In the wake of the atrocities in the French capital, building an anti-war movement is more necessary than ever, writes Kevin Ovenden
The fruit of mass murder in Paris will be further barbarism everywhere.
That was the aim of the terrorist operations. Our rulers are more than capable of bringing that about. War is what will achieve it.
The Paris attacks will embolden the nihilist, sectarian murderers of fortune, who are the Daesh, or ISIS.
Within days of the 9/11 attacks in 2001, the Bush administration promised to “end states” in the Middle East.
Fourteen years on, after successive invasions and interventions, with the attendant civil wars and barbarity of local potentates, the US state and its allies have succeeded in “ending states” in much of Iraq and Syria.
The replacement has turned out not to be popular, democratic government. That is the last thing the big powers want in Iraq or Syria; or, for that matter, in Saudi Arabia, where it is one of the West’s principal allies who does the public beheadings.
Those few enclaves where people have managed to claw out anything approaching a popular and democratic administration, both against barrel bombs and Raytheon missiles from the air and against marauding bandits on the ground, have been in the largely Kurdish areas.
The Western powers assuredly oppose that. Renewed terror and war against the Kurdish people, and crushing their democratic aspirations, is the policy of the new government of Turkey. It is a Nato member. Ankara is another front rank ally in the West’s meddling in the Middle East and in stopping refugees fleeing to Europe from the consequences.
And so, in the desolation and mayhem they have produced in large parts of Syria and Iraq, there arises, in the absence of popular democracy, a perversion: the so called “Islamic State” of Iraq and Syria – ISIS.
In Paris, that spawn of slaughter has shown it can hurl back into Europe a portion of the barbarism unleashed in the Middle East over these long years.
How do our rulers respond? To renew through more bloodletting the disastrous cycle of war, terror and reaction.
The racist backlash
Nothing shows the terrifying irrationality of that endless cycle more than the attempts by racist forces in Europe – amplified by the corporate media – to blame the newly arriving refugees for the Paris atrocities.
Most of those coming to Europe are from Syria. They are fleeing from the very people who terrorised Paris – as well as from the Syrian regime and others. Then there are the refugees from Afghanistan, where the US bombs hospitals with impunity.
We should not be exasperated by the irrationality of the fascists’ propaganda. Fascism requires irrationality.
It would be foolhardy to underestimate the potential for the forces of organised racism and of the far right to ignite a violent backlash.
The kindling has been laid during a decade and a half of mainstream Islamophobia and racist scapegoating.
In France, that has enabled the far right, in the form of the Front National, to move further into the mainstream than anywhere else in Western Europe. Before the Paris attacks, the fascists were already looking to break through in regional elections next month.
In rallying to oppose the racists’ attempts at a European pogrom, we should not, however, lose sight of the other, deeper wellspring of reaction. It is the one that issues from our governments and elites.
It is not as crude as the racist depravity on social media. But it is central. Without it, the far right, and with it the filthy froth of popular racism, would not have been able to grow over the last 15 years.
The reason the danger posed by our rulers is less visible is that it masks itself in purported opposition to the racists. The elites can even usurp the language of unity against religious and racial division.
After the Charlie Hebdo atrocities in January French president Francois Hollande led a protest through Paris proclaiming national unity against terror.
He refused to invite the Front National’s Marine Le Pen. In order to justify the exclusion of the far right, which then enjoyed 20 percent national support, he expanded the pageant of “National Unity” to include all sorts of foreign leaders.
And on the basis of it being a parade of solidarity led by “international statesmen” he could keep Le Pen from the official march, while avoiding directly confronting her.
It was the kind of clever manoeuvre for which mandarins in the British Foreign Office or their French equivalents in the Quai d’Orsay have been famed for more than 130 years. It was a one-off “solution”, a diplomatic trick. It did nothing to weaken Le Pen. The Front National has grown since.
George W Bush and Tony Blair infamously believed, as they prayed together, that they were engaged in some holy war in Afghanistan and Iraq.
Yet Bush, in the days after 9/11, said that the war on terror would not be a religious war.
Tony Blair is now luridly explicit in claiming that there is something particular to Islam and to “many Muslims” which incubates terrorism. But back in 2004, and even in the wake of the 2005 terror attacks on the London transport system, he was much more guarded.
Neither Bush nor Blair sought to use terror attacks on the US or Britain to launch a race war at home. That was not – and still is not – in the interests the imperialist states or of the corporate powers they serve.
What was in their interests was war abroad. Launching any war requires a fake sense of national unity at home. That is what Bush and Blair set out to achieve.
But because it is false, and because dropping bombs on people necessitates dehumanising them (if not, then we are obliged to feel the same anguish over the dead in an Afghan hospital as we do over those in a French music venue), it led not to unity across religious or ethnic distinction, but to scapegoating division.
In an article in 2004, I tried to explain how the war on terror breeds racism and Islamophobia domestically, despite the appeals to uniting all in the nation irrespective of background, and even including “good Muslims”:
“How can you justify imposing a new political order on the people of the Middle East? Only by claiming they are too backward to run their own affairs.
“If neo-liberal capitalism enforced by the Pentagon is supposedly paradise on earth, how can you possibly explain why anyone should oppose it? Only by claiming they are irrational.
“The US and British governments have tried to draw a distinction between ‘bad’ Muslims, who oppose the West, and ‘good’ Muslims who can be accepted as proper citizens.
“Their problem is that most Muslims, while wanting nothing to do with terrorism, rightly oppose imperialism in the Middle East and its support for Israel’s occupation of Palestine.
“So, despite visiting a couple of mosques, Bush and Blair still portray Muslims as being on the opposite side of a ‘clash of civilisations’.”
