James M. Dorsey, For The Straits Times

Paris deaths: Post-9/11 polarisation model needs refining

11 polarisation model has not addressed the root of extremism.
11 polarisation model has not addressed the root of extremism.PHOTO: REUTERS

Like Al-Qaeda's audacious attacks on Sept 11, 2001, the raid by suspected militants in Paris on the French satirical magazine Charlie Hebdo will have far-reaching repercussions on multiculturalism. The pursuit of multiculturalism was an attempt by European nations to adjust to the fact that they had become immigrant societies.

Inclusiveness and respect for cultural differences, post-9/11, was replaced by policies, such as language training, that were designed to Europeanise foreign migrants but did little to tackle the economic and social marginalisation of various immigrant groups. The result was increased alienation, coupled with radicalisation of youth on the fringe who identified with a perceived brutalisation of the Islamic world by autocratic and/or sectarian leaders in countries like Iraq, Syria, Egypt and Myanmar. That was, perhaps, Al-Qaeda's greatest achievement.

Much like 9/11, the attack on Charlie Hebdo was designed to not only brutalise a symbol of Western freedoms and society, but also to reinforce a growing wedge in French society between an indigenous majority and immigrants. Days before the Paris attack, a mayor of a Paris suburb refused to allow a Roma baby girl, who died on Christmas Day, to be buried in the local cemetery, on the grounds that the cemetery had "few available plots" and that "priority is given to those who pay their local taxes".

The militants' strategy is designed to force their target audience of Muslim communities - who, in overwhelming majority, reject their violent and terrorist tactics and who insist that they are an integral part of their newly adopted countries - into a situation where they no longer feel accepted, by fuelling anti-Muslim and anti-foreigner sentiment.

No action is more effective in pitting non-Muslims against a Muslim community that increasingly feels it is on the defensive and discriminated against than an attack like that on Charlie Hebdo.

The 9/11 attacks ushered in an era of growing intolerance, suspicion of the other, a feeling of not being welcome among immigrant groups and an identification of Muslims as the enemy in the war on terror - even if Western leaders sought to differentiate between the majority moderates and the minority militants.

In doing so, Al-Qaeda set the stage for policies that failed to address legitimate grievances of marginalised minority communities, allowing deep-seated and pent-up anger and frustration to fester. The latest manifestation of that anger and frustration is the swelling of the ranks of the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (ISIS).

The post-9/11 polarisation model is, moreover, part of ISIS' toolbox in pitting its target audience of Sunni Muslims against the Islamic other, Islam's minority Shi'ite community.

The perception of the other as a threat, rather than an asset, offered Europe's extreme right a welcome feeding ground at a time when it was already on the rise as a result of economic crises and high unemployment that created a widespread sense of insecurity.

Right-wing parties such as the National Front in France and the UK Independence Party (UKIP) in Britain have been on the up and up ever since. Germany is currently being racked by anti-Muslim demonstrations staged by Patriotic Europeans Against the Islamisation of the West (Pegida) and counter-protests.

One of Europe's worst postWorld War II explosions of rejection of the other occurred in 2011, when Anders Behring Breivik bombed government buildings in Oslo, Norway, and attacked a youth camp on Utoya island, killing 78 people, to protest against what he saw as the government's soft approach towards Islam.

To be sure, civil society has pushed back against Islamophobia. Pegida marches are being confronted by demonstrators opposed to their xenophobia and racism. The attack on Charlie Hebdo has similarly sparked reinforced public support for freedoms - first and foremost, the freedom of expression, a pillar of the French republic.

Yet, electoral pressure has prompted various European leaders, while denouncing racism, to pander to growing anti-immigrant sentiment by, for example, insisting on stricter immigration rules. British Prime Minister David Cameron has recently twice refused to rule out a coalition with the UKIP after the next election.

In Iraq, Shi'ite Muslim Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani long tried to counter the sectarian policies of Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki and extremist predecessors of ISIS by urging Shi'ites to refrain from blaming an entire group for the actions of a few. Similarly, Muslim groups and religious leaders across Europe and beyond have joined the chorus of condemnations of the attack on Charlie Hebdo.

Ayatollah Sistani and the Muslim condemnations offer Western leaders and security forces an asset to avoid falling into the trap that the attack on Charlie Hebdo represents. Norway's response to Breivik's traumatic assault stands as a model for how societies can and should respond to terrorism as a tool to divide and rule. To be sure, that may have been easier in Norway, where the attacker was one of their own, rather than a member of the minority community.

Nevertheless, Norway refrained from declaring war on terror, treated Breivik as a common criminal and refused to compromise on its democratic values. Its response was not retribution and the strengthening of the surveillance state. It was not attacks on symbols and outposts of the philosophy or ideology that Breivik adhered to. It was one of playing by the rules of democracy. Security measures were stepped up at government buildings but no more than 200 policemen were added to the detail.

Breivik was arrested, put on trial in open court in proceedings that were broadcast, and sentenced. Then Norwegian Prime Minister Jen Stoltenberg summed up his country's approach as one of "more democracy, more openness, and more humanity… We will answer hatred with love."

Norwegians rallied to his call.

James M. Dorsey is a senior fellow at the S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies at the Nanyang Technological University.