If you read the western media reporting on the Paris attack, says Lindsey German, it is as if the wars waged by the western powers in Muslim countries aren't happening
The terrible events surrounding the Charlie Hebdo killings and the subsequent sieges have led to an understandable outpouring of grief and emotion.
We know who carried out these acts, we know the people who died and we know details of the sieges and subsequent killings. But these facts on their own tell us little about why such events happen and how we can prevent them.
Firstly the events have a context. The gunmen responsible for the Charlie Hebdo attack were by their own admission acting on behalf of al Qaeda in the Yemen. They were therefore part of a terrorist organisation with its roots in Afghanistan - the organisation led by Osama bin Laden whose capture was the ostensible reason for the Afghanistan war. That war and subsequent ones have not led to the weakening of al Qaeda but its spread across large parts of Asia and Africa. It has been the subject of repeated drone attacks by the US in recent years.
The war with western involvement is only one of many now going on around the region, including a number with French involvement. These include Iraq, Syria, Mali and Libya.
Perhaps it would make sense to therefore begin any analysis of why these attacks have happened with a recognition, not just of the existence of those wars, but with an understanding of what has been created by them.
Al Qaeda of course predates the war on terror: its 9/11 attacks triggered the global war on terror. But the issues which motivated them have not been resolved by it, indeed they have been exacerbated over the past decade and a half.
Bin Laden cited as his grievances then the sanctions on Iraq, the plight of the Palestinians and the occupation of Saudi soil by US troops. The situation in Iraq since then has seen cycles of war, occupation and war again, with millions made refugees and hundreds of thousands dead. It is currently being bombed again by western forces.
The Palestinian situation is even worse than it was then and there are western troops in many parts of the Middle East.
Yet, if you read the western media, it is almost as if these wars aren't happening. Casualties are rarely mentioned. We don't hear the names of the dead or see their pictures. There is little reporting of the figures of those killed, even though in Iraq the estimates run into hundreds of thousands and those in Afghanistan into tens of thousands.
The same people responsible for the attacks in Paris are also responsible for much worse attacks on their fellow Muslims in countries like Yemen or Libya. Last week 37 police recruits were killed in a bomb at an academy near near Yemen's capital city Sanaa, and dozens more injured.
Many people hearing about so-called western values 'freedom', 'truth' and 'equality' -- now made so much of, following the Charlie Hebdo slaughter -- will wonder what values it was that allowed Israel last Summer to bomb Gaza, causing the deaths of thousands of Palestinians. They will wonder about the torture by US forces at Abu Ghraib (cited as one reason for the 'radicalisation' of one of the Charlie Hebdo murderers). They will wonder about Guantanamo, extraordinary rendition, torture, and the other consequences of the war on terror that have caused such misery.
They must also wonder at the myopia which allows the absolutely correct condemnation of terrorist attacks in France but which seems to regard western bombings, drone attacks and the killing of civilians in occupied countries, as necessary if slightly distasteful activities, justified because they are carried out by nation states, rather than lone individuals.
None of this is to excuse, to justify, or to endorse the behaviour of the gunmen who attacked the Charlie Hebdo office last week, but it is to try to understand why it happens.
There is another context of course. It is called racism. The six million Muslims in France suffer discrimination economically and socially. They tend to live in dismal towns on the edge of cities, they are much more likely to be unemployed, they are not allowed to dress as they like in public places, and they and their institutions - from mosques to Halal meat - are under attack.
The majority of Muslims in France originate from Algeria, the scene of a brutal French colonial regime and of a bitter eight-year war of liberation from 1954 to 1962. Notoriously, In the early 1960s hundreds of Algerians were murdered in Paris, their bodies dumped in the Seine. That legacy of colonialism feeds into current racism, stoked by the Islamophobia of the racist National Front party, which is fast gaining support, and riding high in current public opinion polls.
Racism is also intertwined with ideological support for the far right that feeds into attacks on immigrants, of which there were many across France in the days following the Charlie Hebdo murders -- largely unreported by the mainstream media. And little is said about the fact that two of those killed were Muslims or that one of the heroes of the kosher supermarket siege was himself a Muslim.
This world of war has created record levels of migrants. The vast majority are refugees and asylum seekers, desperate to reach some safety and security. Many of them too will be Muslims, especially those fleeing Syria and Libya.
The danger now is that there will be a backlash against Muslims in Britain, where anti-immigrant hysteria has become all too familiar. We have seen right-wing politicians whipping up prejudice against Muslims. Nigel Farage, leader of Ukip, referring to UK Muslims as a fifth column (or the enemy within).
There is not a 'war' with Muslims, however much some people want to declare one. The danger with the current rise in Islamophobia is that it blames the people who have suffered most from these recent wars, not the people responsible for western attacks on Muslim lands.
Many of those responsible will be marching on the 'unity' demonstration in Paris today. Among them will be the UK prime minister David Cameron, the German chancellor Angela Merkel, Israel's prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu and the Nato secretary general Jens Stoltenberg. All of them have supported the wars of the past 14 years, but refuse to accept any responsibility for the consequences.
As national convenor of the Stop the War Coalition, Lindsey was a key organiser of the largest demonstration, and one of the largest mass movements, in British history.
Her books include ‘Material Girls: Women, Men and Work’, ‘Sex, Class and Socialism’, ‘A People’s History of London’ (with John Rees) and ‘How a Century of War Changed the Lives of Women’.
More articles from this author
- The trouble with terrorism – weekly briefing
- No Platform: Free speech for all?
- Now it’s neither heat nor eat – weekly briefing
- Sexual violence, economic violence: why women still need our rights – weekly briefing
- Discontents for all seasons – weekly briefing
- The Pandora’s Box of 9/11 – weekly briefing
- Did the crime of 9/11 justify 20 years of the War on Terror? - video