Thanksgiving: celebrating the privilege to forget

By Sarah Yozzo On November 26, 2015

Post image for Thanksgiving: celebrating the privilege to forgetForget the past and today’s suffering, and join in the collective act of giving thanks. But beware not to remember and mourn all that has been lost.

Photo showing Navajo environmental protesters, by Nihígaal bee Iiná.

America is the land of amnesia. “Forget who you were, so that you can become American,” we are told.

Because who we were has no buying power in the colony. This is the land of skyrisers, not basements. Turn in our luggage, our languages. Uproot our identities, in exchange for new and better selves, complete with a well-earned white picket fence and an office with a view. Happy hour, golden retriever, two-week-paid vacation in Barbados, summering in the Hamptons. Take it now and leave everything else behind, this place was made for us.

Who we were would only confuse or anger those who have already properly assimilated. My blood is Sicilian, but I speak no Italian. I don’t even know how to pronounce my own last name correctly. The pasta maker in my mother’s kitchen is the only remaining vestige of my Mediterranean ancestry; the only connection I have to the lost.

But actually, this experience applies only for the privileged among us. Those of us whose parents and grandparents were allowed to choose forgetfulness in pursuit of capital, the American dream, are now encouraged to participate in the broader process of suppressing those who were never given this choice.

So on this thanksgiving, we are all American. We must all sit at the dinner table and choose forgetfulness: “Don’t bring up politics and rain on everyone’s parade. This holiday isn’t about ethnic cleansing; it’s about sharing and giving thanks now.”

Welcome to our Shangri La; our exclusive paradise where as long as one is an owning class, educated, white, able-bodied, cis-gender, heterosexual male English speaker with proper documentation, one has a seat at the table and a voice that will be heard. Regardless of whether one has a seat at the table, we all damn well better be thankful.

In many regards, those at the table are free: free from concern about losing property as it is appropriated in land grabs by the state, free from the burden of considering racial, gender, and legal-status categories as crucial determinants in ability to survive.

It is a freedom that provides suburban families central air while people of the Navajo nation choke on coal dust. Capitalism eats the lives of occupied peoples, collateral damage in a process of wealth accumulation. Our industries seep up, contaminate the ground water that once sat fresh and clean beneath what is left of the Navajo lands, so that America can maintain a healthy middle class with access to affordable electricity.

Black lives are cut short with the shot of a police gun, the poison of an unjust food system, countless violences of inherited dispossession and systemic racism. Beyond territorial borders, the finances of the American colonial project, for which so many nice families are thankful, fund the ammunition of other colonies, where other colonized people continue to resist the encroachment of capitalism’s beneficiaries.

Subhuman, those subaltern people always already are, just as other black and brown people have been throughout contemporary history. “They should go, as should the physical homes in which they raised the snakes. Otherwise, more little snakes will be raised there.” How many homes have been destroyed, how many humans have been killed by those whose white-supremacist, euro-arrogant hallucinations transform children into serpents.

Gently, let’s all be thankful for forgetfulness.

Those of us whose grandparents turned in their cultures in exchange for capital and social inclusion, we must be thankful for, though not overly cognizant of, our privileges. Everyone else must forget the past, forget the present dispossessions in order to join in the act of giving thanks. And in giving thanks, no space will be left for us to collectively remember and mourn all that has been lost.

Sarah Yozzo teaches English Literature at a high school in Nablus, Palestine. She is a graduate from New York University’s Near East Studies program.

In defense of the Grayzone: between ISIS and the West

By Sam Law On November 23, 2015

Post image for In defense of the Grayzone: between ISIS and the WestThe targets of the Paris attacks were not primarily the civilians killed but the world they inhabited — one not yet divided into two civilizations.

Photo: Mural of Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi at the Abode of Chaos, by Thierry Ehrmann, via Flickr.

At this moment of closing borders and of politicians calling for surveillance of Muslims and deportations of refugees—with thought suspended and grief draped in the French flag—I hear whispers of the worst horrors of the last century. However, the document to which I turn to make sense of it all is a contemporary one. The Extinction of the Grayzone, an article published in the official ISIS magazine Dābiq, is a slick PDF that deftly binds together theology, politics and history in service of the so-called “caliphate.”

