As I sat at my kitchen table Wednesday morning, news reports streamed across the internet: “Islamists Murder Charlie Hebdo Cartoonists.” Immediately, commentators began speculating about the origins, motives and identities of the suspects. Social media exploded with a wide-range of opinions, ranging from superficial anger to unapologetic dogma. Many, including a good number of commentators on the left, have orientated their critique around “religious-fanaticism.” Others, have focused their reflections on the concept of “free-speech.”
Yet, much like after 9/11, the vast-majority of writers and analysts have failed to provide a broader geopolitical context for the public, leaving many citizens in the US and Europe, unaware of the very real possibility of blowback in the form of domestic terrorist attacks as a result of their governments’ actions in the Middle East and Africa. To me, this is quite an amazing development. Maybe I’m wrong, but after fifteen years of non-stop imperial warfare inflicted on the people of those regions, isn’t it only reasonable that at some point, someone, somewhere, was going to strike back domestically for the West’s ongoing belligerence?
Quickly, I became interested in the shooters’ personal backgrounds. Amy Goodman reported that, “French authorities have identified the gunmen as Chérif and Said Kouachi. Police say they have located them in a district in northern France, but it remains unclear if they have been detained. Another suspect, 18-year-old Hamyd Mourad, turned himself in on Wednesday at a police station in northern France.” She went on to say that, “In 2008, Chérif Kouachi was sentenced to three years in prison for his involvement in a network of sending volunteer fighters to Iraq to fight alongside al-Qaeda. At the time, Kouachi told the court that he had been motivated to travel to Iraq by images of atrocities committed by U.S. troops at Abu Ghraib prison.”
Unsurprisingly, the two brothers also fought in Syria last summer.
In a recent Counterpuch article, author and journalist Patrick Cockburn observes, that, “It was culpably naïve to imagine that sparks from the Iraq-Syrian civil war, now in its fourth year, would not spread explosive violence to Western Europe.” Who could disagree? Cockburn went on to note, “With thousands of young Sunni Muslims making the difficult journey to Syria and Iraq to fight for Isis, it has always been probable that some of them would choose to give a demonstration of their religious faith by attacking targets they deem anti-Islamic closer to home.”
Interestingly, the brothers’ parents were of Algerian decent; both died when the brothers were young. One of the brothers, Chérif Kouachi, “was arrested in January 2005, at age 22, when he and another man were about to set off for Syria en route to Iraq, where war was raging.” For me, that time-frame is significant. In August of 2004, I was en route to Iraq for my second deployment with the United States Marine Corps. During that particular deployment, I was primarily stationed in Al Anbar province in a town called Al Qaim, which is located on the Euphrates River and Syrian border.
It was a particularly violent period of the war. Three of my best friends were killed during that deployment and the entire region was crumbling. The “Battle for Fallujah” raged on. One night, I asked our company Executive Commander, “What, exactly, is our mission here?” He smiled, then responded, “Look Emanuele, we’re here to intercept weapons and militants who are streaming in from Syria via the Euphrates in order to fight our brothers and sisters in Fallujah.” I quickly answered back, “But what are the Marines doing in Fallujah?” He snapped back, “Fighting.” Yes, indeed, they, Chérif and I were fighting. Some of us are still fighting. However, I was fighting for a collapsing Empire hellbent on acquiring and controlling the last vestiges of the earth’s resources, whereas Chérif was fighting for a distorted ideology and in the wrong context.
Here I was, a 20 year old kid with an Italian-Croatian-American-Catholic background, who grew up in the rust-belt, fighting imperial wars in Mesopotamia, while Chérif, my French-Algerian-Muslim counterpart was arrested on his way to possibly fight me on the border of Iraq and Syria. Both of us propagandized and fooled by people much more powerful than he or I could ever truly fathom. I wish I could have spoken with Chérif and his brother before they embarked on their dark, misguided and foolish journey. Undoubtedly, I also have violent urges and tendencies. Every-single-day, I reflect on the insanity, violence and destruction taking place throughout the world, much of it a result of the American Empire and global capitalism.
