In Dealing With Terrorism, France Mustn't Look to Israel for Answers

While a concerted effort in Syria, Iraq and Libya seems the only way to struggle against ISIS and Al-Qaida, Europe needs to formulate an innovative course of action.

Eva Illouz
Eva Illouz
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French soldiers patrol the Christmas market on the Champs-Elysees in Paris, France, November 19, 2015.
French soldiers patrol the Christmas market on the Champs-Elysees in Paris, France, November 19, 2015.Credit: Reuters
Eva Illouz
Eva Illouz

On the day after the Paris attacks I was in my Jerusalem home, flooded by worried phone calls from Israeli friends inquiring if my family in Paris was not hurt. One of them, a 50-something Israeli woman, remarked with some bitterness: “Maybe now the Europeans, and especially the French who were so self-righteous with us [Israelis], will understand what it means to live with constant terror.”

Later that day, I myself made inquiries with my French friends, and one of them, a famous French literary scholar, described a situation I had experienced more than once in Israel with my sons: His daughter had gone out with friends for the evening in one of the neighborhoods under assault. After 20 agonizing minutes, he and his wife managed to trace her. In his mail, he remarked with a tired irony: “We have to get used to start living a l’Israelienne.”

For the last 24 years of my life I have lived in a society in which terror is an omnipresent fixture of daily life. Israelis routinely and almost mindlessly open their bags for inspection before entering a movie theater, museum or restaurant. In public spaces, they will automatically look for “suspicious” faces and objects. A lost object will often command the attention of special units and technology to check if it contains explosive material.

The fear of terror is a structural part of daily life in Israel, which has today perhaps the most flourishing security industry in the world per capita. Thus, Israelis and Europeans will be quick to draw connecting lines between Israel and Europe, and perhaps even see little Israel as the vanguard of the increasingly globalized experience of terror and the struggle against terror (this is implicitly suggested, I think, in Michel Houellebecq’s last novel, “Submission”).

Although nothing prepares us for the spectacle of random killing in the Middle East or in Europe, and although the killing of civilians is always shocking, it would be a mistake to conflate the two forms of terror, the one Israelis have sadly become used to and the one that is shaking the foundations of European society. Using the same word in two different situations does not make the situations similar.

The Palestinian terror that started in the 1970s was political, its background was national struggle, and it was motivated by nationalist self-interest and goals; whether it targeted athletes, malls or buses, underlying it was an unmistakable demand – national liberation, attacking the Zionist enemy, ending the occupation.

Because Fatah and most of the Palestinian leadership was secular (Hamas changed this, obviously), and because Palestinians have been engaged in a direct confrontation with the Israeli nation, Palestinian terror was a political tactic, albeit a misguided one. According to some of the best Israeli commentators, Palestinian terror, even that inspired by the religious Hamas, would abate and disappear as soon as they would obtain territorial sovereignty and national independence.

"Evil" terror

But terror attacks on the scale we have seen in the United States and more recently in Paris are different. They have a civilizational rather political flavor, which is why British Prime Minister David Cameron referred to them as “evil” – a rare word used in European political vocabulary.

These attacks aim at civilians inasmuch as they are symbols of the West, not as members of a specific nation. To attack a French person is as good as attacking an American: both symbolize impurity (as an official ISIS declaration put it, the “eight brothers” attacked “hundreds of idolaters together in a party of perversity,” and Paris became in their words “the city of perversion and obscenity”).

Rock music in the Bataclan club, peaceful cooperation and exchange with Germany in a soccer match, freedom of expression symbolized by a satirical newspaper, moments of pleasure with friends in restaurants – all of these constitute the core, holy values of the West (pleasure, consumption, individualism, freedom) and were attacked as such, as sacred values of an entire civilization.

Moreover, while ISIS combatants view themselves as waging a daily war with the West, for the European busy living a good life, ISIS is nothing more than a news item. In other words, terror in the U.S. and Europe comes from an asymmetrical relationship: Al-Qaida and ISIS are engaged in a daily war against the West, while for ordinary European citizens they are remote and unreal TV creatures. This is also why the ISIS and Al-Qaida terror is perceived as a senseless holy war declared on the West and its values.

