Brett Hetherington

Banner photos: Cornelia Kraft

Lessons from Paris

[This article was first published in Catalonia Today magazine, January 2016.]

 

The recent tragic terrorist murders in Paris (and sadly also elsewhere) can teach us plenty. And if we choose to not learn all that we can from these tragedies then we are as good as inviting further bloodshed and horror.

 

One of the biggest mistakes that I think is made around terrorism is that it is treated as something special and different from other serious violent crimes. Maybe because it comes out of the everyday (the train, a bus, a cafe, a concert) and because it’s most recent form targets no one in particular, we lose our common sense and fear that ourselves or our loved ones will be next.

 

It seems to me that acts of mass terrorism (just like other acts of murder) are committed by people with motive (though of course grossly perverted motives) and the means to do so on a large scale (automatic weapons and explosives, typically.) Motive and means: any attempt to deal with terrorism that does not focus on both these factors is bound to fail.

 

I believe that radical, extreme Islam is merely something that the Paris terrorists (amongst others) just hang their hats on. Exactly like the average North American (white male) gunman shooting up innocents at a school or an abortion clinic, what they are really fueled by is frustration that turns to resentment which then becomes great rage. Some terrorists have come from well-off backgrounds but the biggest causes of so-called ‘radicalisation’ are poverty and a need to belong, a need for identity.

 

When mainstream society systematically isolates migrants or people who see themselves as not being accepted by the wider majority, it is natural that resentment arises in the body and mind of those who now think of themselves as a kind of victim. If they find a focus for this bitterness - and fundamentalist religions have a slippery way of creating one - then self-isolation and a bunker/siege mentality is not far away.

 

In the small town where we live our teenage son has some friends whose parents are Moroccan. None of these boys were born in Morocco and they speak Catalan with our son and the other kids around. I know that some parents have told their children not to hang around with them even though they do not cause any trouble. How are these friends of my son supposed to feel? Could anyone blame them for being resentful and even angry towards the parents who insist on discrimination against them?

 

I am not arguing that these attitudes directly create terrorists of course. What I am saying is that it can and does contribute towards what sociologists call ‘marginalisation:’ humans pushing other humans to the edges of society. It is only logical then that these young boys will identify themselves as more Moroccan/Muslim than Catalan or Spanish because they have been rejected by parts of its more powerful, established society.

 

Despite all the grave social problems that run through Australia, the UK and the USA, in those parts of the planet it is standard to be both a Muslim and an Australian/American/Brit without suffering from any major confusion of who you are. Yes, there are bigots but unlike Europe there are very few ‘successful’ acts of Islamic fundamentalist terrorism.


In the run-down outer suburbs of Paris (the ‘banlieues’) where young men "of Arab appearance" are routinely stopped for ritual humiliation by police, I wonder if they think of themselves as French first.