The events which played out in Paris on Friday 13th November, 2015, and their repercussions, will doubtless be talked, written and debated about for weeks, months, even years. Already, less than a week after the attacks, vast tracts of writing have appeared in print and online, broadcast news outlets can squeeze little else into their already extended schedules and very real impacts are being felt across the middle-east and across Europe as governments rush to be seen to be in control.
There has been an outpouring of grief, of anger, of hatred, of recrimination and counter-recrimination, of accusation and counter-accusation. Of despair, of horror, of anguish. Peoples tempers are short, and as they process the hurt which they feel they hurt others and protect themselves from feeling the pain which lies underneath their anger.
It’s all incredibly depressing, and in many ways the reactions are more damaging than the events themselves. In light of such suffering, such explosive feeling, such profound desire for this not to have happened, it would be easiest to conclude that many people of greater intellect will know what’s best, and that there’s more to be gained from maintaining a quietude around the situation than there is from adding to the throng of voices.
But if the attacks don’t deserve the dignity of a vocal response, some of the damaging ways in which they are being used simply cannot be ignored. So here I am, and this piece has no intention of preaching, of reproaching of being holier than anyone. My sole goal here is to understand, and if I can come close to anything so grand to communicate that.
The first thing to be seen is the suffering which was caused on Friday to the people of Paris, to the people from all over the world who were congregated in that iconic city, and most acutely to those whose lives were taken from them, and to their survivors. Nothing we say or do can afford to forget, overlook or dishonour their deep, human suffering. This should go without saying. Sometimes the things which should go without saying need most to be said.
The second group of people whose suffering I’m relating to are the 1.6 billion human souls across this planet who practice Islam. When it comes to questions of faith, we humans display our highest and our lowest functions. At the high end, religion can inspire extraordinary acts of commitment, humanity and compassion, can lead to great lives being led in the service of others. And yes, at the lowest end it can harden human hearts and bamboozle brains into perpetuating the most beastly sufferings and hardships against our fellow beings.
I will never know how it feels for my faith to be used against me, for the deaths of innocent people to be blamed on a system of belief with which I try to raise my soul above the mundane plane of transient and base existence. I have plenty issues with Islam, but to suggest, as hurt and weary people have in recent days, that the despicable events of Friday the 13th in Paris are a result of Islam indicates not only a failure of the logical faculties but a brutality of spirit which is in itself part of the problem, far more so than Qu’ranic interpretation or cross-continental migration.
One of the immediate observations after these most recent attacks, and the Charlie Hebdo attacks in January this year, is that the kind of abuse of life we so readily and correctly condemn when it happens in Gay Paris is sadly a part of everyday life in the Middle East. This is a valid and important observation. It isn’t about winning a grievance competition, but it’s crucial to gaining a true understanding of what has happened, to any attempt we may make (as we surely must) to learn and grow from what has happened.
If we do feel more for victims of the attacks in Paris than we do for the carriers of human suffering in Beirut, in Gaza, in Syria, in Iraq, in Afghanistan, then we will continue to see events such as those of last Friday. In the past few days, I’ve seen people trying to explain why they may feel more solidarity with Paris than with these other places. I have a real instinct to be less than gentle in my speech towards them, which I hope I’m managing to let go of.
The truth remains though that what the people of the middle east have been subjected to in the years following the Second World War and the World Trade Centre attacks really isn’t okay. And western news media, by failing to cover stories of the devastating impact the actions of western military regimes have in these countries, need to take responsibility for the murders which took place in Paris. The blind eye they have turned is fuel, and powerful fuel at that, for the radicalisers and proselytisers who would use the Qur’an to preach, teach and practice bloodshed.
There are defenses brought by people who want all of the responsibility to be ‘othered’ away. They argue that because atrocities happen there more frequently, they will naturally receive less coverage. Well, that’s a bit of a cop out. President Barack Obama has told us what happened in Paris is ‘an attack on all humanity’. And he’s absolutely correct. But his statement fails to acknowledge or address the underlying truth, that every time a human being kills another human being this constitutes ‘an attack on all humanity’. No-one is put on this earth to kill, far less so to be killed. Yes, it’s wrong for someone to kill people in a country which I’ve visited, who have the same colour of skin that I do, whose language belongs to the same branch of languages that mine does – whatever, it’s just as wrong where these commonalities are not present. We cannot allow hierarchies to be created in the sanctity of life.
The most uncomfortable truth which we in the west must face is that this has not been done to us. We have done this to ourselves. The British state, as the French state and the Federal Republic of the United States of America has profited enormously from the sale of weapons since far longer than any of our lifetimes. So in consequence, however indirectly, my primary and secondary education, the part of my tertiary education which I didn’t have to personally pay for, all the healthcare I’ve received, including a week in a high dependency unit with machines reading me like a foreign correspondent’s news report – all of this was partly possible due to the sale of arms, not to mention the use of weaponry to prolong the profound global economic disequilibria which are perpetuated to our advantage.
And what killed the 129 Parisians on Friday the 13th? It wasn’t Islam. It certainly wasn’t refugees. It wasn’t even the perverse ideology peddled by those who claimed responsibility for the attacks. They were killed by guns. As long as we allow people to make and sell guns, people will die. As long as we profit from this, it will come back to haunt us.
In the car on Friday 13th before the attacks were committed, I caught a short news bulletin, which stated that the relatives of one of his victims had expressed a sense of relief that Jihadi John had been killed. Now I’m in no position to stand in judgement over a grieving persons response to news directly related to their family. I can’t say for certain that my response would be any different.
But broadcasting this as news is quite simply feeding a lust for blood and death. The truth of the matter is that however uncomfortable we feel with the idea, there is no us and them. There is only us. As long as we feed our bloodlust, all that will come our way is blood. Read the Scottish play if you’re in any doubt.
Francois Hollande labelled the attacks an act of war. I would not like to be in his shoes today, but the last time I heard a western head of state use that term was in 2001 after the World Trade Centre attacks. To lay the instability of the Middle East entirely at the door of western military action in the region since then would be simplistic. But compare the Middle East of the turn of the century with the Middle East people are fleeing in their millions today. Can we say repeated sorties into the region have brought stability? Only if we have entirely taken leave of our senses.
Whatever we do and don’t know for sure about the genesis, training and financing of the organisation which committed these atrocities, responding with hatred, with violence and with anger will only help to perpetuate the cycle of violence. So however futile it might seem, I’d humbly suggest that we all take time to see the situation for what it really is – and find whatever ways we can to respond with love, with peace and with understanding. Only in this way can we truly honour the lives which are being lost and turned upside down on a day to day basis. Only in this way can we bring about the kind of real, lasting change we need to see.