Reading Dābiq, I am struck by its reflection of the transnational, heterogeneous background of ISIS—demonstrating an impressive knowledge of contemporary graphic design, it is written in erudite English by those well-versed in ISIS’s theology. In its graphic depictions of violence, it is a document of barbarism, but then—as Walter Benjamin reminds us—so is every other document of civilization.

A world divided into two camps

Scrolling past images of militants brandishing kalashnikovs, knives held against bare necks, and graphic scenes of decapitations, I arrive at the issue’s eponymous article, “The Extinction of the Grayzone.” While “counter-terrorism experts” have argued that exploring the motives of the Paris attackers is futile, I believe this article demonstrates the importance of doing precisely that.

Through an examination of the establishment of their “Islamic Caliphate” and the attacks on Charlie Hebdo, the article clearly explains the goals of the Paris Attacks. In a tweet, the author and activist Iyad El-Baghdadi captured the main thrust of the article:

This world imagined by ISIS is one in which difference is contained, sterilized, and homogenized. It is a world of stark contrast where belief adheres to one of two strict orthodoxies and there is no middle ground.

Confounding those who argue ISIS is merely the product of blind adherence to an antiquated tradition, the author cites a distinctly modern figure as ISIS’ inspiration. This figure is none other than one of the most horrendous and violent individuals of this millennium: George W. Bush. The article cites Osama Bin Laden:

The world today is divided into two camps. Bush spoke the truth when he said, ‘Either you are with us or you are with the terrorists.’ Meaning, either you are with the crusade or you are with Islam.

The only thing standing in the way of this world of two clearly opposed camps is the “Grayzone,” the messy zone of coexistence. As Iyad El-Baghdadi suggests, the grayness of the Grayzone contaminates the purity of ISIS’ clean division. As much for ISIS as for the “West,” the trouble with the Grayzone is that it ruptures and renders absurd the binary logic which forces a choice between us or them, between friend or enemy, the camp of Islam or that of the Crusaders.

In this sense, the Grayzone is what philosopher Giorgio Agamben refers to as a “zone of indistinction,” a zone which renders impossible the ability to determine inclusion and exclusion. Furthermore, in its contaminated grayness, it is an opaque blot that clouds the panoptic gaze of a regime of legibility, a gaze which forces the world to appear as a collection of discrete, uncontaminated wholes. Hidden from this gaze, the Grayzone is home to all those who live messy, entangled and irreducibly complex lives.

Planting one’s feet in the Grayzone and looking at the forces arrayed against it, the attacks of ISIS and subsequent jingoistic and military maneuvers of the West appear not as skirmishes in an almighty Clash of Civilizations but rather as different moments of a single strategy carried out by a Janus-faced power, a strategy intent on bringing about the extinction of the Grayzone. This is to say, the targets of the Paris attacks were not primarily the civilians killed but the world they inhabited, one not yet divided into two civilizations on the brink of total war.

Yet, the Grayzone offers more than a perspective to make sense of unfolding events. It also provides a footing to ward off the spectral presence of creeping fascisms and resurgent nationalisms. In these dark times, it is of the utmost importance to see the world from the Grayzone, to make common cause with those who inhabit it and to struggle for its defense.

Living in the twilight of the Grayzone

Created and inhabited through living messy lives that cross borders and don’t neatly correspond to fixed identities, the Grayzone is something we all experience, but some more viscerally than others. There are those who live entirely in the crepuscular light of this entangled indeterminacy. For these people, the experience of the Grayzone is not an abstraction, but their home in this world—a visceral texture of their day to day lives.

Dābiq’s “Extinction” depicts the Grayzone as inhabited by “hypocrites” and “deviant innovators.” It encompasses, for Dābiq, the parties which “claim to be independent of both opposing camps.” I count three signs that mark these denizens of the Grayzone:

  1. those with a heretical relationship to orthodoxy;
  2. refugees, migrants and all the others living a life straddling two worlds; and,
  3. those fighting a war on two fronts and being “independent” of both ISIS and the West.

