Islamic State’s Massacres Began Before Paris

If sectarianism and social conservatism are the hallmarks of IS, Europe needs to avoid succumbing to similar attitudes itself.

Outrage over the massacre in Paris should not let us forget the downing of a Russian plane in Sinai which destroyed even more lives two weeks earlier. Nor should we forget the bombings of Kurdish peace activists in Suruc in July or last week’s bombings in a district of Beirut where Hezbollah is strong. All four horrors have been claimed by the Salafi group, the self-styled Islamic State (IS). They are the group’s first serious attacks outside its core area, Iraq and Syria. Like al Qaida before it, IS is signalling that it is moving on to a global battlefield. New IS attacks are therefore probable in any part of the world.

IS has described the atrocities in Paris and Sinai as revenge for the bombing campaigns launched against it in Syria, in one case by Russia, in the other by France. The bombings in Suruc and Beirut are also related to Syria in as much as Kurdish militias have recently scored significant victories over IS in northern Syria and Hezbollah has sent forces into the country to fight alongside the Syrian army against Salafi groups.

The Suruc and Beirut murders should serve as reminders that it is too simple to see IS as motivated largely by anti-Western sentiments. They are Sunni sectarians, who primarily want to eliminate other Muslims, --- Shia and Alawi and Ismaeli -- whom they treat as heretics, in their search for a return to the first Islamic caliphate and the values of social conservativism which they believe it embodied. They are also ruthless in the pursuit of power, prepared to execute anyone, including other Sunnis, who try to resist them. So Europeans should see things in proportion. If the tragedies of Paris and Sinai make more Europeans understand and empathise with the anxieties that the inhabitants of cities like Baghdad and Kabul have felt on a daily basis for years, they will have had one good side-effect.

What can Europe do in response? In the case of the Sinai plane bomb the answer is relatively easy. Europe can demand, and ensure, that security at its own and foreign airports is tightened by better checks of staff and baggage-loaders as well as of passengers. In the case of the random killing seen in Paris at multiple locations there is little that can be done beyond better patrols at large public gatherings. The bombers at the Stade de France on Friday were stopped because of good security by guards and police. Similar checks may have to be adopted at other crowded places, including cinemas, theatres and concerts.

But no-one should be under the illusion that there can ever be 100 per cent security in a large and busy city. Risk is an inherent part of human society, just as crime is. It can be better managed, not eliminated. Therefore, pressure by the security agencies for more surveillance and more email and mobile phone monitoring has to be resisted. The revelations by Edward Snowden have shown how far civil liberties had already been eroded even before the latest crisis.

If sectarianism and social conservatism are the hallmarks of IS, Europe needs to avoid succumbing to similar attitudes itself. There can be no justification for increasing the Islamophobia which the continent’s Muslim minorities already face. Nor is it right for countries to turn against the new refugees from Syria, Afghanistan and other war-torn countries and dictatorships, as Konrad Szymanski, the Europe minister in Poland’s new right-wing government, has already done by saying the country will accept no quotas for asylum-seekers. Poland is one of the ethnically most homogeneous countries in Europe, flying in the face of the multi-culturalism and social diversity that is the norm of a globalising world.

In the battle against sectarianism European governments also need to re-examine their foreign policies. The cancer of anti-Shi’ism which is so virulent within the Salafi ideology of IS is only marginally less potent in Saudi Arabia with its obsession with Iran. To counter an alleged Iranian role in Yemen, which almost every independent analyst of the Houthi movement says is minimal, Saudi Arabia has bombed and killed far more civilians in recent months than died in Paris on Friday. Ports in the country which relies on food imports for three-quarters of the population are under siege from Saudi ships, leading to famine. Yet Britain, France and the United States continue to arm and advise the Saudi war machine. There needs to be a re-think.

In Syria the battle against IS and the other Salafi groups like Jabhat al-Nusra is justified. They are the greatest and most immediate threat that has to be confronted. At the meeting of foreign ministers in Vienna last week and at the G20 summit in Antalya this week the first glimmer of a co-ordinated approach was laid out: steps towards a ceasefire between the Syrian army and the non-Salafi armed opposition, and negotiations for a transitional government to be installed by next summer. If those options are implemented, there is a small chance that on the battlefield there could be co-ordinated ground offensives against IS in Raqqa, its capital, supported by co-ordinated air strikes by Russia and the United States. They would be the most fitting response to IS’s brutality in Suruc, Sinai, Beirut, and Paris.
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