Paris: A Generational Challenge

The Eiffel Tower after the Paris attacks: Photo originally taken by David Bertho and shown under a Creative Commons licence.

Summary: In order to defeat the Daesh terrorists, we need to be highly aware of the threat we face and recognize it for its aggressive nature. We will need to change course in Syria and take the fight to the terrorists. At the same time, we need to act rationally and in a balanced fashion when confronting the threat to our own populations. Overall, we must refuse the terrorists’ gambit to cause divisions along religious and cultural lines – instead, we need to work together and stay united.


Paris is a city that I genuinely love. I have been there several times: I have walked the Champs-Elysées, promenaded along the Seine, seen the sunrise at the Eiffel Tower, eaten too many a croissant and listened to the melodic cadences of the French language being spoken in Montmartre. My experiences are not all-too-different from those of millions of people who visit the City of Lights every year. Recently, I reunited with a friend of mine in a café – it was a beautiful, sunny day. It was a scene reminiscent of the essential Parisian Sunday: people were chatting, others walked by with their infants or pets, whilst food was being consumed and newspapers were being read. It was a peaceful scene, one of joy and full of life.

That joy, that life was shattered by Friday night’s attacks on Paris. It turns out that one of those horrific scenes of carnage was just a few minutes’ walk away from where we had sat on that beautiful autumn day.

What had happened? Terrorists attacked a concert hall, restaurants and cafés and also turned their sights on the national stadium (the Stade de France) where they attempted to cause mass casualties as well. With Daesh (the Arabic acronym for the so-called “Islamic State“) claiming responsibility for the carnage on the streets of Paris, all attention has now turned on how to deal with this terrorist group.There are those who have advised caution, recalling the aggressive response of the United States after 11 September 2001, even chiding President Hollande for referring to the attacks as an “act of war”. In fact, there are those who claim that a robust response would play into the hands of the terrorists.

I disagree.

What we’re up against

Daesh is not any other group. They are not a ragtag band of rebels without a cause. Let’s be clear about what type of individuals we are dealing with. These are extremely well-organized murderers, terrorists and ecclesiastical fascists whose cause is the establishment of a purportedly religious “caliphate” straddling the Middle East and beyond. Those supposedly “pious” terrorists rape women, send children into the slave trade, behead aid workers, engage in ethnic cleansing, destroy cultural artefacts and engage in mass murder abroad. They blew up a Russian jetliner, killed dozens in Beirut, used chemical weapons against Syrians and are (alongside Bashar al-Assad) single-handedly responsible for the refugee crisis that has been troubling and overwhelming Europe.

These people hate our way of life: They hate that we elect our leaders. They hate our respect for women and ethnic minorities. They cannot stand multireligious and multicultural societies, because they are a constant reminder of the sheer absurdity of their genocidal quest for ethnic purity. They despise individual liberty, permitting us all to question our governments and make our own personal choices. They detest the rule of law as we know it, because it permits for appeals and aims at rehabilitation. They believe that we are infidels for not believing in their extreme and fascist reimagining of Islam. They are merchants of hate and purveyors of death. Their fatherland is an apolcalyptic hell in which no one dares resist, “apostates” are beheaded or have their limbs amputated, women are little more than property and true individuality is suppressed. Their only loyalty is to a 21st century version of Hitler’s National Socialism, “enriched” with religious fervour and the same level of bigotry. And they still have their eyes set on nuclear weapons.

In other words: These people want to kill us.

One by one, little by little, attack after attack, these murderers dreaming grand visions of glory hope to undermine us, turn us against one another and break our spirits. They don’t just want to kill us physically, but especially mentally. They want us to be afraid, stop going to cafés & restaurants, be frightened of attending concerts, skip the myriad Christmas markets, refrain from expressing our true opinions (including controversial views) and give up on our values. Values our civilization rightly holds dear.

They must not be permitted to succeed, not now, not ever.

This is a generational conflict that will not be won quickly or with one fatal blow. Instead, winning will take time, patience and true commitment. It will also take greater creativity and sensitivity than the gung-ho “war against terror” launched by the United States after the 11 September 2001 attacks. Where do we go from here?

