In the mess of the hours-long attacks in Paris resulting in over a hundred deaths, a certain well-meaning tweet captured the hearts of well-meaning Anglophone liberals:
To people blaming refugees for attacks in Paris tonight. Do you not realise these are the people the refugees are trying to run away from..?— Dan Holloway (@RFCdan) November 13, 2015
From our Eurocentric perspective, this tweet is a slam-dunk for the champions of liberal hospitality. Certainly, it would be naïve -- worse, dangerous -- to assert that this attack is the mere consequence of immigration. Of course those seeking refuge in France from the Middle East and North Africa have done so out of fear for their lives and livelihoods. But for all that this tweet (unlikely) illuminates to reactionaries, it still succeeds in obscuring for liberals.
The sentiment of this tweet is predicated fundamentally on two falsehoods. The first is that this event is not unprecedented. The second is that the narrative this tweet presents is largely false.
The Religious Veil
While for those whom recent memory serves, these attacks may recall the attack on Charlie Hebdo; more distant memory might remind one of the riots that broke out in 2005 in the Parisian suburbs. For those who don't recall, the 2005 riots were kicked off when three North African teenagers being chased by police hid out in an electrical substation. While in hiding from the authorities, two of the boys were electrocuted to death while the last suffered injuries. What followed was almost 20 days of rioting in the largely North African suburbs of Paris and other major cities. What followed was a state of emergency, and in the aftermath, a crackdown on immigration and fraudulent marriage.
Only the year prior to the riots, France had implemented law 2004-228 which banned open display of religious symbols in educational institutions in the country. While on its face, the law prohibited all manner of religious symbols be they Muslim, Christian, Jewish, etc., in reality the law in its formative support and its following enforcement was very much aimed at Muslim Africans, Arabs, and South Asians. As a result, Muslim communities began establishing their own private secondary schools in order to get around the ban.
While this resulting de facto segregation could be framed as merely an unintended consequence of the ban, such a frame strongly depends upon who it is that is doing the intending. Following the Second World War, France, like most other countries in Europe, implemented laws prohibiting hate speech. The cultural limits of such a provision -- limits that came to the fore in the wake of the Charlie Hebdo massacre -- made banning "criticism" of religion off limits. France, whose founding legacy as a Republic was due in no small part to a rekindled ire directed at the Catholic Church left over from the Wars of Religion over a century prior, long cherished its tradition of satire -- particularly that aimed at religious institutions.
While the French tradition of religious satire was born of oppressed peasant and working classes punching up at religiously sealed seats of power, the political realities surrounding religion in France have (unsurprisingly) changed in the intervening half millennium since the onset of the Wars of Religion. Like in most Western countries, religion in France has lost its explicit institutional power and resides in the hearts of the French as a matter of personal taste to be dredged up in times of existential strife or moral confusion. At the same time, religious cleavages -- particularly extra-religious cleavages -- often cut across racial lines. The Nouvelle Droite (a European tendency of the white nationalist radical right) and SION (the neo-Zionist aligned Stop Islamization of Nations) have taken note of this fact, and have explicitly taken aim at matters of religion and immigration.
In a 2006 speech delivered to the conference of the white nationalist publication American Renaissance, French Nouvelle Droite thinker Guillaume Faye confessed to such a position. Following a speech about the perceived invasion of Europe by immigrants facilitated by Western notions of humanitarianism, Faye was challenged by former Klansman (if he can be said to be 'former') David Duke on the relevance of Jews in his schematic. His answer, laden with anti-Black racial slurs, bemoaned the prevailing hate speech laws and indicated that the focus on Islam as opposed to explicitly naming Africans, Arabs, and South Asians was in fact a strategic means of bypassing these prohibitions. Indeed, a casual glance at the cartoons in Charlie Hebdo -- strongly resembling caricatures one might see in banned American cartoons from the 1950's -- confirms the sentiment expressed by Faye -- namely that the substantive results of religious "criticism" of Islam are largely identical to that of explicit racist bigotry against Arabs, Africans, and South Asians.
Since the 2005 riots, France implemented an even more draconian measure in 2010 banning any and all face coverings in public. Again, like the ban on display of religious symbols, the law was nominally universal and aimed at achieving cosmopolitan ends, but the support for the law and its subsequent enforcement largely came down on Muslims -- this time, specifically on Muslim women.
