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Paris, Beirut, Baghdad: For whom the bell tolls?

There was a terrorist attack in Paris on Friday, Nov 13. There was also a terrorist attack in Baghdad the same day. One day earlier, there was a terrorist attack in Beirut.

Almost a week earlier, Hazaras from Afghanistan, including a nine-year-old girl, were beheaded in yet another terrorist attack. Three out of these four attacks are the work of Daesh (or ISIS, the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria).

The killing of the Afghans is the work of terrorists similar in mindset to Daesh. So the question which arises - and for some this is an uncomfortable question - is why there is such an outpouring of support for the people who were killed in Paris but not those who died in other parts of the world.

I write this not with any ill-will but with genuine concern. If Messrs Barack Obama, Francois Hollande and David Cameron are sincerely concerned with stemming the tide of the poison that Daesh represents, then they surely must express solidarity with all those Iraqis, Afghans and Lebanese who were killed in the few days before the Paris attacks. It is precisely this kind of asymmetric coverage, not only by the media, but also through statements made by "world leaders" that make ordinary people wonder whether a life in Paris is worth more than a life in Beirut. Why does Facebook not offer a "marked safe" option for Beirut?


Beirut's landmark of Rawshe being illuminated with the French national colours (above) on Nov 17 and with (below) Lebanon's colours on Nov 16 in tribute to the victims of the attacks in Paris and Beirut.

I got an e-mail late one night from the president of my alma mater in America, Amherst College. Dr Biddy Martin wrote a thoughtful e-mail on behalf of the college about the "brutal terrorist attacks in Paris" to express "our sense of horror and our deepest sympathies to the victims, direct and indirect". She went on to write how "wrenchingly sad" it is particularly for those with ties to Paris and France and then affirmed that the college was doing all it could to find out about the safety of students, alumni and their families.

Of course, this concern is genuine and heartfelt. However, to date, I have never received such an e-mail about attacks in Afghanistan, Syria, Lebanon, Pakistan or India.

And before you jump down my throat, the reason that I mention these countries is that while I was at Amherst, I had Afghan, Lebanese, Syrian, Pakistani and Indian colleagues and I am sure there must be Iraqi alumni too. So if part of the motivating factor in issuing a public statement was concern for those who have links to Amherst College, then surely there must be concern for these other nationalities too?

Perhaps a cynical response will be that war in many of these other countries is the norm. In fact, since the Paris attack, many people have said to me the difference between Paris and Beirut is that Lebanon is anyway always either part of a war or a proxy war and, therefore, is always politically precarious.

The implication is that war and, therefore, death is an inevitability in many parts of the world. But, surely, the fact that people live in a war zone does not make their lives cheaper, more dispensable or just another statistic from the "Third World".

If European and American leaders want to genuinely counter terrorism, then the first step is to at least show solidarity with others who are also victims of the very same terrorism. If the Daesh that killed people in Beirut and Baghdad are the same Daesh that killed people in Paris, then surely the victims are the same too?

It is precisely this double-speak and these double standards that give grist to the terrorist mill. No doubt people are more moved by the loss of those with whom they have a direct link through citizenship, religion, community or other such ties, but surely these are not secondary to the "shared humanity" that our political leaders so often invoke.

US President Barack Obama stated that the Paris attacks "are against all humanity". Mr Malcolm Turnbull, the Australian Prime Minister, declared that his country stood "shoulder to shoulder" with the French men and women whose resilience he was inspired by.

Even if human solidarity is a hollow and meaningless term today, then surely the Australian Prime Minister would do well to recall that there is a huge Lebanese community living in Australia.

These men and women have participated in all walks of life. Former New South Wales governor Marie Bashir was the daughter of Lebanese immigrants, Mr Jacques Nasser was the chief executive of Ford Motors and Mr Hazem al-Masri is a famous rugby player.

Just like Amherst College has had students from a variety of different countries, Australia and indeed France, Britain and so many other countries have citizens with roots in different parts of the world.

So we must ask ourselves: Why the indifference?

French President Hollande sealed France's borders and declared a state of national emergency as he promised a "merciless response" to the perpetrators of the attack.

However, the fact is that although some of the perpetrators might be non-French, so far one of the people who have been identified was a Frenchman of Algerian origin who had previously been a criminal. How will sealing the country protect France from the disaffected, radicalised youth who are French?

This also takes us back to the point where all conflict and all violence is seen as either coming from outside the system or existing in other parts of the world. The Frenchman's Algerian roots should not be used to make him an outsider, but politicians should realise that some of the causes behind the attacks on France are also local and not just international. Religion may be a cause but so are social, economic and political factors.

The BBC carried a quote by a Frenchman named Jamal who unequivocally condemned the Paris attacks but then followed this by saying that "the French don't accept us". Now wouldn't it make more sense to engage with people like Jamal rather than simply dismiss their worries as irrational or unfounded? Similarly, wouldn't it be wiser to share the hurt and pain of the people of Beirut, Baghdad and Kabul and not treat their deaths as just another statistic from a war-torn part of the world?

The people of Paris have felt the trauma of being senselessly targeted while they went about their everyday lives. As the stream of refugees into Europe continues, perhaps Parisians will be able to understand why so many people are running away from their countries.

Every day is Paris in Baghdad.

  • The writer is reading for a PhD in South Asian history at the University of Cambridge and is working on the effect of poetry on the formation of political identity in North India before independence.
  • This article first appeared in The Huffington Post.
A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on December 09, 2015, with the headline 'Paris, Beirut, Baghdad: For whom the bell tolls?'. Print Edition | Subscribe