What is required now is a recognition of the threat we face: Hitler was only able to get stronger in the 1930s, because other countries believed that he could be contained (like President Obama seems to believe about Daesh right now) or even be someone “with whom we can do business” (similar to contemporary attitudes seen in the governments of Qatar, Saudi Arabia and Turkey about Daesh). Unlike al-Qaeda, Daesh actually holds territory across Syria and Iraq and has designs on more. It presumably views the Saudi government (which essentially is Daesh, only with diplomatic recognition and foreign military bases) as an imperfect guardian of the Islamic holy sites of Mecca and Medina as well. Oh, and the oil reserves held by Saudi Arabia. Should they ever be permitted to establish a permanent, state-like entity, they could blackmail the rest of the world and broaden their financial basis for terrorist assaults abroad.

Changing Course

The international community has to recognize that now is the time to change course. Daesh and its collaborators have to be attacked where they live and plan – the cancer of its corrosive ideology has to be conclusively removed. So far, the world has watched as Daesh has committed one war crime after another and stood by, as it began its reign of terror across Iraq and Syria. It’s just not enough anymore – we need to act. There are two dimensions, both of which will require adjustments from citizens in Western societies.

Externally, the funding of Daesh has to be cut off: there is a general consensus that the organization is the “richest terrorist group”. Its funding emerges from various sources including (among others) revenues from the use of oil fields under its control, drug smuggling, prostitution and funding from other Middle Eastern nations.

Much more robust military action against Daesh will be needed – not out of a sense of revenge, but the even-keeled realization that such a rogue state-like entity cannot be allowed to exist and constitutes a long-term threat to Europe, the United States and the wider North Atlantic Alliance. Hitherto, airstrikes in Daesh-held territory are not really making a difference fast enough. Instead, it is time to seriously consider a ground invasion of Daesh-held territory in Syria and Iraq – with the clear goal of liberating these areas from the group’s terrorist rule and establish a transitional administration. In concrete terms, this means that a multinational force would be tasked with militarily incapacitating Daesh forces and loyalists. It would be incumbent upon the forces to find, arrest and either transfer Daesh leaders (like Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi) for trial before an international war crimes tribunal (like the currently moribund ICC or an ad hoc tribunal specifically created for the prosecution and sentencing of Daesh commanders) OR permanently eliminate them.

The multinational force required can be equipped with a UN mandate, should it be insisted upon by either of the major powers – but quite frankly, it’s not really essential, since the UN has always only played a bit part (at best) in war scenarios. Since neither Americans, nor Russians will be prepared to serve under a commanding officer of the other nationality, and in order to permit the broadest military participation in an anti-Daesh effort possible, two separate military commands should be formed under American/NATO and Russian leadership. Those command structures would coordinate military strategies and discuss actions to be taken against Daesh across Syria and Iraq. Their mission would be simple: A full-scale, unconditional surrender by Daesh, the complete disarmament of its forces and the neutralization of both its leadership and second-rank “middle management”.

Settling Syria

Regarding a settlement of the Syrian War, an international conference should be called without preconditions. Too much blood has already been spilled in the past four years of war. Syria has lost much of its pre-war economic capacity, with the country’s infrastructure effectively destroyed, its industry going nowhere for the foreseeable future and a humanitarian crisis still ongoing. It will quite simply take years for Syria to have even so much as a chance to credibly recover. The international community will have to include massive financial guarantees to deal with the immediate (like the provision of food and temporary shelter) and long-term needs of Syria (i.e. roads, hospitals, elecricity, as well as the repatriation of war refugees to their home communities).

Additionally, as politically unpalatable as this may be, the experience of Iraq teaches us that a rushed transition to de facto independence under the rule of local politicians might actually precipitate yet another crisis – similar to the one that gave rise to Daesh in Iraq. Consequently, upon a settlement of the Syrian issue, the country needs to be placed under the aegis of a Transitional Reconstruction Authority similar to the role played by the EU High Commissioner for Bosnia or the UN Mission in East Timor.

The TRA’s task would be to restore the nation’s infrastructure, lay the groundwork for the nation’s economic recovery (for example, through the creation of public works programmes to build roads and buildings), draft a temporary constitution and maintain the peace. Syria’s external frontiers would be guaranteed by powers like the United  States, Russia, China and France – the TRA’s civil service would be recruited from well-educated Syrians, including members of Bashar al Assad’s Baath Party. Unlike the foolish precedent set by the US-led occupation in Iraq, the remnants of the Syrian Army should not be disbanded under any circumstances, but become part of a new, retrained Syrian armed forces. Bashar al-Assad should be compelled to resign and stand trial before the ICC, whilst his wider family should be exiled and given immunity from prosecution (again, not a preferred solution – but the only way he will stand trial). Military commanders in Mr Assad’s army, but also the Free Syrian Army, the al-Nusra Front and other factions in the war should equally be tried if they committed war crimes.

