On July 26 th , less than two weeks after the attacks in Nice, two men entered a church in Saint-Etienne-du-Rouvray, killed the 85 year old residing priest Jacques Hamel and held five people hostage, critically injuring one. Shortly after, an ISIS linked news agency declared these men to be their “soldiers.” Citing a “security source,” the Amaq news agency claimed that: "The perpetrators of the Normandy church attack are soldiers of the Islamic State who carried out the attack in response to calls to target countries of the Crusader coalition."
The official response of the French government has been to reiterate the role it is playing in fighting ISIS militarily while stating that this type of attack aims at threatening the cohesion of French society. Speaking to reporters, President Francois Hollande stated that: "Daesh has declared war on us. We have to win that war." The question that appears to be circulating across Europe is: what kind of war?
A War of Religions?
The attack of a church by individuals claiming to support a global jihadist call, has led some figures to question whether France and Europe are witnessing a return of a War of Religions. The underpinnings of this narrative can be found in the divisive and reductive rhetoric of leaders like Marion Maréchal-Le Pen, a far right Front National party MP and niece of Marine Le Pen, president of the party, who maintains that France is in the midst of an 'identity war.’ Such beliefs strike a haunting parallel with ISIS propaganda that aims to depict an inevitable clash of civilizations and the need for global jihad to defend “Muslim civilization.”
From 1562 to 1598, Catholics and Protestants fought one another in France, in what is known as the War of Religions. The evoking of such a dark chapter of the country’s history minimizes the violence and threats facing France to being merely a byproduct of a collision of cultures and religions. In a visit to the University of Cambridge in February 2013, Marine Le Pen argued that the "two totalitarian ideologies of the 20th century were fascism and communism", the president of the Front National also stated that "Islam and globalization were the two totalitarian ideologies of the 21st century." Such a statement attempts to not only portray Muslims as external others but also as adherents to an existentially threatening belief system and rival civilization.
Unlike in the 16 th century, France is now a secular country built on the inclusive promise of cosmopolitanism. French citizens do not identify and interact with one another simply by their religious beliefs or lack thereof. The framing of terrorist attacks in France as consequences of wars of religion or identity, undermines this spirit of inclusivity, and implies that France is not a multi-dimensional state, but rather, one divided among sectarian lines; particularly between Muslims in France and the rest of the country. In doing so, this dangerous logic diminishes individuals and communities with Muslim beliefs or backgrounds, to a unique subset of society that can be primarily, if not solely, marked by their religion or heritage.
Caught in the Crossfires
Consequently, in Europe where a significant number of citizens are Muslim, the frequency of attacks have sparked a debate, on the role they should play in this “war.” For instance, French intellectual Jean-François Bouthors has called on Muslim citizens to publicly dissociate themselves from Islamism.
The expectation that European Muslims decry terrorism, disavow Islamism, or the assumption that they have a particular role to play in thwarting attacks from groups like ISIS, not only inexcusably assumes that millions of ordinary people in Europe are somewhat tied to terrorist networks and familiar with their machinations, but also that they can, unlike other members of society, be identified solely by their religion of origin or choice. This narrow view, particularly in the case of a secular state such as France, raises pressing questions as to the way citizenship is being defined and valued today.
The framework of a War of Religions also wrongfully assumes that the victims of terror attacks in France, and abroad, are simply non-Muslims. Among the crowds celebrating Bastille Day in France, were Muslims, Christians, Jews, Hindus, Sikhs, atheists, and members from all of Nice’s diverse social fabric. Only one fragment of these victims, however, were suspected of having some ‘inside knowledge’ about the attacks and indirectly depicted as being complicit in the bloodshed. Moreover, across the globe, inhabitants of Muslim majority countries, like Iraq, Syria, Turkey, and Pakistan, suffer the highest number of attacks and casualties from organizations like ISIS. The limited perspective of a clash of identities and religions has no room for these losses, and in ignoring the suffering and loss of Muslims at the hands of terrorist groups, devalues their lives and deaths.
Translating Rhetoric into Policy
Any war requires an army and those convinced of the existence of a War of Religions, view and misrepresent Muslims—anywhere in the world—as being potential soldiers, not fellow citizens. The rhetoric used by ISIS and its affiliates have unilaterally called for more than a billion Muslims around the world to abandon their homes, join its ‘Caliphate,’ gather in its ‘territories’ in both Iraq and Syria, and to build that army. These outlandish demands have been used by leaders of the far right, like French Conservative Senator Jean-Louis Masson, to push for policies that profile Muslim citizens such as the movement to prioritize surveillance on Muslim citizens or the Les Républicains (French Conservative Party) proposition to allow the preventive detention of terrorism suspects . These worrying developments suggest that the inflammatory rhetoric bears the risk of materializing into policy.
Consequently, these discriminatory policies fit into ISIS’s key strategy to catalyze the systemic alienation of Muslims from Western societies, under the belief that such actions will increase the group’s ability to draw more recruits. Simply put, a key driver behind the carnage sweeping Europe is the gradual erosion of the complex systems of cosmopolitanism and the breakdown of inclusivity. Like members of the far right, inherent in ISIS’s strategic vision, is the belief that Muslims are unidimensional figures and prospective recruits. Nevertheless, voices on the far right, advancing alienating policies and rhetoric are not mere pawns in ISIS’s game; they too have frightening aspirations of building homogenous states. Marion Maréchal-Le Pen, in a recent interview, claimed that "foreign cultures are fine as long as they stay abroad."
There is No War of Religions
There is a key shortcoming in the logic behind the War of Religions: religious identity is not the sole marker of an individual’s participation in society and the state. The one-dimensional view of individuals, not as fellow citizens with multi-faceted and complex identities, preferences, and beliefs, but just as members of a monolithic religious community could potentially shake the foundations of pluralistic societies.
There is no War of Religions. There is, however, an attempt by different actors for different purposes—be it to advance xenophobic policies, or to destabilize countries—to alienate minorities in France and the rest of Europe, fracture the progressive and cosmopolitan fabric of these societies, and serve to reduce complex identities and people to loaded labels. It is a hateful and ignorant discourse that has real policy consequences, especially regarding immigration, national security, and civil liberties. It is absolutely necessary for the survival of pluralism to challenge this false narrative, expose its poisonous roots and deceptive logic, and reject its insidious goal of division and alienation.
Fadi Nicholas Nassar is a Doctoral Fellow at the Geneva Centre for Security Policy. Nadim Abillama is a Political Analyst.
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