Being branded a so-called “heretic” or “hypocrite” is the first mark that you are a denizen of the Grayzone. However, this “heresy” is not an empirical reality that exists in-and-of itself but a question of judgment. For the “heretic”, their beliefs are not blasphemous but faithful to their own interpretation. Indeed, the “heretic” is only named as such by the particular orthodoxy or prevailing systems of norms which marks their beliefs or behaviors as deviant.

The “heretic” thus establishes the Grayzone by arriving at an alternative (marked as “deviant”, “heretical” or “blasphemous”) interpretation of a common code and living their life accordingly. In so doing, they demonstrate the contingency of any interpretation, threatening to topple the orthodoxy and turn the fictive homogeneity of one camp into a heterogeneous space of discussion and disagreement.

Dābiqs main focus is this form of “heresy.” Indeed, the magazine’s cover displays the “hypocrites” who reacted against the attacks last January on Charlie Hebdo. This danger of these “heretics” or “hypocrites” lay in the fact that their disloyalty does not take the form of a desertion, renouncing Islam, or moving to the camp of the crusader. Instead, by retaining their allegiances to Islam but deriving different interpretations, they fundamentally challenged the so-called “Islamic State” as the univocal enunciator of religious truth.

This is the exact strategy of the ISIS #NotInMyName campaign in which Muslims reject ISIS’ ability to act in the name of Muslims. For ISIS, the task of eliminating the threat these heretical interpretations pose lies in convincing the “heretics” to move “from Hypocrisy to Apostasy.” In other words, ISIS wants to eliminate the heretics by leading them to renounce their faith, to abandon the camp.

This call for apostasy is echoed by the other camp as well. It finds its purest expression in the Islamaphobic proselytization of secularism. Last Spring, in his thinly-veiled call for Western military occupation of Iraq and Syria entitled, “What ISIS Really Wants,” Graham Woode embraces ISIS’ hegemonic grasp on the interpretation of Islam. Arguing that Islam is a fundamentally “backward” religion and that the only principled thing for Muslims to do is to renounce Islam altogether, Woode leaves no room for faithful Muslims to live according to the example of the prophet and the Koran:

The only principled ground that the Islamic State’s opponents could take is to say that certain core texts and traditional teachings of Islam are no longer valid,’ Bernard Haykel says. That really would be an act of apostasy.

Here again, the Grayzone is under siege not just by ISIS but also by the opposing camp. The West, especially in its mostferventdefenses of the “enlightenment,” “western values” and “secularism” cannot step outside of the Clash of Civilizations narrative. The only choice they offer Muslims is apostasy or desertion to ISIS’s camp—the Crusader’s choice of conversion or exodus at the barrel of a gun.

To destabilize this notion of a singular fixed truth — this destructive certainty upon which wars are waged and spaces of thought and discussion are closed — we must renounce the idea that there are “true” or “false” notions of concepts like Jihad or freedom. Instead, we must recognize that truth itself is the result of a struggle over interpretation.

In the wake of the Paris Attacks, a widely-circulated story celebrated the actions of Zouheir, the Muslim security guard who allegedly turned away bombers from a crowded soccer stadium. The popularity of the story depended on the “exceptional” character of Zouheir’s “selfless” and “heroic” actions, a framing which assumes all Muslims are aligned with ISIS.

Yet, if the Paris attacks are understood as a strategy of destroying the Grayzone—the space in which Muslims who do not accept ISIS’ interpretation of Islam reside—this story becomes one not of “selfless heroism” but of self-defense, defending the possibility of Muslim life outside the orthodoxy of ISIS.

But we must not tokenize these acts of self-defense; we must stand in solidarity. To do this means to assert the value of Muslim life and, like Zouheir, to defend the Grayzone which fosters and supports it. For non-Muslims, to not tokenize Muslims means to avoid claims about the “truth” of various interpretations of Islam. Such statements not only efface the diversity of Islamic interpretation but also risks furthering ISIS’s claims that the “heretics” are nothing more than “western puppets.” Yet, solidarity with Muslims undermining the authority of ISIS is not enough. The bombings, police raids, calls for ID cards, detentions and deportations in the West must also be met by cries of “#NotInMyName”.