Religious zeal, especially of the suicidal variety, is not something the West can comprehend anymore because it lacks what Europe, since the 18th century, views as a basic attribute of humanity, namely the instinct of self-preservation. For all these reasons, Israeli and European terror differ.

What should be the reaction of France and its allies to such attacks? Should it for example follow Israel’s securitist path, where securitism is a doctrine in which guaranteeing maximum national security replaces diplomatic initiatives and foreign policy, and ultimately trumps human rights and democratic values?

Weakening moral role

Because Israel is located in a hostile region (despite its two solid peace treaties with Jordan and Egypt) and because Palestinians were never perceived as legitimate political enemies competing for territory, but rather as terrorists whose claims and methods were illegimate, Israel evolved into a hyper-securitist state.

Similarly, after the 9/11 attacks, the U.S. had a securitist reaction, with widespread military interventions in Iraq and Afghanistan, and took measures which damaged human rights (for example, the practice of torture in Guantanamo Bay) and democracy, with for example the Authorization for Use of Military Force. The AUMF was drafted on Sept. 12, 2001 and stipulates that “the president is authorized to use all necessary and appropriate force against those nations, organization or persons he determines planned, authorized, committed or aided the terrorist attacks that occurred on September 11, 2011, or harbored such organizations or persons in order to prevent any future acts of international terrorism against the United States by such nations [or] organizations.”

Such accrued powers to the president and the military interventions of America ultimately weakened the moral and political role of the U.S. in the world. More crucially, it created a quagmire from which ISIS emerged, thus making it at least highly debatable whether the securitist reaction of the U.S. increased or jeopardized security worldwide. Similarly, because Israel has entrenched itself in a securitist policy, we may wonder if the conflict between Israelis and Palestinians is not in danger of morphing into a religious, and therefore far more intractable one.

Civilizational terror, as opposed to political terror, cannot be negotiated with. Its aim is to unsettle the fundamental values of the democratic regimes it attacks. It uses and mocks the openness of open societies, their open boarders, and their respect for the freedom for all. Securitism is thus tragically a victory for terror, for in the long run it undermines the democratic values mocked by terrorists and facilitates the rise of authoritarian regimes.

Against Israeli or American securistist reactions to terror, Europe, and France especially, can offer another, different, non securitist-military course of action. More exactly, despite the military response of France’s planes, such a response must be accompanied by a major rethinking of international alliances as well as a rethinking of domestic policy, in France and in Europe.

At home, France must change its policy in the face of its home-grown extremist, anti-Semitic and anti-Western Jihadist groups. As we now know, the terror attacks were perpetrated by European locals, French and Belgian Muslims who are engaged in a holy war against France and Europe in general.

These terrorists are not alone. There are probably others, who become radicalized by Imams, but mostly during prison stays. France and other European countries must try to fight their dangerous alienation from French society in a far more vigorous way, not only by intelligence work and not only by incarceration, but mostly through an intensive intervention in their neighborhoods to foster moderate Islam – a task around which the left and right must rally. Perhaps the newly arrived refugees, who know a thing or two about barbarity, will be able to play a new crucial role in Europe in mitigating the hatred of the West that prevails in some second- and third-generation Muslim youth.

Finally, the recent events in Paris are an opportunity to create a different world order as ISIS and Al-Qaida create a curious commonality of fate between Russians, Europeans, Americans and Muslim countries threatened by the terrorism of ISIS (Lebanon and Jordan come to mind). A concerted effort and strategy in Syria, Iraq and Libya seems now, more than ever, the only way to struggle against ISIS and Al-Qaida’s attempts to unsettle the values of the West. Let us hope Europe will know to seize this opportunity to reconceive world politics, and not walk down the simpler but less safe securitist path.

This article was first published in Die Zeit.

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