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In Retrospect: A Year of Sharpening Contradictions

Reprint, revised

Note: The horrific murder of 12 persons and the wounding of 11 in the attack on the staff of the satirical weekly Charlie Hebdo by terrorists on January 7 this year was followed on the evening of 13 November by six coordinated attacks, killing 130 people, including 89 at the Bataclan theater.

The first of these sanguinary attacks was inspired by al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP), based in Yemen. Until November, this group was the most determined and successful in attacking, and getting up attacks on the West, include the underwear bomber of 2009 over Detroit. It was also AQAP literature that helped convince the San Bernadino killers to shoot up their workplace. The latter were also seeking to contact al-Qaeda in Syria (Jabhat al-Nusra or the Nusra Front).

The Saudi-led war on the Zaidi Shiite Houthi rebels in Yemen has unleashed AQAP, which has al-Mukalla but also now the city of Zinjibar in Abyan province. The Houthis aren’t dangerous to the US or Europe, but AQAP is a proven menace. The Saudis & allies have apparently invested almost nothing in curbing Yemen’s al-Qaeda compared to their massive bombing campaigns and troop intervention against the Houthis.

As for the Nusra Front or al-Qaeda in Syria, it is a formal ally of the Saudi-backed Army of Conquest. Some of the 30 CIA-vetted Syrian rebel groups to whom the Saudis are used to provide T.O.W. anti-tank rockets, by now mostly hard line Salafis or Muslim Brotherhood, have occasionally had tactical field alliances with al-Qaeda. It wouldn’t be fair to say that the US is supporting al-Qaeda in Syria (again, it is implicated in radicalizing the San Bernadino two). But let us say that it is allied with allies of al-Qaeda, making the same mistake as in the 1980s, when it supported Salafi Mujahidin allied with Arab al-Qaeda against the Soviets in Afghanistan. 

Despite the hype about Daesh, other al-Qaeda offshoots remain very dangerous, but AQAP and the Nusra Front are being ignored, or in the case of the latter, even indirectly supported by the US and its allies.

The Nov. 13 Paris attacks appear to have been inspired by Daesh (ISIS, ISIL), though the shadowy, tiny networks of radicals in the Brussels and Paris slums likely did not actually need much encouragement to attack the French capital. France has been a significant player against the radical groups in West and North Africa, and had been bombing Daesh in Iraq alongside the US. It had intelligence of a Daesh assault on France last summer and so started bombing al-Raqqa, the Daesh capital in northeastern Syria, in September, in hopes of disrupting the planning process. They were too late.

As horrid as the Paris attacks were, they were the work of a tiny, tiny group of European Muslims. Almost all European Muslims oppose such violence (3/5s of French Muslims are secular-minded and not religious). European Muslims until 2015 were responsible for relatively little terrorism in Europe compared to separatist groups or the white supremacist far right. In 2011 Anders Breivik, a far right Islamophobe, killed 77 people in Norway, far outstripping the per capita toll taken by the Nov. 13 gang in Paris.

Part of the backlash to the two big Paris strikes, by AQAP and Daesh, in 2015 was the rise of the Donald Trump presidential campaign, which demonizes Muslims in general, speaking of excluding them from the United States and closing mosques. Trump and his followers are falling for the trick of “sharpening contradictions,” a key technique of insurgencies, as I explained after Charlie Hebdo:

[These attacks] were in my view a strategic strike, aiming at polarizing the French and European public.

The problem for a terrorist group like al-Qaeda is that its recruitment pool is Muslims, but most Muslims are not interested in terrorism. Most Muslims are not even interested in politics, much less political Islam. France is a country of 66 million, of which about 5 million is of Muslim heritage. But in polling, only a third, less than 2 million, say that they are interested in religion. French Muslims may be the most secular Muslim-heritage population in the world (ex-Soviet ethnic Muslims often also have low rates of belief and observance). Many Muslim immigrants in the post-war period to France came as laborers and were not literate people, and their grandchildren are rather distant from Middle Eastern fundamentalism, pursuing urban cosmopolitan culture such as rap and rai. In Paris, where Muslims tend to be better educated and more religious, the vast majority reject violence and say they are loyal to France.