The Grayzone is also a home for those who straddle different worlds. They cannot be neatly sorted into either camp. In this sense, the Grayzone is also a space inhabited by migrants and refugees. Forming a thread which entangles the fate of remote locales, they are a living testament to the porosity of borders.

Once more, we see ISIS and the West unified in their strategy to destroy the Grayzone, both undertaking measures to sterilize and purify their camps. In the West, this sterilization targets the bodies of migrants and refugees: restricting their movement, turning them away at borders, surveilling, containing, detaining and deporting them. For ISIS, the refugees fleeing violence are also heretics and apostates, blasphemously failing to heed the call to move to the so-called Caliphate. Yet, in Dābiq, ISIS envisions the outcome of these attacks as the production of a West so hostile to Muslims that they will have to choose between the “Caliphate” and renouncing Islam entirely.

Reflections and ghostly shadows

In this moment of widespread xenophobia cloaked in the language of security, I see reflections and ghostly shadows. ISIS’s desire for a West hostile to Muslims mirrors the xenophobic nationalists’ fantasy of Muslim self-deportation. And in the logic of immobilization, containment and sterilization, I see the specter of the unthinking bureaucratic administration of bodies—that specter which recalls some of the most horrific memories of the past century.

Our collective memory is crucial as we formulate responses to calls like those of Donald Trump for databases and identification cards for the two million Muslims living in America or by Slavoj Zizek for coordinated military detention and transportation of refugees. To honor this memory, we must reject attempts like those of Trump and Zizek to transform migrants and refugees into numbers in an administrative database or bodies in heavily guarded camps and instead forcefully affirm their freedom of movement that marks them as denizens of the Grayzone.

A final sign that marks someone as a denizen of the Grayzone is being targeted by or otherwise being at war on two fronts. Here, Dābiq gives significant attention to the “grayish calls and movements” of the “independent” Islamic parties in the Syrian Civil War.

To this account of “grayish” factions of the Syrian Civil War, it would be remiss not mention the Kurdish fighters of Rojava who are attacked regularly by bothISIS and the West—in the guise of NATO-ally Turkey. In their struggle for neither a nation-state nor a caliphate but a large territory of autonomous self-governed communities the Rojavan Kurds offer a powerful articulation of the Grayzone and the ethical and political possibilities that exists beyond the two choices proffered by ISIS and the West.

It is, however, not necessary to look as far afield as the Syrian civil war to find examples of those targeted by both ISIS and the West. As I have already discussed, this is also the case for Muslims in the West who face the daily threat of Islamophobic violence but would just as likely face violence at the hands of ISIS. So too is it the case with the refugees, who find themselves trapped between two hostile worlds and are thus forced to inhabit the Grayzone between them.

Facing this many-headed hydra intent on the destruction of the Grayzone, we cannot stand idly by.

Instead, heeding the grayish call, we must resist any attempt to divide the world into “us versus them” and rupture the fictive unity of these two camp by refusing to allow violent acts to be perpetrated in our name.

To defend the Grayzone means to call out Islamophobia and make sure that Muslim communities are safe. It means to counter an isolationist border policy by welcoming the stranger, the migrant and the refugee into our midst. And it means to refuse to let our grief to be draped in a flag, responding with the same outrage and grief to the airstrikes of the West as we did to the attacks in Paris.

Rejecting the narrative of an inevitable Clash of Civilizations, we must instead insist on coexistence. In the face of calls for its extinction, we must celebrate the entangled life that flourishes in the messy indeterminacy of the Grayzone.

Sam Law is a delivery boy in Brooklyn, NY. When not delivering bagels, he writes about and participates in struggles for autonomy, life and the commons. He blogs at The Counter Apparatus. Follow him on Twitter at @walmas.

“Pi” the Movie


My mind is always working on problems related to the meaning of life and the nature of the universe. Yep, that’s me. Even my days of dance and rave had a metaphysical quality. As I grow older and closer to death, however, I find myself more distant from answers about That Which Is than ever before. I know nothing; have little relationship with the One I used to know. At best I am an agnostic. In the dark times I am a nihilist.

