. But the policy of indiscriminate arming at a distance was always going to be a recipe for chaos.
It is said that Islam requires a reformation. This is simplistic. It forgets that the Reformation was deeply fundamentalist. The most crucial aspect of it, a crisis and fragmentation of authority, has been underway in Islam for some time. But there has been virtually no political space in West Asia for these movements to play out. Every political movement has been short-circuited by the great powers, which retreat to the comfort of military rule when faced with the messiness of fragmenting social movements. When the only modes of political articulation left were a choice between brutal and exclusionary authoritarians and new fundamentalisms, the latter began to win out. Interestingly, as the recent protest in Afghanistan against the Taliban showed, once you get a semblance of order and are prepared to allow for a messy democratic process, new hopeful forces emerge. But from Algeria to Egypt, Libya to Iraq, these processes were consistently subverted, leaving no room for politics in the normal sense. The debate over “real Islam” is beside the point; the real debate is what political project can enlist the energies of young people. The challenge for Europe will be to keep the European project alive. But it will also be to find a political mechanism that can overcome the quagmire in West Asia, where the only choices seem authoritarianism or fundamentalism, neither of which has a credible economic narrative. Or else, the cycle of permanent anxiety and endless war appears to be imminent.