Al-Qaeda wants to mentally colonize French Muslims, but faces a wall of disinterest. But if it can get non-Muslim French to be beastly to ethnic Muslims on the grounds that they are Muslims, it can start creating a common political identity around grievance against discrimination.

This tactic is similar to the one used by Stalinists in the early 20th century. Decades ago I read an account by the philosopher Karl Popper of how he flirted with Marxism for about 6 months in 1919 when he was auditing classes at the University of Vienna. He left the group in disgust when he discovered that they were attempting to use false flag operations to provoke militant confrontations. In one of them police killed 8 socialist youth at Hörlgasse on 15 June 1919. For the unscrupulous among Bolsheviks–who would later be Stalinists– the fact that most students and workers don’t want to overthrow the business class is inconvenient, and so it seemed desirable to some of them to “sharpen the contradictions” between labor and capital.

The operatives who carried out this attack exhibit signs of professional training. They spoke unaccented French, and so certainly know that they are playing into the hands of Marine LePen and the Islamophobic French Right wing. They may have been French, but they appear to have been battle hardened. This horrific murder was not a pious protest against the defamation of a religious icon. It was an attempt to provoke European society into pogroms against French Muslims, at which point al-Qaeda recruitment would suddenly exhibit some successes instead of faltering in the face of lively Beur youth culture (French Arabs playfully call themselves by this anagram term deriving from wordplay involving scrambling of letters). Ironically, there are reports that one of the two policemen they killed was a Muslim.

Al-Qaeda in Mesopotamia, then led by Abu Musab al-Zarqawi, deployed this sort of polarization strategy successfully in Iraq, constantly attacking Shiites and their holy symbols, and provoking the ethnic cleansing of a million Sunnis from Baghdad. The polarization proceeded, with the help of various incarnations of Daesh (Arabic for ISIL or ISIS, which descends from al-Qaeda in Mesopotamia). And in the end, the brutal and genocidal strategy worked, such that Daesh was able to encompass all of Sunni Arab Iraq, which had suffered so many Shiite reprisals that they sought the umbrella of the very group that had deliberately and systematically provoked the Shiites.

“Sharpening the contradictions” is the strategy of sociopaths and totalitarians, aimed at unmooring people from their ordinary insouciance and preying on them, mobilizing their energies and wealth for the perverted purposes of a self-styled great leader.

The only effective response to this manipulative strategy (as Grand Ayatollah Ali Sistani tried to tell the Iraqi Shiites a decade ago) is to resist the impulse to blame an entire group for the actions of a few and to refuse to carry out identity-politics reprisals. 

For those who require unrelated people to take responsibility for those who claim to be their co-religionists (not a demand ever made of Christians), the al-Azhar Seminary, seat of Sunni Muslim learning and fatwas, condemned the attack, as did the Arab League that comprises 22 Muslim-majority states.

We have a model for response to terrorist provocation and attempts at sharpening the contradictions. It is Norway after Anders Behring Breivik committed mass murder of Norwegian leftists for being soft on Islam. The Norwegian government launched no war on terror. They tried Breivik in court as a common criminal. They remained committed to their admirable modern Norwegian values.

Most of France will also remain committed to French values of the Rights of Man, which they invented. But an insular and hateful minority will take advantage of this deliberately polarizing atrocity to push their own agenda. Europe’s future depends on whether the Marine LePens are allowed to become mainstream. Extremism thrives on other people’s extremism, and is inexorably defeated by tolerance.

Let me conclude by offering my profound condolences to the families, friends and fans of our murdered colleagues at Charlie Hebdo, including Stephane Charbonnier, Bernard Maris, and cartoonists Georges Wolinski Jean Cabut, aka Cabu, and Berbard Verlhac (Tignous)– and all the others. As Charbonnier, known as Charb, said, “I prefer to die standing than to live on my knees.”

Read entire article at Informed Comment