The other night I had a dream. I had purchased tickets to a movie called “Pi.” When we got to the theatre we were refused entry because the theatre had been rented for the night by a group of men with beards. Yesterday after I woke I searched for the movie “Pi” and realized that I had a copy of it. I recalled seeing it when it was released in 1998 and we watched it last night. “Pi” is all about math, religion, mysticism and the relationship of the universe to mathematics. Some interesting messages in it for me. Take a look at the film. Well worth the time.

Jihadism Isn’t Nihilism

What Everyone Gets Wrong About ISIS

ISIS’s ideology has been called extreme nihilism. Here’s why that’s not accurate.

Islamic State (ISIS, ISIL) – Sunni jihadist group. Self-proclaimed as a caliphate, it claims religious authority over Muslims worldwide. Al-Qaeda is a global militant Islamist organization.
Photo Credit: Steve Allen

In the partisan battle over describing the Islamic State, Democrats have fastened on a philosophical term from 19th century European intellectual history. They’re being too clever by half.

“Extremist nihilism” is what Barack Obama has called ISIS’s ideology. In the second Democratic debate, Hillary Clinton labeled it a “kind of barbarism and nihilism.” John Kerry dismissed it as “nothing more than a form of criminal anarchy, nihilism which illegitimately claims an ideological and religious foundation.”

This makes it sound like nihilism has nothing to do with religion. But it has everything to do with religion.

Nihilism is a consequence of losing faith. It’s a trap door that opens when a divine sanction for morality loses authority. It’s a repercussion of the Enlightenment, a cost of learning science, a risk of higher education. Whatever God you once believed in, whatever scripture you once obeyed, whatever story about a realm beyond this one that once bound you to your tribe, nihilism is the stomach-churning corollary of realizing – in the words of the philosopher most closely associated with it, Friedrich Nietzsche – “God is dead.”

People find different ways to deal with that wound.

For some, nihilism turns out to be a way station on the human journey, a stage of moral development, a rite of passage to intellectual maturity. Eventually, and not without pain, you discover that secular values can provide a durable basis for human decency. You realize you can live by biblical bywords – “therefore choose life,” “do unto others” – but without biblical theology. You can find in philosophy – in the categorical imperative of Kantian ethics, say, or in the “veil of ignorance” of John Rawls’s theory of justice – a rationale for civilized behavior. You can find in nature an inspiration for reverence and awe; in love and art, an experience of transcendence; in evolutionary biology, an adaptive advantage for family and empathy. There may be no God on high, but immanence – the godliness within us and within everything – is no less spiritually authentic, and has a lot less blood on its hands, than official organized religion.

But what is a difficult passage for some can be a life sentence for others. With nihilism can come despair, a dark night of the soul that never turns to dawn. If there is no God, then life is pointless and absurd. Culture is just a desperate attempt to evade our mortality. Values are all arbitrary; truths are all political; epiphanies are just meaningless squirts of feel-good molecules. Nothing matters, and everything sucks.

From here, there are two possible moves. One is decadence. If morality is a socially-constructed scam, then there is no sin in the deadly sins. Since the only god is Chance, you might as well make your one night in the casino a hedonic blowout. The other move is more sinister.  As Dostoevsky’s characters are prone to observe, If God is dead, then everything is permitted. Why not steal? Why not murder? Coveting your neighbor’s wife won’t send you to hell; neither will killing him if he catches you. Psychopaths don’t know the difference between right and wrong. Nihilists know the difference, but they don’t believe it makes any difference.

So nihilism is the wrong word for ISIS. Extremist jihadism is a consequence of faith, not a consequence of losing faith.

You can say the Islam of ISIS is a perversion of the teachings of Muhammad, just as you can say the Inquisition and the Crusades were a perversion of the teachings of Jesus, or that the assassination of Yitzhak Rabin was a perversion of the teachings of the Torah. You can say the Islam of ISIS is fundamentalist and extreme, just as you can say the Christianity that supports Israel to hasten the arrival of Armageddon and the Second Coming of Christ is fundamentalist and extreme, or that the Judaism that supports replacing the Al-Aqsa Mosque with the Third Temple to hasten the arrival of the Messiah is fundamentalist and extreme. But what you cannot say is that the jihadism of the butchers of Paris, Beirut and Sharm el-Sheikh is a consequence of their concluding that Allah is dead, which is what calling them nihilists would mean.