The colonial-period, and its subsequent aftermath, provide the immediate backdrop for recent events in Ferguson and Paris. Sure, strides have been made in the way of social policy and tolerance. However, blacks living in the US, and Muslims, Arabs and Africans living in France continue to live in “Third-World” conditions. Their rates of incarceration and poverty, coupled with an overall sense of disenfranchisement, alienation and political-marginalization, have now manifested in riots, shootings and ongoing political demonstrations. If drastic steps aren’t taken, the situation will continue to deteriorate. When I listen to commentators and read various analyses, I’m stunned by the lack of awareness and apparent shock some display when attempting to understand subjective acts of violence and blowback on behalf of oppressed communities.
If you can’t understand why some communities are lashing out, I suggest spending more time in cities and suburbs such as Detroit, La Chêne Pointu, Cleveland, Bondy, Stockton, or Corbeil-Essonnes. The anger, frustration and resentment are visceral. And they’re not going away anytime soon, as the French and American states continue to do exactly the opposite of what would actually prevent future violence and blowback. In my thinking, there’s not just blowback as a result of foreign aggression, but also as a result of elitist domestic policies, aimed at pleasing the rich and punishing the poor. Add racism and nationalism to the mix, and the entire powder-keg of society seems to be on the verge of exploding. Serious alternatives to the current status-quo are desperately needed.
France, like all former colonial powers, has a long history of state-sponsored terrorism, dating back to the 17th century. Throughout the 17th, 18th, 19th and 20th centuries, France dominated, tortured, beheaded, massacred, exploited, raped and ravaged indigenous and non-indigenous peoples around the world, from India and Africa, to the Caribbean and beyond. Competing with the Spaniards, English and Italians, among others, was quite the task. French elites established and maintained their terror-network for over four centuries, continuing their militaristic, xenophobic and economically exploitative relationship with their Muslim, Arab and African neighbors.
Exactly 20 years ago, in the midst of the Algerian Civil War, the Armed Islamic Group (GIA) unleashed a series of bombing-attacks in several French subways and public spaces. In total, 8 people were killed and over 100 injured. As a result, the French State implemented draconian policing tactics, which only further marginalized the five million Muslims living in France at that time. “Since the security campaign began seven weeks ago, 800,000 people, many of them described in French newspapers as ‘of North African origin’ or ‘of dark complexion,’ have been stopped throughout France by police officials checking identity and residence papers,” Youssef M. Ibrahim wrote in a New York Times article from 1995. In other words, French-Algerians have experienced their own version of “stop and frisk,” a tactic implemented by the New York City Police Department.
In 1991, Aïssa Messaoudi and Abderrahmane Dahane attacked a border post in Guemmar, Algeria, “foreshadowing the Algerian Civil War to come.” Unsurprisingly, both men had previously fought in Afghanistan with US-backed rebels against the Soviet Union. They, like so many militants in today’s world, “brought the war home” in the form of ideology and military tactics. A year later, the Algiers Airport was bombed. That attack killed 9 people and injured more than 128. In the end, estimates for the those killed in the Algerian Civil War range from 28,000 to over 100,000. That history, while often neglected by French and US analysts, remains firmly imbedded in the French-Muslim psyche. Indeed, blowback comes in many forms.
Much like blacks in the US, Muslims are disproportionately represented in the French prison population, comprising “60 to 70 percent of all inmates in the country’s prison system” while only representing 12% of the total population. Further, like blacks in the US, French-Muslims face job discrimination while also enduring an unemployment rate three-times the rate of non-Muslim French citizens. Noam Chomsky routinely refers to US prisoners as the “superfluous” population—citizens who are unwanted and in need of punishment, at least according to the elite-class who operates and benefits from such institutional arrangements. In addition, as Chomsky also commonly notes, imprisonment is used as a way to discipline the poor and working-classes.
