After the Paris Massacre: Behind the violence

What’s missing from the debate across Europe is any real analysis of the root causes driving outbursts of violence like we’ve seen in Paris

Deputy Director, Middle East and North Africa programme
Senior Policy Fellow

This is one entry in a series on the murders at Charlie Hebdo. Find more articles on the issue in the right column (or on the bottom for mobile or tablet readers).

On one level, the attack in Paris is a reflection of socio-economic issues that are specific to France. However, it also clearly points up some broader considerations. Absent in the debate across Europe is any real analysis of the root causes driving these outbursts of violence, and how to address and minimise them. Whether it is in Pakistan or France, the discourse in the aftermath of political violence channelled through religious ideology has focused on knee-jerk reactions that often deepen wounds. Without identifying and addressing the source of the problem, these reactions can be nothing more than a temporary Band-Aid for symptoms that will find new ways to manifest themselves. 

There are real consequences at play due to more than three decades of western policy choices in Islamic countries. Afghanistan and Pakistan experienced long years as our proxy playground with the Soviet Union. The history of involvement in Algeria’s political evolution has tainted the image of France significantly. For many Muslims and non-Muslims, the 2003 war in Iraq and the following irresponsible and divisive reordering of Iraq’s security establishment was part of a wider campaign to fragment and bring about systematic change to regimes within the Muslim world. It is Muslims in their millions that have paid the heaviest price for these western policy choices, which of course have been utilized by local actors and regimes to further pursue their abhorrent agendas. Millions of children in this region have grown into adults during a decade of fear, insecurity and war that look likely to continue for many more years.

It is Muslims in their millions that have paid the heaviest price for these western policy choices

Witnessing these events has been deeply disturbing for Muslims across the world. On top of that, there has been a series of legislative and covert policies endorsed by the West in the last decade that directly impact European Muslims. Of course it is true that Muslim leaders everywhere need to take a more active stance in condemning violence committed in the name of their religion – much more needs to be done. But at the same time, we must not forget that many leaders in the West have stayed silent in the face of the discriminatory application of anti-terror laws in their own countries: Guantanamo Bay still operates; the atrocities at Abu Ghraib reflected many incidents in Iraq that have tarnished the West’s reputation; and the latest Feinstein report into US torture practices was a further shock for those attempting to champion Western values.  These have been perceived by many Muslims in Europe as acts of barbarism committed in the name of our security that have largely undermined our European values in the process. 

Europe is proud to be a tolerant multi-ethnic society – it has benefited from this. But there is also huge friction at home with a growing sentiment amongst some European Muslims that they have been humiliated and ignored by their nations, by their countries of nationality to which they contribute in many ways.  This frustration can lead to the marginalisation of these sectors to the extent that cartoons result in an inflammatory response- this is tragic for all of us and we must accept our share of the responsibility.

This is not in any way to excuse these terrible acts – and it has been obvious since 2001 that there is a problem about how Islam is addressed in Europe. But we cannot simply think the solution rests with forcing Muslims in our societies to live by “our rules” or be exiled – these ultimatums are meaningless when we have set the opposite precedent in the Muslim world. The effort to understand our differences must come from both sides, with equal determination to recognise and condemn mistakes made by all, understand the sensitivities that the Muslim communities feel (whether justified or not), and find paths to secure the safety of all citizens that uphold European values in all countries in which we have actively chosen to involve ourselves. 


The European Council on Foreign Relations does not take collective positions. ECFR publications only represent the views of its individual authors.


Deputy Director, Middle East and North Africa programme
Senior Policy Fellow

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