Ironically, in their minds, we’re the nihilists. The sensual pleasure we take in life, they view as a sign of our decadence. Our modernity is a threat to moral order. We are infidels. It is bad enough that we do not believe in the One True God whose name is Allah. Our pluralism – our democratic refusal to embrace the notion that any God is the One True God – is to them evidence of our evil, proof we believe in no God, reason for holy warriors to have us in their sights.

Democrats may believe that calling ISIS’s ideology nihilism – or criminal anarchy, or barbarism – decouples their religion from their terrorism. That’s wishful thinking. “Nihilist” belongs to a Western narrative about a God that failed. ISIS isn’t part of that story. It’s discomfiting that ISIS’s evil is rooted in the Koran – the most apocalyptic, ultra-conservative, literalist reading imaginable, yet the Koran nevertheless. But it’s disingenuous of Democrats to root it in Nietzsche.

Pope Francis: Christmas Festivities a ‘Charade’ in World Filled With ‘War and Hate’

“God weeps, Jesus weeps” for those who suffer from war and hate, says the Argentine pontiff.

Photo Credit: Giulio Napolitano/

Christmas festivities will seem empty in a world which has chosen “war and hate,” Pope Francis said Thursday.

“Christmas is approaching: there will be lights, parties, Christmas trees and nativity scenes … it’s all a charade. The world continues to go to war. The world has not chosen a peaceful path,” he said in a sermon.

“There are wars today everywhere, and hate,” he said after the worst terror attack in French history, the bombing of a Russian airliner, a double suicide bombing in Lebanon, and a series of other deadly strikes.

“We should ask for the grace to weep for this world, which does not recognize the path to peace. To weep for those who live for war and have the cynicism to deny it,” the Argentine pontiff said, adding: “God weeps, Jesus weeps.”

The sermon threw a shadow over the start of the festive season at the Vatican, where a giant Christmas tree was unveiled.

The 82-foot- high pine hails from former Pope Benedict XVI’s homeland, the German state of Bavaria. The tree, which will be decorated in time for the start of the Vatican’s Holy Year on December 8, will be festooned with ornaments made by children from cancer wards in hospitals across Italy. This year’s nativity scene will be made up of 24 life-size figures, sculpted from wood and handpainted.

In a nod to Pope Francis’ humble style, alongside the figures from the story of Jesus’ birth will be sculptures of ordinary people, including a man supporting an elderly person in need.

Paris attacks: it’s time for a more radical reaction

By Claire Veale On November 19, 2015

Post image for Paris attacks: it’s time for a more radical reactionIn the wake of the Paris attacks fingers were pointed in all directions, but few were directed at France itself. What has radicalized the French youth?

Photo: A young man is arrested at a student protest in Paris, by Philipe Leroyer, via Flickr.

The deadly attacks in Paris on the night of Friday, November 13, were quickly met by a global rush of solidarity with France and the French people. From world leaders expressing their sympathies, to raising the French flag on buildings across the globe, and more visibly, on Facebook profiles, everyone stood unequivocally united with France.

The sentiment of solidarity behind this mass concern is heart-warming, however it must come hand in hand with a demand for a serious debate on matters of terrorism, violence and war. Rage and sadness should not hinder our ability to think.

Why Paris? Who were the attackers, and how could they do such things? How can we counter these kind of attacks? Before bowing to the often narrow interpretations provided by the media and our political leaders, we must look for well-informed answers to these important questions. The current response–including more French bombings in Syria and extreme security measures on French territory–may be a fuel for further violence, rather than bring viable solutions.

“Us versus Them”

As a French national, the sudden inundation of the tricolored flag on my Facebook wall was a little unsettling. I do feel grateful for the surge of solidarity and wonderful messages calling for love and unity from all over the world. However, I find myself wondering if the French flag is truly the appropriate symbol to demonstrate this call for peace and inclusiveness, and to bring people together in unity against terror.

