Tag Archives: France

Terror in Paris – two responses

Over the last few days it’s been hard not to think about Paris. I heard about the attacks in Oxford, in the evening after a gala hosted by the Oxford Model United Nations conference. When the news came through that over a hundred were dead and that Paris was in lockdown, the joy slipped out of the room. As removed from the events as we were, we were horrified, lacking words for a response. That’s still the way I feel now about the actual shootings. Just like after the Peshawar school shooting, it’s impossible to understand the sheer hatred, the cult-like dedication, that can bring someone to execute 19 people at a café, or 89 people enjoying a concert. It’s so far removed from war, from politics, from a cause, that you just can’t get a grip on it, on the violence of the act.

1920px-national_gallery_london_in_french_flag_colours_after_paris_attack_282303161768129In the aftermath as well, it feels like this time is different. There’s still the expressions of solidarity and of “we are not afraid”, but they seem a little empty. This could have been absolutely any one of us. People across Europe are scared, and it’s hard to just say “that’s what the terrorists want”. Well, this time they’ve succeeded.

The reaction in France this time is not one of peaceful marches, but one of war. Hollande has declared war on Islamic State – whatever that may mean – and it is looking like it will actually make a difference to their policy. This, together with the recent bombing of the Russian Metrojet in the Sinai, may finally line up the West and Russia on the same page. Assad can wait – Islamic State must be destroyed.

And while I still fully stand behind the idea that only tolerance and inclusion can defeat the ideology of terror, the response to IS itself must be one of full on confrontation. There can be no doubt that they pose a significant and direct threat to not only the Middle East (which has been obvious for years), but to the West and to Russia. When 129 people are massacred in a European capital in the name of a self-proclaimed state, mere calls for tolerance will not suffice.

At the same time though, continuing respect for and inclusion of Muslims is incredibly important, both practically and morally. They have absolutely nothing to do with this, and any response must not be aimed at them. It is too easy to allow ourselves to be caught up in anti-Muslim sentiment, and we must make the right distinction between Muslims and the group which perverts and twists their faith. It is an organization despised by almost everyone, with nothing to offer the world but hate. Again, for them, there can be no tolerance.

Destroying Islamic State by no means easy, as I’ve pointed out many times on this blog. But the events in Paris make painfully clear how quickly the cost of letting the Syrian Civil War run on can spread across the world. There are few good answers to the situation in Iraq and Syria, but the West must truly engage in helping to bring peace to these states, not just bombing them, no matter how complex this will be. If the killings in Paris can help eventually bring an end to one of the worst wars of the 21st century, maybe some good can come out of this evil.

I might significantly revise my opinion on some of this in the coming days and weeks, but this is what I’m thinking now. Besides, it’s always useful to get ideas out of my head and on to paper.


Defending Islam, defending Charlie Hebdo

A day after the attack on the Paris magazine Charlie Hebdo, the world has responded in a massive way. From editorials in every newspaper there is, to millions of tweets, to blogs like this one, people have voiced a huge range of opinions. They range from positive expressions of solidarity to criticism of Islam or even Charlie Hebdo itself. It’s these last two that have serious issues. Continue reading

Charlie Hebdo attack – More Islamist lone wolves?

Less than two hours ago two armed men entered the Paris office of the French satirical magazine Charlie Hebdo. They opened fire with automatic rifles, killing at least 12 people, including two police officer. The police have described the attack as a ‘massacre’ and ‘carnage’. Pictures from the scene show bullet holes in a police vehicle outside, and journalists being carried out on stretchers. The two suspects escaped in a car, and are still at large. Given Charlie Hebdo’s history, the suspicion immediately falls on Islamic militants. Continue reading

Central African Republic – The extremes of violence

Earlier in January I wrote about the French intervention in the Central African Republic, and the causes of the terrible violence there. Unfortunately my pessimism regarding the effectiveness of the French has been justified in the short-term. Violence has only gotten worse, as the capital Bangui is torn apart by lynch mobs. So what exactly is happening now? Is there any hope for improvement? And why do these terrible things always seem happen in Africa?

Source: BBC

African Union peacekeepers in Bangui

Firstly a short recap of the events in the CAR though. As you might remember from my earlier post, the country descended into chaos after a Muslim rebel group, the Seleka, came to power, disturbing the religious balance of the country. Christian militias known as the anti-balaka (anti-machete) were set up to protect Christians, and in effect the country turned to anarchy with no effective government. Last time I wrote on the CAR the Muslim president had just resigned, but unfortunately that hasn’t yet helped the situation.

This situation is one of horrific violence and brutality. The Seleka have been forced into retreat, and many of their leaders are heading for the border with Chad, protected by Chadian peacekeepers. The Muslim population has been left to fend for itself. In Bangui the mob violence is extreme, and happening right under the eyes of the French soldiers there. A director of Human Rights Watch described a mob killing and then mutilating two Muslim men while French soldiers stood by. In other cases however the French stepped in. The BBC’s Thomas Fessy saw a Muslim man rescued from the mob by two soldiers, who had to fire in the air to keep the anti-balaka back (video). Meanwhile the Seleka and Muslim mobs have committed their share of atrocities, in a constant back-and-forth of death.

