The brutality and ruthlessness of ISIS have stunned the world since its emergence in the Middle East in 2013, and the attacks in Paris have brought its terror to the heart of Europe. In an atmosphere of shock, Islamic extremism has been singled out by the Pentagon as an unprecedented threat to the lives of innocent civilians. Our thoughts are with the families of the victims; and the possibility that they could ever be exposed to another attack is beyond imagination.
Yet just this is already happening. In our midst, innocent civilians are attacked on the streets and even in their sleep. They have suffered the excruciating loss of parents and children. They have lived through the horrors of Paris not once, but countless times. They are asylum seekers and refugees who have fled the very horrors that we are experiencing now. In our own neighborhoods, they are attacked again. But in the international media, there is silence. Now where are the outcries about that?
Islamic extremism threatens our lives and civic liberties. Unlike ISIS, European and American right-wing extremism doesn’t propagate its gruesomeness towards victims and alleged utopian appeal for recruits through media offices to conquer global headlines. But it is no less dangerous to our future. In the frustration of these days, some may silently contemplate seeking protection in one of these extremes trying to escape the other; but they are actually akin. In what ways are attacks by both sides connected? And what can we do?
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ISIS has claimed responsibility for equally hideous attacks on civilians in Beirutand Paris, leading to the tragic loss of 171 lives and leaving hundreds injured. On the surface, their goals were threefold: revenge for military offensives against ISIS in Syria and Iraq; alleged retribution for the treatment of “Muslims” outside their state; and “lessons” of punishment delivered to us by their “righteous knights.”
France, Lebanese Hezbollah and ISIS are indeed opponents in the Syrian war, which started in 2011. As an offshoot of al-Qaida in neighboring Iraq, ISIS officially surfaced in Syria two years later. After significant territorial gains, it proclaimed the Islamic State stretching across northern Iraq and Syria in June 2014. France joined US-led airstrikes against ISIS shortly thereafter. Meanwhile, Hezbollah has fought alongside with Syrian government troops against both ISIS and the moderate armed opposition supported by France.
Instead of retaliating on the battlefield, ISIS has chosen to attack unsuspecting civilians. Whilst claiming to avenge the maltreatment of Muslims in France, its bombs targeted Muslims in Lebanon in a Shiite residential area. Whether in Syria, Iraq, Lebanon or France, ISIS kills men, women, children or elderly; the victims are Christian, Muslim or atheists; they are rich or poor; and their political convictions don’t matter. Attacks are tightly coordinated, inexpensive and carried out by a small number of trained extremists – but they are deadly. They could occur anywhere, target anyone, at any time.
Right-Wing Extremism Targeting Asylum Seekers and Refugees
Disturbingly, attacks on asylum seekers and refugees in Europe show a similar mindset – albeit one that has not triggered comparable outrage. This silence is even more shocking considering the figures: Germany alone saw more than 500 attacks this year. Charges range from assault to attempted murder with racist motives. Temporary shelters have been set on fire and shot at, and asylum seekers and refugees have been threatened and assaulted on the streets. The numbers of right-wing demonstrations are steeply rising, driven by organizations such as the radical anti-Islamic movement Pegida. Short for “Patriotic Europeans Against the Islamisation of the Occident” founded in Germany, it has since branched out across Europe. In Sweden, shelters have been subjected to arson attacks. The UK Home Office doesn’t publish figures on attacks, and the US is caught up in anti-Syrian bigotry. True, so far, where occurring, such attacks have caused injuries, but not claimed lives – yet. Often, they are intended to. Here, too, victims are men, women, children or elderly; they are Christian, Muslim or atheists; they were, previously, rich or poor; and again, their political orientation doesn’t matter. Worse, violent death, bombings and shootings, torture and rape have already torn their lives apart. If anyone can understand the searing pain that the attacks two weeks ago have caused, it is them.
Differences in Strategies
ISIS target whoever is not “them”; xenophobia targets whoever appears “foreign.” Despite their agreement on indiscriminate attacks, ISIS and Western xenophobes differ in their strategies. Xenophobic attacks are often carried out by “ ordinary citizens“ with no criminal record, and increasingly without membership in any particular party – if perpetrators are identified at all. Instead of seeking publicized martyrdom, they hide in the anonymity of their daily lives and reappear time and again. Right-wing attacks show no sophisticated coordination, but involve significantly higher numbers of attackers who could, potentially, be any next-door neighbor.
But at least they won’t attack me, some may think. More than a blunt violation of humanist values, it is also precisely this logic that allows ISIS and right-wing extremism to feed off each other in a paradox set of ideological fallacy. ISIS, partially causing the current refugee crisis, will feast on calls to close borders, racist demonstrations and further right-wing attacks. Nonetheless, as demonstrators chanting “out the Muslims” in Lille, France, two days after the Paris attacks show, right-wing propaganda has already started to mobilize for these very aims. So whoever thinks that their racist neighbor is no danger to themselves – they are wrong.
So What Now?
War is unpredictable, but at present, the world counts 59.5 million refugees. More than that, forecasts expect 200 million climate refugees alone by 2050. Such figures and ISIS attacks alike demonstrate that calls for closing borders are short-sighted, whilst xenophobia and social exclusion towards asylum seekers, refugees and immigrants will incite further violence. Instead, international policy needs a serious commitment to tackling the root causes of war, social inequality and climate change underlying the desperate plight of millions. Internally, integration is key. Governments must set feasible frameworks, and community networks have already started to bring together new arrivals and locals. Through joint projects, they offer space to address mutual fears, share hopes and turn the indifference of strangers into the care for a familiar face. So, if looking at the Beirut and Paris attacks, you wonder: How can we stop this? ask: how can I help?