Fourteen years ago, immediately after the Al Qaeda terror attacks in the United States on September 11, the French daily Le Monde published a headline that perfectly expressed the sentiments of grief, shock, and solidarity that so many around the world felt at the time: Nous sommes tous Américains (We are all Americans).
In the wake of the Islamic State’s terror attacks on Paris, many of those same feelings flooded the world media, this time for the City of Light (a wave soon followed by rueful acknowledgment that earlier ISIS atrocities had elicited far less sympathy in the Global North). Adding to the shock this time was the horrifying realization that these terrorists, in targeting random civilians, were attacking the very idea of diversity and conviviality – an assault on what makes life worth living.
But just as in the United States in the weeks after 9/11, all too many politicians and pundits cried out for war and vengeance, demanded draconian new policing and surveillance powers, and insisted on an end to accepting more refugees. French President François Hollande, vowing that “France will be pitiless against the barbarians” of ISIS, went so far as to invoke Article 42.7 of the European Union treaty, which stipulates that all EU nations are obliged to come to the aid of a fellow member who is the “victim of armed aggression.”
U.S. military intervention has done more to provoke extremism.
Republicans and other critics in the United States used the tragedy to attack the Obama administration’s Syria policy. Perhaps most despicable was the backlash against those fleeing the civil war, with more than two dozen Republican governors announcing that their states would no longer accept Syrian refugees. Several GOP presidential candidates seemed to be in a competition to see who could be the most Islamophobic.
The Islamophobia is racist, but it also plays right into the hands of ISIS, as does the war fever. The terror group has been quite clear that its strategy is to eliminate what it calls the “grayzone” where Muslims and non-Muslims live in harmony. It aims to provoke Western governments into clamping down on their own Muslim populations, the better to drive them into ISIS’s arms. Years of bitter experience demonstrate that U.S. military intervention in the Middle East has done more to provoke extremism than to stanch it. The terrorists know this, and they’re driving the West into deeper military engagement.
There is one ray of light: The attacks have given urgency to negotiations to end the war in Syria. Russian and U.S. leaders seem to have finally realized that unless they cooperate to resolve the conflict, it could destroy the entire region – and continue to spread beyond it. Before the latest round of talks, Washington abandoned its insistence on excluding Iran, as well as its demand that Assad’s immediate departure be a condition of the talks. There are immense hurdles to overcome, but both countries now know that as long as this conflict lasts, ISIS will only grow stronger.