While in the popular imagination the notion of refugees in recent months has been flattened to those fleeing the grip of the Islamic State, this narrative fails in the French case both in longevity and scope. France has seen a consistent increase in asylum requests since as early as 1999 with countries of origin ranging as wide as Bangladesh and Eritrea. Since the Arab Spring in 2011, a toxic mix of power vacuums and ressentiment aimed at decades of Western intervention in the Middle East and North Africa has led to a rise in militant groups explicitly aiming to stake out territory in the region. While its largest base of military success has been in Iraq and Syria, militant factions pledging allegiance to the Islamic State have cropped up in West Africa, Libya, Algeria, the Sinai Peninsula, and the border of Pakistan and Afghanistan.
While many of these groups are comprised of pre-existing Salafist militant organizations, they have also recruited former US-allied forces in failed states as well as fighters from the West. The Islamic State's conquest over large territories has seen repression of ethnic and religious minorities, forced marriages and conversions, and recruitment of child soldiers. The remaining vestiges of rule under the Islamic State, namely that of medieval religious law, are not significantly different from those of NATO-allied Persian Gulf States.
However, to posit that the French refugees were escaping the abstract forces of the Islamic State is false for at least two reasons. As previously mentioned, a sizable chunk of refugees in France did not flee from lands captured by the Islamic state at all, but rather from chronically impoverished countries such as Bangladesh and Eritrea kept in arrested development to suit the needs of international (Western) capital. Additionally, those who did in fact flee the rule of the Islamic State did so in no small measure to escape the material conditions of war. The situation in Syria and Iraq has escalated to a war being fought by at least three sides. On one side, we find the Islamic State in a tacit alliance with Turkey. On another, we find the US and the rebel factions that it is making the mistake of arming. On the third, we see Bashar al-Assad in a tenuous alliance with Russia. One might also throw in the Kurdish military forces. Between the first three forces, particularly the second and third, is a recipe for the total annihilation of infrastructure to make a region inhabitable -- homes, hospitals, schools all vanishing into rubble as a consequence of the ongoing turf war within the region.
The point here is those leaving the region are not doing so merely because of the style of regime which the Islamic State is attempting to impose -- the early months of unencumbered expansion which saw few refugees should stand as testimony to this. Rather, it is the entire upending of civilian livelihood as a consequence of villages and cities being turned into war zones -- the daily threat of barrel bombs and cluster bombs, one's street turning into a no-man's land between opposing infantries, the shortage of provisions as armies hold villages under siege, one's bodily orifices being turned into the spoils of war. The messy business of territorial war creates refugees fleeing the conditions of war itself, not the prospect of who might emerge victorious.
And yet, these refugees, whether fleeing the horrors of war or the superexploitation of capitalism, come to France only to find a different stripping of their livelihood. Where their home countries stripped them of their material dignity, their new home seeks to strip them of their identity. The asymmetric cosmopolitanism of French society enforces a new form of dehumanization. Whether these newcomers accept or resist assimilation into French secularism -- a secularism that is only nominal since its customs and morality is very much founded on Western and Christian modes of being -- their skin still belies their Otherness. White French society, increasingly supportive of the nativist politics embodied by Front National, marks its migrants through coded racial intimidation, violence, and prohibitions on practices perceived as foreign.
On top of all this is the distinct lack of material support for those in France seeking asylum. The now notorious migrant camp in Calais, known colloquially as The Jungle, was in fact once an official Red Cross camp established in 1999 to temporarily house refugees awaiting permanent or at least less temporary resettlement. Though the French government officially closed the camp in 2002, many migrants have chosen to remain in The Jungle -- now with no fixed location -- with the hopes of stowing away to the UK in shipping containers sent from the port there. The French authorities have thus far refrained from providing any sort of support to settle the migrants in France out of a fear that it will attract even more migrants, though such austerity has yet to prove an actual deterrent.
The dominant presumption from those seeking to exonerate refugees (nobly, refugees qua refugee) was that the assailants came from abroad to carry out their plan. There is little reason to suppose this. The attack on Charlie Hebdo was carried out by those who were not only Muslim permanent residents of France, but in fact those who had French citizenship by birth. The reality is the scenario that the executors of the attacks in Paris were motivated by the ideology of the Islamic State is far less likely than the one in which they were motivated by the ethnic oppression exacted by French society.