Unlike in Iraq, where successive US politicians underfunded and understaffed both the war and peace efforts, full honesty and long-term success require to come clean: If Syria is not to yet again turn into another no-hope failed state like Afghanistan, the transitional phase will need to last a generation. It will require constant and proper funding by the international community, as well as its equally constant vigilance. It will also require a long-term military presence by the major powers, similar to the one that existed in Germany for the 40 years of the Cold War. You may think this to be excessive, but think about it: Rwanda, Bosnia, Iraq, Afghanistan, Congo, East Timor and Lebanon are only some of the countries which struggled to create peace and genuine stability long after the wars in those countries formally concluded. Independence should only be gradually handed back to Syrians once the fundamental parameters for a somewhat livable life have been restored. And yes, that will most likely take an entire generation. The sooner the world owns up to this truth, the better – and the more realistic the planning concerning Syria can be.

Reflecting our Values

The war against Daesh also gives the international community, especially us Western countries, an opportunity to pause. Our entire policy regarding the Middle East has been driven by selfishness, utility and a lack of understanding regarding the region’s prevailing trends.

For too long, we have backed governments that strategically support Western interests, but end up acting against our values. The most prominent example is Saudi Arabia, a country that beheads prisoners, abuses foreign workers, sentences bloggers to dozens of lashes, bans its women from going out without a male chaperone, executes citizens for homosexuality & adultery (usually with a sword), has a record of supporting terrorism across the region (especially in Syria) and suppressing democracy. It is single-handedly responsible for the brutal war in Yemen, which in itself is threatening to become yet another failed state and a source of renewed terrorist activity on the Arabian peninsula. It’s no different than ISIS – except with diplomatic recognition and foreign military basis. Qatar is a slightly more liberal, yet equally repellant example for a country theoretically aligned with Western interests, but acting against them on a daily basis. We need to rethink our approach to such countries, and exert much more pressure on these countries regarding their poor human rights records. In the long run, it is inconsistent for us to fight Daesh in the battlefields of Iraq and Syria, whilst tolerating the authoritarian regime in Riad unaltered.

There are equally tough situations to be handled in Egypt (which has turned into an authoritarian military dictatorship), Algeria (where President Bouteflika is suffering from ill health), Tunisia (which is recovering from the Sousse attacks), Lebanon (which has just suffered not just from an ISIS attack, but has to deal with a massive influx of Syrian refugees – as well as protests against the government), Yemen (which is going through a major civil war), Iraq (which remains a tinderbox) and Turkey (which has just re-elected an authoritarian government, but is also dealing with the aftermath of terrorist bombings, a resurgent civil war against the Kurdish insurgent PKK and is also dealing with a substantial number of Syrian refugees).That does not even start to consider the protracted conflict between Israel and the Palestinian Territories (riddled with extremism on both sides of the divide and an almost childish refusal to compromise) or the increasingly dangerous situation in the wider region, including Afghanistan (where the Taliban are staging a comeback) and Pakistan (a nuclear power which has been constantly beset by terrorism and an insurgent rebellion by purportedly religious extremists).

There is no magic wand to be waved, but nonetheless foreign policy needs to reflect values such as the rule of law, democracy, the promotion of human rights and our steadfast support for real economic opportunity across the Middle East. Anything else would give Daesh or any of its fellow terrorist organizations an opportunity to recruit more followers to their nihilistic cause and their hatred of our values.

Our Values Within

But just as we fight Daesh and will hopefully take the war to those who would wish us harm, we ourselves also need to do some thinking about who we are, how we protect ourselves and where we go from here. First, let’s start with the most obvious: Our goal has to be to protect our citizens against terrorist assaults and preserve the essence of a free democracy. This is admittedly a difficult task and a balancing act: on the one hand, in a situation in which terrorists are willing to kill people for having the temerity to live their lives, we will have to get used to place our faith in the police, intelligence services and armed forces.

I know that in certain countries, including mine (namely Germany), there is a deep-seated mistrust of any surveillance by the government – some of it justified by the Snowdon revelations and our country’s problematic history, but some of it (quite frankly) completely overblown and hypocritical. It’s a balance that makes things work: we need to have faith in our security services, equip them with the funding, personnel and infrastructure to fight this 21st century war. But at the same time, we need to reasonably question the way they work and provide constructive criticism to improve their functioning in the wider public interest. In this regard, France has acted with considerable reflection: rather than giving President Hollande carte blanche with a Patriot Act-style law, the National Assembly and the Senate approved the prologation of the state of emergency for a mere three months. It also appears that unlike in the post-9/11 environment in the United States, there is not much of a unifying “rally around the flag” effect: political debate hasn’t been suspended, with parliamentarians being criticized for showing too little unity after the attacks. In a strange way, this is reassuring – especially as it is the lack of any critical reflection that would likely lead to excesses.