To me, the French flag represents first and foremost the French state, the respective governments that have ruled my country, and their foreign policies. Domestically, it is mostly a nationalist symbol, too often used by the likes of Marine Le Pen to create enemies out of foreigners. It represents certain values defined as “French”, as opposed to foreign values France should not welcome, and as such it can be a dangerous vector of racism.

In parallel to this bleu-blanc-rouge frenzy, many artists and humorists have responded to the attacks defending the stereotypes of French culture; drinking wine, enjoying life, smoking on terrasses. They state that any attack on French values is an attack on enjoying life itself. Although flattering in a way, as they praise what may seem the essence of being French, it unjustly encourages us to see the attacks through the lens of the “clash of civilisations” where enemy and foreign ideals threaten our way of life, our moral values.

Let us be clear about two things. First, in this “us” versus “them” discourse, I am not sure who the “us” is supposed to be. Am I–a French citizen who has long opposed aggressive foreign policy in the Middle East–all of a sudden on the same side as my government?

To many of us, the political elites of the country, who have insisted in involving France in wars that we did not want, are part of the problem. The different successive French governments have indirectly contributed to the rise of extremist groups and the radicalization of young men to join them. Waving the French flag could contribute to diminishing their role and the responsibility they hold in this crisis. Worse, it could legitimize further undesirable military actions abroad.

And second, who is “them”? The “War on Terror”, as it has been clearly framed by world leaders, is not a war in the traditional sense, with a clear, visible enemy. The attackers of the Paris killings weren’t foreigners; most of them were French or European citizens, born and raised on European soil. We are not talking about a mysterious, faraway enemy, but about young French men and women who are as much a part of French society as anyone else.

A show of force

And yet, the French president so promptly declared “war” and intensified the direct and aggressive bombings of IS targets in Syria. The terrorists being mostly European citizens, may it not be wiser to ask ourselves what is wrong in our own societies instead of taking such rash military action abroad?

Worryingly, there has been little resistance within the media or even within French left-wing circles, to Hollande’s policies. Has the emotion and anger from the Paris attacks impeded our ability to recognize that dropping bombs in the Middle East will not resolve the security threats that emanate from within?

Terrorism is an invisible enemy emanating from complex socio-political circumstances, which needs to be tackled in a more subtle and thought-through way. History has shown us that 14 years of “War against Terror” in the Middle East has only contributed to more violence, more terrorism and sadly, more deaths. Isn’t it time we started thinking about different tactics?

Since the attacks, Francois Hollande has proposed changes in the constitution, to make it easier for the state to resort to the use of force when facing terrorism. These changes include an increase in presidential powers, allowing Mr Hollande to enforce security measures without the usual scrutiny of the parliament. The president wants to extent the duration of the state of emergency, limiting freedom of movement and freedom of association, including mass demonstrations, in the name of national security.

The suggested changes could also result in widening the definition of targeted citizens to anyone who is “seriously suspected” of being a threat to public order, opening the door to a worrying reality of aggressive police tactics directed towards poor, disillusioned youth. Furthermore, Hollande wants to withdraw French nationality to any bi-national citizen suspected of terrorism acts.

The president’s reaction is deeply disturbing, and reinforces the skewed vision of a “foreign” enemy, which will inevitable result in discriminatory and racist policies and reactions towards foreigners, or anyone perceived as foreign, in France. More worrying still, is a recent poll in Le Parisien, which shows that 84% of respondents supported the decision to increase the manoeuvring power of the police and the army, while 91% agreed with the idea of withdrawing French nationality to suspected terrorists.

Where are the French values of openness and multiculturalism that we so ardently defend now? We must not let fear and an inaccurate “us” versus “them” discourse justify aggressive policies against our own citizens, or against anyone else for that matter, including refugees fleeing the very terror we claim to fight.

Why did French citizens decide to kill?

The reason why the media has focused on this angle of opposing the French values of liberté, egalité, fraternité, with the fearful and hateful values preached by the IS, is that it gives easy answers to complex questions. Why was Paris attacked? Because, we are told, it represents the heart of freedom, multiculturalism, secularism and joie de vivre. But does it really? France doesn’t always seem to live up to the values it professes.

