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January 17, 2015
The Paris Killings – A Fatal Trap for Europe
By Roberto Savio
Source: Inter Press Service
In this column, Roberto Savio, founder and president emeritus of the Inter Press
Service (IPS) news agency and publisher of Other News, argues that the wave of
indignation aroused by last week’s terrorist attack on French magazine Charlie Hebdo
runs the risk of playing into the hands of radical Muslims and unleashing a deadly
ROME, Jan 12 2015 (IPS) - It is sad to see how a continent that was one cradle of
civilisation is running blindly into a trap, the trap of a holy war with Islam – and that six
Muslim terrorists were sufficient to bring that about.
It is time to get out of the comprehensible “We are All Charlie Hebdo” wave, to look
into facts, and to understand that we are playing into the hands of a few extremists,
and equating ourselves with them. The radicalisation of the conflict between the West
and Islam is going to carry with it terrible consequences
The first fact is that Islam is the second largest religion in the world, with 1.6 billion
practitioners, that Muslims are the majority in 49 countries of the world and that they
account for 23 percent of humankind. Of these 1.6 billion, only 317 million are Arabs.
Nearly two-thirds (62 percent) live in the Asia-Pacific region; in fact, more Muslims live
in India and Pakistan (344 million combined). Indonesia alone has 209 million.
A Pew Research Center report on the Muslim world also inform us that it is in South
Asia that Muslims are more radical in terms of observance and views. In that region,
those in favour of severe corporal punishment for criminals are 81 percent, compared
with 57 percent in the Middle East and North Africa, while those in favour of executing
those who leave Islam are 76 percent in South Asia, compared with 56 percent in the
Therefore, it is obvious that it is the history of the Middle East which brings the
specificity of the Arabs to the conflict with the West. And here are the main four
“We are falling into a deadly trap, and doing exactly what the radical Muslims want:
engaging in a holy war against Islam, so that the immense majority of moderate
Muslims will be pushed to take up arms … instead of a strategy of isolation, we are
engaging in a policy of confrontation”
First, all the Arab countries are artificial creations. In May 1916, Monsieur François
Georges-Picot for France and Sir Mark Sykes for Britain met and agreed on a secret
treaty, with the support of the Russian Empire and the Italian Kingdom, on how to
carve up the Ottoman Empire at the end of the First World War.
Thus the Arab countries of today were born as the result of a division by France and
Britain with no consideration for ethnic and religious realities or for history. A few of
those countries, like Egypt, had an historical identity, but countries like Iraq, Arabia
Saudi, Jordan, or even the Arab Emirates, lacked even that. It is worth remembering
that the Kurdish issue of 30 million people divided among four countries was created
by European powers.
As a consequence, the second reason. The colonial powers installed kings and
sheiks in the countries that they created. To run these artificial countries, strong
hands were required. So, from the very beginning, there was a total lack of
participation of the people, with a political system which was totally out of sync with the
process of democracy which was happening in Europe. With European blessing,
these countries were frozen in feudal times.
As for the third reason, the European powers never made any investment in industrial
development, or real development. The exploitation of petrol was in the hands of
foreign companies and only after the end of the Second World War, and the ensuing
process of decolonisation, did oil revenues really come into local hands.
When the colonial powers left, the Arab countries had no modern political system, no
modern infrastructure, no local management.
Finally, the fourth reason, which is closer to our days. In states which did not provide
education and health for their citizens, Muslim piety took on the task of providing what
the state was not providing. So large networks of religious schools and hospital were
created and, when elections were finally permitted, these became the basis for
legitimacy and the vote for Muslim parties.
This is why, just taking the example of two important countries, Islamist parties won in
Egypt and Algeria, and how with the acquiescence of the West, military coups were
the only resort to stopping them.
This compression of so many decades into a few lines is of course superficial and
leaves out many other issues. But this brutally abridged historical process is useful for
understanding how anger and frustration is now all over the Middle East, and how this
leads to the attraction to the Islamic State (IS) in poor sectors.
We should not forget that this historical background, even if remote for young people,
is kept alive by Israel’s domination of the Palestinian people. The blind support of the
West, especially of the United States, for Israel is seen by Arabs as a permanent
humiliation, and Israel’s continuous expansion of settlements clearly eliminates the
possibility of a viable Palestinian State.
The July-August bombing of Gaza, with just some noises of protest from the West but
no real action, is for the Arab world clear proof that the intention is to keep Arabs
down and seek alliances only with corrupt and delegitimised rulers who should be
swept away. And the continuous Western intervention in Lebanon, Syria, Iraq, and the
drones bombing everywhere, are widely perceived among the 1.6 billion that the West
is historically engaged in keeping Islam down, as the Pew report noted.