Preserving our way of life also means preserving it for all: That includes the (natural and self-understood) truth that hate speech against anyone, including the Muslim community, needs to be prosecuted severely. The Paris attacks featured (once again) severe condemnations by representatives of Muslim institutions and community leaders across France and Europe. There is a rising tide of Islamophobia across our Continent, and it needs to be stopped decisively – just like hate speech against other minority communities, including Jewish citizens, needs to be tackled hard as well.

One reminder I find all too rarely in the public discussion of the terrorism issue is the fact that Daesh has killed Muslims in their thousands – and thus proves the wider point that the terrorists’ vision is out of step with the majority of Muslims. To doubt that simple truth is to play into the hands of radical nationalists like Geert Wilders, Marine Le Pen, Hans-Christian Strache and their ilk. An open, constructive and fact-based debate about aspects of cultural, social and economic integration should always be welcome in a free society – but that’s not what Le Pen and Company are looking for. Instead, they polemicize, pit citizen against citizen, promote ignorance and bigotry, demand that the vast majority of peaceful practitioners of Islam apologize for the actions of extremists after every single terrorist attack (a trend that has fortunately been commented upon sharply by the media and others). And these right-wing nationalists look to win elections and claim power. We cannot and must not allow that, for their merchandise of choice isn’t death, but fear. Fear of the other, fear of the unknown, fear of being marginalized. The likes of Le Pen have an almost perfidious relationship with Daesh – they feed off each other. To break this tacit alliance of extremists is the responsibility of all those who genuinely love freedom.

Radical religious extremists within Europe need to be fought with everything the law has to offer. That includes

  • the revocation of their passports (and, where the constitution so permits: citizenships) if they decide to travel to areas known for terrorist activities (like Syria, Iraq and Libya) and the cancellation of any accounts held across all EU countries
  • a new rule that an entry ban in one EU country will apply to all other 27 countries as well – thus becoming a continental exclusion
  • tougher prosecution of hate speech (whether its against democracy, the rule of law or gender equality, to name a few things)
  • the creation of a continental database across the EU which flags those individuals whose passports have been revoked or whose governments have designated them as credible threats
  • the establishment of a Joint European Terrorism and Analysis Centre which brings together the information from various sources (intelligence services, police, armed forces, municipalities, social workers, community tip-offs) across the continent and can warn individual Member States against imminent attacks
  • A full-scale ban on Daesh propaganda, especially by working with social media providers like Facebook, Twitter and Youtube to take down the accounts of those sympathizing with Daesh; governments should also go unconventional routes, including alliances with groups like Anonymous and others
  • closer cooperation with moderate Muslim communities across the continent to foster more trust and gain early intelligence about potential radicals

But most importantly right now, at what may very well be the beginning of yet another campaign against our values, we must stay united. That’s right – we have to step in for our liberal and cosmopolitan values. European countries need to actively promote the integration of all communities, especially by emphasizing education & vocational training, restoring law and order in so-called no-go areas and problem zones (like Belgium’s Molenbeek and many of the banlieues around Paris) and providing real job opportunities to those who have been left behind to date. Yes, that will require considerable funding, thoughtfulness and a new way of approaching community relations: But it will be worth it in the long run.

And we must actively remain free: Free to go outside and enjoy the beauty of life, the company &  laughter of friends, appreciate the joys of walking through the streets of the cities we love, listen to music at a concert hall, witness the magic of a beautifully acted theatre play, watch a game of our favourite sport in the local stadium, sit in a café or eat a meal outside. It’s what our way of life is all about – and we must not let a bunch of extremist fanatics take it away from us.

There is no doubt in my mind that the French people are resilient, strong and possess the determination to weather the aftermath of that horrific November night. Paris is a city full of life, possibilities and laughter. It will come alive again with this spirit, never forgetting what happened – and yet deciding to consciously refuse the terrorists what they crave the most: our fear. Yes, they will try to shatter that sense of resilience – there may very well be setbacks and hard moments. But our way of life, our outlook and love of life will prevail – it will defeat the fear and hatred those terrorists wish to spread.

One week on, I’m already looking forward to my next visit to Paris, a city I shall always love.


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