The real question should be: why did young French (and Belgian) men and boys decide to sacrifice their life to kill members of their own society?

Two answers seem to have emerged. The first, mainly employed by the political elite and the media, is that the killers were “insane”, “brainwashed” and “barbaric”, and could not have acted rationally. This approach refuses proper analysis of the killers’ motives, brushing them aside to favour irrational and extremist religious ideology, and thus justifying a purely violent and heavy-handed response.

The second answer, coming from many left-wing, anti-racist circles, claims that such acts of terrorism are a direct result of France’s foreign and domestic policy. Although both seem radically opposed, they do have one thing in common: they undermine the agency and accountability of the attackers. This second approach, which points out undeniable political considerations, remains flawed in the same way as the first: it forgets that the killers are people who think and act, and not simply passive products of racist and imperialist foreign policy.

It is important to recognize the attackers as human beings, capable of acting and thinking rationally, as it is a first step towards understanding the reasoning behind their actions. Religious fanaticism is simply a vector of violence, as has been the case for many other ideologies in the past, such as nationalism, fascism, or communism. These ideologies are not the root causes of violence. Although this may seem obvious, there is a need to stress that religious extremism is not the reason why a young man would take up a gun and shoot into a crowd, it is simply an instrument to channel their anger.

We must try to look at the very roots of these young men’s discontent. Debates should be opened about the school system, about the ghettoization of urban areas across France, about police violence and domestic anti-terror security measures, about the prison system, about structural racism, about our skewed justice system, about oppressive and strict secularism; and the list goes on.

These questions are complex ones, and ones that are not easy to address. Thus, we prefer to paint the picture in black and white, our values versus their values, rather than to face the internal problems of our broken societies.

The little research that has been conducted on IS fighters, abroad and within Europe, shows that young men don’t necessarily join the extremist group for religious reasons. The Kouachi brothers who carried out the Charlie Hebdo shootings had suffered a difficult childhood in poverty after the suicide of their mother, with little support from social services and surrounded by extreme violence as children.

Anger at injustices they face, alienation, and years of increasing humiliation from the very societies they are meant to be a part of can push young men to express their frustrations through the vehicle of religious extremism. IS just happens to be an organized group, which seriously threatens European societies, and which offers these humiliated and enraged young men a way to defend their dignity and their pride.

As Anne Aly explains: “Religion and ideology serve as vehicles for an ‘us versus them’ mentality and as the justification for violence against those who represent ‘the enemy’, but they are not the drivers of radicalization.”

Radical solutions to radical problems

Radical solutions mean, first and foremost, tackling the problem at its roots.Julien Salingue expressed this idea very eloquently after the Charlie Hebdo shootings: “Deep change, and therefore the questioning of a system that generates structural inequalities and exploitation of violence is necessary”.

Every injustice and every act of humiliation towards a member of society can only cause anger and hatred, which might someday transform into violence. James Gilligan has written extensively about the way the prison system in America serves to intensify the feeling of shame and humiliation that push individuals to violence in the first place. This analysis is useful when looking at European societies, and the processes of discrimination and humiliation that push young men to react violently.

We must condemn all policies, discourses and actions that legitimize and reinforce the politics of hatred. Police violence towards young men of Arab origin, for instance, is frequent in France. Amedy Coulibaly, another actor in the Paris shootings in January 2015, suffered the death of his friend in a police “slipup” when he was 18. This kind of direct aggression perpetrated on a daily basis adds to the structural violence and discrimination young men from underprivileged backgrounds experience in European societies. War for them is not such a distant, disconnected reality, but closer to their every day life.

Every racist insult, act of police brutality, unfair trial, or discriminatory treatment brings them one step closer to carry out tragedies as the massacre in Paris. We must therefore question the very system we live in and the way of life we defend so defiantly after the attacks, for the problem may be closer to us than we imagine.

Claire Veale is a graduate from the SOAS, University of London, in Violence, Conflict & Development. Having lived and worked in several continents, she is particularly interested in writing about social movements, Latin American politics, gender rights and international development issues.