So will the new president and the international community be able to bring a halt to this violence? This is a task which is gets harder by the day. The new president is Catherine Samba-Panza. She has been mayor of Bangui and a founder of a successful women’s rights organisation. She is a good choice, but her challenges are enormous. I wrote about some of the structural problems of the country in my first post on the CAR, but the immediate problem now is the effect of the violence on the population.

Incredible hatred has sprung up between the Christians and Muslims. The BBC’s Paul Wood interviewed a man whose pregnant wife had been killed by Muslims. He had then joined a lynch mob and murdered a Muslim man, before completely devouring the man’s leg, in an act of extreme cannibalism not yet seen in this conflict. I’m not telling this story merely as a shocking detail. Too often we do this with African conflicts: shudder at the violence like we might at a horror film, before turning away again. But this incident shows the incredible hatred that can arise out of anarchy and ethnic or religious clashes. When asked why he had eaten the man’s leg, the killer simply said “Because I was angry”. This is the sort of anger that breeds, that passes on like a disease, and that can destroy a country. Though there are many good ideas for strategies to help rebuild the CAR, it is this kind of anger and hate that they will have to deal with.

Source: BBC

Anti-balaka in the CAR

As a final thought, many will read this and think “It’s just Africa…” without wondering why. Rwanda, Sierra Leone, Liberia, Congo, and now the Central African Republic; why does this almost unbelievable level of violence seem so common there? This is of course a hugely complex question which can’t easily be answered here, but I have a few quick thoughts on the so-called  ‘uniqueness’ of Africa.

Firstly, these are just the African countries that grab the headlines. There are plenty of countries like Zambia, Tanzania or Namibia that have nothing like this sort of trouble. The Western tendency to see Africa as a ‘country’ is an easy trap to fall into. Secondly, the situation that this level of violence arises in is generally (not always though) a situation of anarchy. If we look back to a sustained period of anarchy in Europe, the Thirty Years War, we see many of the same signs. Murder, rape, and even cannibalism; when the institutions of government and society fall away, people in constant fear for their lives and surrounded by violence will turn to terrible things. This is true no matter where the people involved come from.

It will take time and well-thought out assistance from the international community to help rebuild the CAR. In the short term more troops may help to suppress the violence, and allow for work to be done on putting the country back together. In the long term more sophisticated help will be needed. However, through all of this the people of the CAR will somehow need to recover from the fear and hatred that dominates at the moment, and find the strength to work for reconciliation.

This last thought of ‘why always Africa?’, and whether it is true or not, is a subject I hope to return to in a later post.

Chaos in the Central African Republic – Just another African mess?

If you don’t follow the news, you could be forgiven for confusing the situation in the Central African Republic with the conflict in South Sudan, or Mali, or the Democratic Republic of the Congo. What is the problem with these central African states? While there are numerous factors, most of them go back to the colonial period.

The European colonial powers, especially the French and Belgians have an absolutely atrocious record in Africa. Firstly, they gained colonies for prestige or resources. They didn’t actually care about creating any effective form of government, other than what was needed for extracting resources. They played tribes off against each other, choosing one tribe to rule through. This ‘divide and conquer’ strategy meant there was no sense of national unity, and led directly to the ethnic clashes and genocide after independence.

When the colonisers exited, they left the newly independent countries with weak, undemocratic governments as well borders that had nothing to do with the people living inside them. Even after independence the French continued to alternate between supporting dictators and coups against the dictators. Unfortunately for the CAR, this pattern is exactly what happened there.

If it wasn’t for the fact that it’s in the name, not many people would have any clue where the Central African Republic is. I suspect that if more people would be interested if they knew that it was once ruled by a self-proclaimed Emperor who was allegedly a cannibal and spent the equivalent of the entire national budget on his crown. Unfortunately since then the situation hasn’t improved much. After mainly Muslim rebels took over the country in March, the CAR has been mired in anarchy and genocide. So why has there been so much strife?

While the CAR has always suffered under autocratic leaders, there hasn’t always been this sort of unrest. Until recently the Christian majority and Muslim minority lived in peace, despite the Muslim minority feeling neglected by the Christian government. However in 2013 after a long period of internal conflict, a coalition of numerous Muslim rebel groups, the Seleka, forced out the Christian president Francois Bozize and put their own leader in power. This fact that their leader Michel Djotodia became the first Muslim president seems to have set the two religions against each other.

Basically, since the rebel takeover in March there has been no effective government in the CAR. Christians set up their own militias to combat the Seleka, and this has turned into the two sides killing civilians and each other, mainly around the capital Bangui. The French sent troops to try and stop the killing, but so far haven’t had too much success. On Friday the president resigned, but experts are divided as to whether this will stop or instead fuel the killing. Unfortunately for the CAR, continuing violence is likely to make the CAR “just another African mess” in the eyes of the world.

French troops on patrol in the C.A.R.

French troops on patrol in the C.A.R.