French President Francois Hollande has declared that his country is at war with the Islamic State (IS), following the terror attacks that killed more than 120 people in Paris. Hollande’s sentiment is understandable, but France must not repeat the mistakes made by the United States in the aftermath of the 9/11 terror attacks. After 9/11, the George W. Bush administration, with strong public approval, launched the war in Iraq that destabilised West Asia. Although France doesn’t have the capacity to do a post-9/11 a la the US, it has already launched intense air strikes on IS-controlled territory. Air strikes have limited value in eradicating terror, but France’s air strikes would be more effective if coordinated with the US, Russia and other allies. The IS is a reprehensible entity and needs to be defeated — not just because of the Paris attacks but also because of the violence it has unleashed in the Middle East.
The bigger challenge for France, however, will be internal. It’s a multicultural society and, like Germany, has the largest Muslim population in Europe. The immediate security response to a terror strike is to strike down on public freedoms — France has already declared an emergency — which undermines the basic foundations of a liberal society. Finding the right balance between security and freedom will be critical for France. As Paris acts strongly against terrorists and their supporters within France, it will have to also guard against alienating communities that follow Islam and have immigrated in the last few decades. Notwithstanding the strong political challenge he faces from Marine Le Pen of the far-right National Front, Hollande will need to hold the middle ground and not give in to the temptation of acting indiscriminately to be seen as a strong leader.
The lessons from Paris go beyond France. Europe has been beset by problems of largescale immigrants moving from West Asia — and the Paris attacks give most European countries a reason to put in place stricter checks, if not completely bar immigration. It would be a travesty for people fleeing the horrors of the IS in their native lands if they were made a target of what the Islamist extremist group has done in France. Instead of that convenient option, European states would do better to institute sounder background checks, improve surveillance capabilities and coordinate intelligence among themselves. The lesson for India is clear: Terrorists have adopted the 26/11 Mumbai attack model and India remains especially vulnerable. India has no choice but to stay on the highest alert. It, and the world, can’t afford another Mumbai or Paris.