In the US, blacks are frequently denied jobs because of their names. In France, the same is true for Muslims. As Steve Connor notes in The Independent, a “French study found that a fictional job applicant with a traditionally Christian first name was more than two-and-a-half times more likely to receive a response from a potential French employer than an identical applicant with a Muslim name.” Not only are Muslims disproportionately locked-up in French prisons, they’re simultaneously denied job opportunities through no fault of their own. If French employers routinely deny Muslims gainful-employment, how are they expected to respond? In most cases, are financial concerns not the primary cause of grief?
For instance, a 2009 report indicated that, “Joblessness and poverty are a more potent source of tension between Muslims and wider European and U.S. society than religious differences,” writes David Stringer for the Associated Press. Yet, as Stringer mentions, “These Muslims are more patriotic, more tolerant and more likely to reject violence than the rest of Western society believes they are, the study claims. It suggests most European Muslims, for example, are as happy as other Europeans to live alongside people of other faiths and ethnic backgrounds, and share broadly similar views with their neighbors.” The irony would be comical if the situation wasn’t so dire. To be clear, the situation is the same for blacks in the US. They hold no inherent anger toward white people, but black-activists are unapologetically opposed to systems of white-supremacy.
In 2005, a series of riots exploded across several French suburbs after two teenagers were electrocuted to death while fleeing from French police officers. African, Muslim and Arab immigrant communities throughout France directed their outrage at policing tactics, discrimination, militarism, poverty and racism. Again, much like the protests and riots that took place in the US in the aftermath of the killings of Mike Brown and Eric Garner, French immigrants took to the streets in droves. For over two weeks, France was in a state of panic. Subsequently, the French government responded to the protests and riots, not with dialogue and reason, but with rubber bullets, tear gas and batons. All state-apparatuses operate in the same manner, which is why the scenes from Ferguson looked so familiar to those living in French ghettos.
Seven years after the riots, in La Chêne Pointu, the neighborhood where the French teenagers once lived, “more than 70% of the 6,000 residents live under the poverty line.” Local football star Kanté, reflects on the situation, “It is still very tense between young people and police here. This place has been sacrificed, cast aside. Police checks here now are constant, more aggressive, less human. There is a pseudo-politeness to them which is like putting a tiny bit of sticking plaster over a big open scar. Society still seems totally divided.” In the US, the story is the same, as blacks live in a completely different world than most whites. Elections, in some neighborhoods, and for specific communities, are simply “irrelevant.”
Young men around the world are conditioned to be violent and oppressive. It starts as soon as we leave the womb. It starts with toy-guns, narratives, culture and propaganda. It starts with poverty, lack of guidance and radical ideologies. The story is similar, whether it is a working-class kid from the American rust-belt, or an French-Algerian orphan from Paris. On the other hand, we must find ways to break this cycle of insanity. It is our only option. Otherwise, my generation is going to be faced with an ongoing, and seemingly never-ending war against Muslims. If the last fifteen years have provided a glimpse of things to come, we should absolutely reexamine what we’re doing as activists, journalists, citizens, intellectuals and human beings—because it’s not working.
We, as a species, are required to drastically change course if we hope to survive the next hundred years, at least that’s what the scientists tell us. Meanwhile, the world is still coping with the remnants of colonization and its modern manifestations: capital, drones, technological surveillance and ecological collapse. Some crimes can be attributed to religious fanaticism, warped ideologies or mental illness. But many times, there’s bigger, broader and deeper contexts to examine. Namely, geopolitical and socio-economic realities that are lost in the narratives surrounding individuals and their personalities. In short, as long as the American Empire, the EU, NATO, IMF and World Bank continue to impose their economic policies, military tactics and cultural conditioning on oppressed communities at home and abroad, these acts of subjective violence and blowback will increase in frequency and potency.
Vincent Emanuele is a writer, radio journalist and activist. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org