Reprinted from counterpunch.org with author permission
The citizenry of the La Ville Lumière collectively re-affirmed the principles of "Liberte, egalite, fraternite" on Parisian streets last weekend. The heirs of Voltaire and Danton and Zola marched in solidarity and outrage over the killings at the editorial offices of Charlie Hebdo, at a kosher market and an industrial park. Seventeen dead, 22 wounded--one of the worst terrorist attacks in French history. Police are still on high alert. Four suspects were hauled before a Paris court on Tuesday, suspected of providing "logistical" support to the supermarket shooter. Monday five Chechens were arrested in the south of France for a suspected plot. The streets outside the Charlie Hebdo offices were strewn with flowers and wreaths and New York mayor Bill de Blasio flew in to express his empathy (partially rectifying the absence of any American officials at last weekend's march). Over the last weeks, the country has been shaken by a delicate mixture of sympathy and fear, bafflement and rage.
Consider the scene in Paris last weekend: From the Place de La Republique to the Place de La Nation, millions of Parisians and a flock of world leaders marched in solidarity to protest the terrorist attacks. Dignitaries and commoners appeared to be united in spirit, bound up in an unshakable commitment to Western liberties. Placards declared, "Je suis Charlie." Francois Hollande, the bland neoliberal president of France, declared, "Today Paris is capital of the world." His prime minister, Manuel Valls, declared that France were now at war with radical Islam, "with jihadism." Ex-president Nicolas Sarkozy thumpingly confirmed a "war of civilizations," however many decades late. The Guardian breathtakingly reported that, "The occasion was somber and heavy with symbolism. As the dignitaries left the Elysee, it rained. By the time they arrived, the grey clouds had parted, allowing a rare ray of winter sunshine."
The people and the plutocrats united in a just cause. Or so it seemed. Polls pretty consistently show that popular majorities--even in America--prefer negotiated solutions to conflicts and find most Middle Eastern wars not worth fighting. But unlike their constituents, this rank and file of notables and statesmen did not really represent the freedom of the press, or the liberties of Western democracy, or the promise of peace. In fact, it was later revealed in a wide-angle shot from an untutored French television crew that they were not even part of the main crowd, having been kept a suitable distance from the rabble itself. Instead, this contingent of dignitaries represented imperial capital and its proxies. They represented its policies of repression, its wars, and its avarice. They reminded us that empire brooks no challenge in its breathless race for dominion, be it independent nationalism, Islamic governance, or revelations of corruption from whistleblowers or an undisciplined press. They also told us everything we need to know about the Charlie Hebdo attacks and why they happened.
As Hollande led the diverse cohort, his country was prosecuting one war in Iraq, backing another in Syria, and clamoring for the revival of a third in Libya. As Benjamin Netanyahu linked arms, his lemmings were confiscating more lush territory in the Jordan valley, violating international law and the rights of the occupied. As Kiev's tepid technocrat Arseniy Yatsenyuk took his purposeful steps, the European Union was introducing his countrymen to EU-style austerity and NATO-style bombs--orchestrating the Western takeover of his nation. As David Cameron marched, his nation was training lawless jihadists while concluding an arms deal with the Saudis, unconcerned they were beating a critic into silence--a regular practice in the kingdom. Bahrain too sent a minister to join in the show of unity, even as its government worked to imprison a journalist for an unflattering tweet. While Egypt's Foreign Minister Sameh Shoukry paid fealty to press freedom alongside his cosmopolitan peers, his blood-stained coup government was equipping itself with the latest American military technology, preparing for more bloodshed, and prosecuting Al-Jazeera journalists for "spreading false news" and consorting with the now banned Muslim Brotherhood. As Jordan's King Abdullah shuffled forward, his thugs in Amman were sending another journalist to a labor camp. Another brushfire of lese majesty doused by absolutism.
