Home > Current Affairs, Politics, Religion > The Paris Attacks, Anti-Refugee Sentiment and the Precarious Democratic Order

The Paris Attacks, Anti-Refugee Sentiment and the Precarious Democratic Order

Last Friday night, November 13th, 2015, in Paris, France’s capital and cultural jewel, an evening of leisure and entertainment was shattered by vicious, politically-motivated violence. 129 people were killed in a coordinated series of terrorist assaults inside and in the vicinity of the Bataclan Theatre in the 11e arrondissement, which hosted an Eagles of Death Metal concert, and in the suburb of Saint-Denis, where the French and German national football teams played a friendly match at the Stade de France. Responsibility for the terror was attributed to and soon claimed by the group variantly known as the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant, the Islamic State in Syria, and Daesh, but most popularly known as ISIS, and a series of raids by French police operating under a national state of emergency led to most surviving suspected planners of and accomplices in the crimes, including Belgian mastermind Abdelhamid Abaaoud, being apprehended or killed.

I have written before about the violent extremist ideology of the Islamic State, its origins in American military interventionism in the Middle East, and the blind spot in neoliberal democratic capitalism that it cannily exploits in its niche appeal within dissatisfied conservative currents of Islam. But the Paris attacks, or rather the reaction to them in Western democracies and especially in the United States, has exposed a much more unsettling undercurrent in those societies. Combined with the implacable, fanatical hostility of ISIS and its adherents to the West and to ordinary Muslims in its sphere of influence alike, the twisted popular outburst of deeply undemocratic, uncompassionate illberalism among its supposed most ardent defenders makes it very difficult to find anything resembling a silver living to draw from this murderous terror.

How has the West reacted to the events in France? On a lightly unproductive but essentially benign level, social media has seen a deluge of soft-focus tributes to victims, solidarity memes almost invariably involving the Eiffel Tower or the French peaceforparistricolore, and occasional dubious shared rememberances. On a deeply unproductive and fundamentally malign level, the popular grief and outrage of this latest mass media terrorist act has crystallized into a disturbing but increasingly common strain of nativist xenophobia against Muslims in general and against Syrian refugees in particular.

Europe has been reeling for much of the year from the influx of displaced Syrians fleeing the protracted civil war in their native country as well as the ISIS-controlled territory that has been carved out of the conflict’s chaos. Now, with hundreds of thousands of Syrians seeking asylum or resettlement in the safe harbours of Europe and, more recently, North America, the Paris attacks are being employed dangerously and disingenuously by (mostly right-wing) political leaders as a cudgel to buttress the blocking of Syrian refugees from their specific precincts. This has become a particularly common in America, where a conservative movement of gradually ramping-up extremism has been stampeding headlong towards fascist policies against undesirables, foreign and domestic, for years.

Despite the President’s sole control over larger refugee policy in the U.S., Republican governors from the American South and elsewhere are issuing statements of maximal NIMBYism, Republicans in Congress are introducing bills to halt funding of refugee programs, and some have gone even further. The mayor of Roanoke, Virgnia argued that Syrian refugees should be kept out of his city by reminiscing favourably about WWII Japanese-American internment policies, while leading Republican presidential hopeful Donald Trump (whose increasingly realistic shot at the nomination is grounded in a muscular nativism) spoke (only partly hypothetically) about registering American Muslims in a national database and issuing them ID cards (emblazoning their clothing with crescent moon badges was not discussed, but must be the next logical step). As it often has in the wake of radical Islamist terror attacks (although not in the wake of increasingly prevalent domestic terrorism), America, especially in its more conservative circles, has freaked the heck out and aggressively blamed the visible internal other most stereotypically associated with the isolated, desperate jihad of a nasty splinter group of a worldwide faith of over a billion souls.

The particular focus of fear-culture ire on transparently helpless, stateless Syrian refugees as a sort of Trojan horse that will be employed to smuggle ISIS suicide bombers into mid-sized Virginia cities might seem a bit heartless and extreme even for the American Right. It might also seem counterintuitive on a few levels. First, Syrian refugees are fleeing from ISIS, not harbouring them; the two groups have a deep enmity forged in the crucible of conflict and displacement and very little overlap has been proven. Second, the deluded belief that the Paris terrorists were Syrian refugees was swiftly revealed by French investigators to be a purposeful propaganda plot by the perpetrators to sow discriminatory sentiment among European and North American populations, and the Syrian passports found among the effects and remains of the shooters and bombers were found to be fakes.

Third and most vitally, the openness and liberality of the capitalist democratic West is exemplified by its willingness to accept refugees from conflict situations across the globe and not to exclude and discriminate against them on the basis of ethnic, cultural, or religious difference. To discard this openness in the name of an insecure sense of security is to be duped by fear of ISIS-inspired terror into accomplishing their stated goal of extreme polarization of the secular West and the Muslim world for them.

Like many on the Left, I may reserve pointed criticisms for the arrogant consumption, historical entitlement, cultural parochialism, and exploitations of power of Western capitalist democracy. But in its fundamentals and despites its structural biases and weaknesses, it remains a serious improvement on every social and political structure that has preceded it. And its best instincts are embodied in its ability and desire to welcome migrants of all stripes into its big social tent (even if it might harass and marginalized them and rob them blind once they settle in there).

This tendency towards tolerance is most strongly demonstrated in the current moment by wounded France itself in the wake of its largest domestic attack since WWII. Left-wing President Francois Hollande has, yes, expanded police powers and suspended many civil liberties as well as stepped up France’s military operations in the Syrian theatre where an increasingly besieged ISIS still holds sway. But he has simultaneously brushed aside the xenophobic mistrust of Syrian refugees, committing to accepting tens of thousands into his country’s borders over the next few years. It is more in the latter policy and practice that the precarious democratic order of our contemporary world will be preserved against the threat of an ISIS. These fanatic splitters cannot boast enough martial strength threaten the democratic order with conquest, but they can frighten it into making enough mistakes and discarding enough of its high-flown principles to destabilize it. Embracing some of the most morally robust and socially powerful of those principles instead of shaving them away at the merest hint of pain will give that order a big leg up in the war of ideas which, above all, must be won to thwart the fanatical, theocratic fringe of international Islam.

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