It was a mild autumn evening in London, still light, the leaves still green on the trees, and I had popped into the Marble Arch branch of Marks and Spencer on my way back from work. A woman in traditional Arab dress – black burqa, her face covered – queued in front of me to pay. A companion rushed through the queue to join her, and as she pushed past me, she didn’t offer a word of explanation or apology. Once the two reached the head of the queue, they were imperious, demanding size changes and replacements in loud, accented English from the flustered young cashier.
‘Imagine the cheek,’ the elderly lady behind me whispered. ‘And after what has just happened.’
What had just happened was 9/11. It was the evening of September 12, 2001, and the world had changed forever. In a concerted series of attacks orchestrated by Muslim terrorist outfit Al Qaeda, planes were hijacked and flown into New York’s World Trade Centre’s twin towers and into the Pentagon in Washington. A fourth plane, also heading for Washington, crashed in a field in Pennsylvania after the hijackers were overcome by passengers.
And the two women in front of me, privileged and badly bred, suddenly seemed to so many to be the emblem of a hostile Islamist ideology. They were ‘the other’, and while people from other cultures can be badly bred and imperious too, the two women in M&S seemed to epitomise all that the Western world found incomprehensible.
Soon it wasn’t just those dressed in Islamic clothing who were seen as ‘the other’. Soon it was men in beards, including innocent Sikh gas station attendants in America who were attacked and killed. Soon it was anyone of colour doing anything – anything at all – out of the ordinary. Few in London will forget Jean Charles de Menezes, a twenty seven year old Brazilian man who was killed by police in Stockwell after he was wrongly suspected of being involved in the 2005 London bombings.
Over the past few days, it feels like the world has been changed forever once more. In a series of concerted attacks on November 13, eight militants belonging to the Islamic State (ISIS) laid siege to a host of Parisian venues. Suicide bombers detonated bombs outside the Stade de France, then playing host to a football match between France and Germany. Gunmen held a Parisian concert hall hostage, and others fired guns outside bars and restaurants in the centre of town. Over 132 were killed, and hundreds more injured. The French President, Francois Hollande, called the attack a war on France. Borders are being closed, and the unending wave of immigrants from Syria are being blamed for the atrocities. It is important to note, though, that at least one of the Paris attackers was a French citizen. And that ISIS is attacking more than just France. The attacks on Paris follow ISIS led attacks on Lebanon, Egypt, Iraq, Syria, Yemen, Libya, Turkey and Tunisia, and can rightly be recast as a war on humanity. As an attack on civilisation. A war that the overwhelmingly vast majority of refugees is looking to flee.
The way to fight this war, in the near term at least, is almost certainly through combat. But in the rush to eradicate ISIS, it is important not to alienate whole populations. Israel’s aggressiveness towards Palestine hasn’t led to any lasting solution in the area. And funding militants to fight the Soviets in Afghanistan in the 1980s led to the birth of the Taliban. Recent interventions in the Arab world have had a large role to play in the rise of ISIS. There is no good terrorist, and once you give credence to a vengeful ideology, there is no hoping for peace. The allies of today in this demented, ceaseless holy war are very often the adversaries of tomorrow.
It is important too, to consider the realities closer to home. Rising Islamophobia in the aftermath of 9/11 is sometimes blamed for the fundamentalisation of parts of Britain’s Muslim population. This may well be true. Muslims – women with their heads covered, men in beards – are conspicuous enough in times of tension. And as the rhetoric in the West has teetered between the twin poles of tolerance and vengeance, it is understandable that a tiny minority in the Muslim community have felt isolated. These people are almost invariably young, and like most impressionable teenagers, they are looking to fit in. They don’t want to be seen as ‘the other’. And when the streets of their native Britain don’t feel hospitable, they start to look to others that do. These people, children still for the most part, are prime prey for fundamentalist voices advocating a ‘purer’ way of life. And it is unutterably sad that there are women among the number who feel drawn to join the Islamic State, even as they are denied so many basic freedoms under an extreme and literal interpretation of Islam.
As the world rushes to retaliate to the latest declaration of war by Islamist terrorists, it is important not to be knee-jerk in our reactions. It’s important not to confuse those fleeing extremists with the extremists. It is important not to identify the moderate face of Islam with a tiny, fundamentalist minority. It is important not to blame ‘the other’, such as the innocent Canadian Sikh man – who had never stepped foot inside Paris – who found his image photo-shopped to fit the picture of one of the Paris attackers. It is key not to answer intolerance with intolerance. Just as it is vital not to answer militancy by funding militancy. Promoting secularism is the answer, in the fractured Middle East just as much as in the West. Humanity’s best hope lies in the rallying cries of the French Revolution – Liberté! Egalité! Fraternité! Because that indeed is something worth fighting for.