After the Paris Attacks, Let’s Not Turn on Ourselves

Friday’s Paris attacks struck the city’s 10th and 11th districts. I know these areas to be dynamic and diverse; I lived, dined and sipped coffee there for years. Indiscriminate attacks unfolded at bars, restaurants and a crowded concert hall. Had the attackers made it into the stadium, many more people would have been killed. Everyone was a target.

Officials worry that fear will ignite divisions in French society and stress unity. On Wednesday Paris Mayor Anne Hidalgo made perhaps the most moving declaration, affirming “I deeply believe in our shared ability to live together” and “in a society that is socially, religiously, and ethnically diverse.” Hidalgo’s message was made all the more powerful by her personal trajectory as Paris’ first female mayor, born in Spain and raised in a Lyon housing estate.

Nonetheless, in the face of such horrific violence, messages of unity appear simplistic, or even worse ineffective. But they are not. As part of our response to terrorism, we must work to reinforce social cohesion, through not just words, but actions. Why? Because fear damages a country’s social fabric and can lead us to turn on ourselves.

Journalist and academic Waleed Aly articulated what ISIL’s strategy is meant to accomplish on the Australian TV show The Project. ISIL’s goal “is to split the world into two camps”: Muslims and non-Muslims. He affirms that divisive speech plays into ISIL’s narrative of a morally corrupt West. Interviewed by Channel 4 News, former French foreign minister Bernard Kouchner made a similar statement saying that an ISIL victory would be “a civil war” in France.

Video courtesy of The Project ‪@theprojecttv

Fear and emotions are already chipping away at logic and sound analysis. Journalists are making rash connections between radicalization and the Muslim faith. One anchorman referred to the Muslim population of France as a possible pool of recruitment for terrorism. Another theorized that the absence of minarets from the Chartres skyline didn’t prevent radicalization there.

It’s absurd to put the world’s over one billion Muslims under suspicion when we know that there are many factors contributing to radicalization. I think of the men arrested this year in the United States in Ohio. One expressed support for ISIS on social media and purchased an assault rifle from an FBI agent; another drew the attention of authorities when he posted a message online encouraging people to kill members of the military.

Certainly the international response to the attacks has to address challenges at home and abroad. To do this, the response must be multifaceted, engaging an array of military, security, diplomatic and intelligence resources. But also critical will be efforts to preserve the social fabric of countries affected by terrorism.

We must carefully consider the social repercussions of terrorist violence throughout society. Given that certain communities may experience a backlash after attacks, local and national governments should reach out to these communities.

We need to look at the social and political drivers of radicalization and use that analysis to counteract ISIL’s effective social media strategy. Current government efforts to stop ISIL recruitment online fall short. One-sided broadcast messages are no match for the group’s willingness to chat online with potential recruits.

We need our own compelling messages. Friday’s attackers claim religion, but the composition of their victims clearly shows a lack of solidarity with Islam. The horrific nature of the attack was designed to create discord. Why else target diverse and dynamic neighborhoods? Let’s resist the ripple effects of fear and pay careful attention to the social and community ties that bind us.

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