We should also remember that Islam has several internal divisions, of which the Sunni-
Shiite divide is just the largest. But while in the Arab region at least 40 percent of
Sunni do not recognise a Shiite as a fellow Muslim, outside the region this tends to
disappear, In Indonesia only 26 percent identify themselves as Sunni, with 56 percent
identifying themselves as “just Muslim”.
In the Arab world, only in Iraq and Lebanon, where the two communities lived side by
side, does a large majority of Sunni recognise Shiites as fellow Muslims. The fact that
Shiites, who account for just 13 percent of Muslims, are the large majority in Iran, and
the Sunni the large majority in Saudi Arabia explains the ongoing internal conflict in
the region, which is being stirred by the two respective leaders.
Al-Qaeda in Mesopotamia, then run by Abu Musab al-Zarqawi (1966–2006),
successfully deployed a policy of polarisation in Iraq, continuing attacks on Shiites
and provoking an ethnic cleansing of one million Sunnis from Baghdad. Now IS, the
radical caliphate which is challenging the entire Arab world besides the West, is able
to attract many Sunnis from Iraq which had suffered so many Shiite reprisals, that they
sought the umbrella of the very group that had deliberately provoked the Shiites.
The fact it is that every day hundreds of Arabs die because of the internal conflict, a
fate that does not affect the much larger Muslim community.
Now, all terrorist attacks in the West that have happened in Ottawa, in London, and
now in Paris, have the same profile: a young man from the country in question, not
someone from the Arab region, who was not at all religious during his teenage years,
someone who somehow drifted, did not find a job, and was a loner. In nearly all cases,
someone who had already had something to do with the judicial system.
Only in the last few years had he become converted to Islam and accepted the calls
from IS for killing infidels. He felt that with this he would find a justification to his life, he
would become a martyr, a somebody in another world, removed from a life in which
there was no real bright future.
The reaction to all this has been a campaign in the West against Islam. The latest
number of the New Yorker published a strong article defining Islam not as a religion
but as an ideology. In Italy, Matteo Salvini, the leader of the right-wing and anti-
immigrant Lega Nord has publicly condemned the Pope for engaging Islam in
dialogue, and conservative Italian pundit Giuliano Ferrara declared on TV that ”we
are in a Holy War”.
The overall European (and U.S.) reaction has been to denounce the Paris killings as
the result of a “deadly ideology”, as President François Hollande called it.
It is certainly a sign of the anti-Muslim tide that German Chancellor Angela Merkel was
obliged to take a position against the recent marches in Dresden (Muslim population 2
percent), organised by the populist movement Pegida (the German acronym for
“Patriotic Europeans Against the Islamisation of the West”). The marches were
basically directed against the 200,000 asylum seekers, most of them from Iraq and
Syria, whose primary intention, according to Pegida, was not to escape war.
Studies from all over Europe show that the immense majority of immigrants have
successfully integrated with their host economies. United Nations studies also show
that Europe, with its demographic decline, requires at least 20 million immigrants by
2050 if it wants to remain viable in welfare practices, and competitive in the world. Yet,
what are we getting everywhere?
Xenophobic, right-wing parties in every country of Europe, able to make the Swedish
government resign, conditioning the governments of United Kingdom, Denmark and
Nederland, and looking poised to win the next elections in France.
It should be added that, while what happened in Paris was of course a heinous crime,
and while expression of any opinion is essential for democracy, very few have ever
seen Charlie Hebdo and its level of provocation. Especially because in 2008, as Tariq
Ramadan pointed out in The Guardian of Jan. 10, Charlie Hebdo fired a cartoonist
who had joke about a Jewish link to the French President Nicolas Sarkozy’s son.
Charlie Hebdo was a voice defending the superiority of France and its cultural
supremacy in the world, and had a small readership, which it obtained by selling
provocation – exactly the opposite of the view of a world based on respect and
cooperation among different cultures and religions.
So now we are all Charlie, as everybody is saying. But to radicalise the clash between
the two largest religions of the world is not a minor affair. We should fight terrorism, be
it Muslim or not (let us not forget that a Norwegian, Anders Behring Breivik, who
wanted to keep his country free of Muslim penetration, killed 91 of his co-citizens).
But we are falling into a deadly trap, and doing exactly what the radical Muslims want:
engaging in a holy war against Islam, so that the immense majority of moderate
Muslims will be pushed to take up arms.
The fact that European right-wing parties will reap the benefit of this radicalisation
goes down very well for the radical Muslims. They dream of a world fight, in which they
will make Islam – and not just any Islam, but their interpretation of Sunnism – the sole
religion. Instead of a strategy of isolation, we are engaging in a policy of confrontation.
And, apart from September 11 in New York, the losses of life have been miniscule
compared with what is going on in the Arab world, where just in one country – Syria –
50,000 people lost their lives last year.
How can we so blindly fall into the trap without realising that we are creating a terrible
clash all over the world?