Last but not least is the United States. The absence of American representation was curious. Normally, our leaders never miss an opportunity to beat the drum of liberty. Perhaps the White House sent no one since it recalled that we have targeted journalists fairly regularly, in Serbia and Iraq, for instance, as William Blum notes.
Yet some organizations noticed the hypocrisy of this crowd. Reporters Without Borders (RWB) decried the presence of so many serial human rights violators and enemies of the press, and the Washington Post dug up some of the facts. Others recognized it for what it was: a lineup of the compromised, the corrupt, and the merciless aligned in defiance of a terror incited by their own actions. In a sane world, this body of dignitaries would have been shamed from the streets for jeopardizing the safety of their own populations in the name of profits. But the march was an object lesson in Orwellian mystification: there were warmongers against war, human-rights violators defending human rights, and subverters of democracy rallying to its cause.
Roots and Causes
A female marcher told a reporter, "We are united -- Muslims, Catholics, Jews, we want to live peacefully together." This was likely the true feeling of the million or so French citizens who came together to symbolically reject terror--as well as that of millions of Westerners who followed the event. A sentiment both just and fair. But as David Hearst of the Middle East Eye said, "History did not start in Paris on Sunday." If you want to live peacefully together, you have first to be peaceable yourself. And the West is decidedly not peaceful.
The real provenance of these attacks on Westerners is not radical Islam--it is the persistent and relentless slaughter of Arabs by Western militaries. It is attacks on nations like Iraq and Afghanistan and Syria and Iran and Yemen and Pakistan and Libya. It is historic enmities over the colonial past when borders were carved like highways across tribal communities, when unsuitably Westernized nationalists like Mossadegh and Nasser were undermined or overthrown. The United States and its allies have committed acts of war against every one of the aforementioned nations, and have done it with an arsenal that is the envy of every fantasist with a grudge: an unending conveyor belt of drones, computer viruses, sanctions, troops, bullets and bombs. State terror at its finest.
Many of these wars wiped out modern secular states, leaving behind a festering wound over which the disfigured scar of terrorism grew. Not only that, but some 16.7 million Arabs have been displaced from their native nations thanks to recent conflicts in the Middle East. Double that have been internally displaced. The total dead is a fluid figure, but seems to be in the tens or hundreds of thousands. Civil societies have been wrecked, patrimonies blasted, resources expropriated, armies disbanded, sectarian enmities incited, radicalism nourished, and the nest of its purveyors feathered with petrodollars.
Added to this mix is the crime of propaganda. The false narrative that has duped most of the Western world into believing we are the civilized society batting down the flailing assaults of a medieval one. Orientalism by Orwellian means. We portray the Middle East in the colors of its radical fringe, but we see ourselves in the noblest words of our Founding Fathers. Both are caricatures of reality.
It is easy to cut and paste Salafist slogans across the banner of the Arab world. It is easy to cherry pick the bizarre and misogynist and tyrannical from the holy books of any monotheism. It is easy to pin the blame for all the violence on takfiri jihadism, close the file, shutter the shades, and lock up shop. No further reflection required. Weaponize the drones. Move the ships into firing position. Prepare the president's talking points.
But listen to the terrorists themselves. They spelled it out for us before they hurled themselves into the void. The Kouachi brothers and Ahmed Coulibaly left no doubt. These flailing amateurs that shot dead an entire office of writers and editors and designers--heinous as they are, their words shouldn't be ignored. Before committing their crimes, they pointed to the larger crimes that motivated their own. They spoke of the Western massacres in the Middle East. They spoke of a precise vengeance. They said they were representing al Qaeda in Yemen, a sub-sect of Al Qaeda in the Arab Peninsula (aqap). What they forgot were the names of the corporations that the machinery of Western terror represented.
This conflict isn't democracy versus radical jihad. The real conflict is imperial capitalism versus anything in its path. The path leads to "one of the greatest material prizes in history," the treasure of oil and natural gas that lay beneath Middle Eastern soil. Just think of the margins to be had. No shale to frack. No tar sands to purify. No seas to plunge. Just desert soil to ply.