Since then, we have seen the full force – or rather a force whose potency is yet to attain its full measure – of the securocrat state, of the mainstreaming of the twin monsters of Islamophobic and anti-immigrant racism, and of the violation of democracy.
When it comes to justifying this wave of reaction, no one does false national unity better than the French Republic.
According to the national religion of “Republicanism”, the French nation, particularly when threatened, knows no rank of privilege or status. Neither does it know the oppressed condition of those it excludes – blindly. For in the universal war for “Western civilisation” it is blind to the particularity of its victims.
The last declaration of a state of emergency in France – whose legal base dates from the Algerian struggle for independence – was when the Black and Arab ghettoes erupted ten years ago.
Today, in the name of the unity of the nation, with inverted, debased references to a long exhausted revolutionary past, the French President can set his face against the overt racism of the Front National on the one hand, while his state bans Muslim women from covering their faces on the other.
Thus he will give Le Pen much of what she wants.
Liberté, which presupposes individual freedom of choice, is trampled down.
Égalité becomes equal prostration before unaccountable power.
Fraternité remains blind to all but himself and those who look like him and, therefore, are entitled to be seen.
The Republic is colour-blind. It rejects the racists – who see colour – because the Republic is blind to the colour of those it kills. That they just happen to be in the lands and in the suburbs where the people are of colour live is incidental.
The great pressure for over a century upon the radical left has been to line up, particularly at times of war or “national emergency”, with this grande hypocrisie designed to lull working class France (or Britain, or Germany… in their own ways) behind Les Patrons – the bosses.
The pressure will be applied scientifically now, with the force of reason not superstition – we are, after all, enlightened.
Granting the usual national variation, it will be extended across the European Union.
France, more than any other state, has provided the universalist veneer of European exploitation at home and imperialism abroad.
Angela Merkel cannot raise barbed wire against refugees in the name of the German Reich. She can invoke the values of the Place de la Republique, with a Tricolour ribbon pinned to her chest, to effect her U-turn on refugee policy.
Expect Britain’s David Cameron also to invoke the defence of European civilisation, intoned in schoolboy French, to follow France!… in bombing its former colonial possession of Syria.
The necessity of opposing war
We will be asked now – it will be demanded of us – to join a crusade for civilisation. Fascism is far from power. Liberal democracy is in power. So, liberal are the terms in which our obedience will be demanded.
It will be posed as colour-blind. Our rulers do not desire burning mosques, torched refugee camps or violent assaults on Muslims, migrants and refugees. The social disturbance alone is unconducive to commerce and business.
But those outrages are what they will bring. They will bring them through further war aboard and authoritarian snake oil at home. Neither will protect anyone anywhere.
There is a presidential election in France in 18 months’ time. The fascist Marine Le Pen is a serious contender.
The social democrat Francois Hollande will seek to rally the better part of France against the Front National and to secure his own re-election. But he is set on a policy of the war on terror, which is oxygen for the fascists.
That is so even if the fascists, as they did over France’s military intervention in Mali two years ago, are lukewarm about military action.
The French prime minster, Manual Valls, declared the day after the Paris terror attacks that “France is at war”.
Other European politicians immediately echoed that language as they sought a justification for implementing the only refugee policy that is compatible with their commitment to austerity economics: razor wire and drowned babies in the Aegean.
It is for this reason that the labour movement, the left and all those progressive forces in Europe who rallied to support the refugees over the last three months cannot hope to stem a racist backlash following the Paris attacks unless we centre our response now upon stopping our governments, individually and in concert through the EU and Nato, leading us deeper into war in the Middle East.
It is to the great credit of the anti-capitalist left in France that they refused to join the false, Republican, National Unity display of international cant following the Charlie Hebdoatrocities.
Thanks to that, the New Anticapitalist Party and others in France have swiftly issued a clear call against Hollande’s promise of “pitiless war”, which can only bring more tears and bitter sorrow. The message: “Your wars; our deaths.”
Thanks to the self-activity of the refugees over the summer wider layers of the labour movement across Europe are acutely aware of the threat of a racist backlash following Paris.
That is extremely important. To stop that backlash we need to confront the drive to further war.
It is hard to navigate between, on the one hand, the forces of open racist reaction and, on the other, a government which will spuriously invoke national unity despite ethnic or religious distinction to prosecute a war which necessitates racist reaction.
No essay or comment article will plot that path.
The only thing which will is the practical initiative of the anti-imperialist and anti-racist left.
The anti-capitalist forces in France who issued the statement headed “Your wars; Our dead” signalled such an initiative hours after the Paris bombings.
In the wake of 9/11 we did the same in Britain when we launched the anti-war movement, defined by its slogans:
* No to war
* Stop the racist backlash
* Defend civil liberties
Our movements grew enormously then, but did not achieve all we set out to. Hence we are where we are today.
We need to build again – and do better this time.
Kevin Ovenden is a progressive journalist who has followed politics and social movements for 25 years. He is a leading activist in solidarity with the Palestinian struggle, led five successful aid convoys to break the siege on Gaza, and was aboard the Mavi Marmara aid ship when Israeli commandoes boarded it killing 10 people in May 2010. He is author of Syriza: Inside the Labyrinth.
More articles from this author
- The struggles are fusing: Greece protests rage against authoritarianism
- Starmer's flag fetish: win the middle ground, don’t chase it
- Vaccine nationalism: a plague on all our houses
- Impeachment will not defeat Trumpism
- We need to learn from the mistakes of Brexit past
- Keir Starmer's Brexit opportunism
- Why is the US election so close? - video