The image of little Aylan Kurdi, the Kurdish-Syrian refugee washed up on the shores of Turkey, prompted a wave of compassion around the world for those fleeing from war zones for a safer life in Europe. Two months later, these same people are now being seen as a security threat because a group of extremists carried out a terrorist attack in the name of “Islamic State”; this has stigmatised the refugees and, indeed, the very concept of seeking refuge.
The tragedy of the Paris terrorist attack, in which 129 people were killed and 352 injured, has created panic worldwide; as often happens, anger and fear have been taken out on some of the most vulnerable people in society, who also happen to be Muslims. Mosques, even on the other side of the Atlantic, have been threatened, with one set on fire by white supremacists. A Muslim family in Tampa, Florida found bullet holes in their house after returning from feeding the homeless. In Britain, anti-hate crime charity Tell Mama has logged 91 cases of Islamophobic incidents from the morning after the Paris attack until yesterday (Friday 20 November).
It’s important to remember that when looking at Islamophobia, the “white racist vs the Muslim” paradigm is now unrealistic; Islamophobia has gone beyond this. “This appropriation of anti-Muslim rhetoric by members of Black Minority Ethnic [BME] communities should not be surprising given that they will have been exposed to some online and offline media sources that frame Muslims in stereotypical ways,” a spokesperson at Tell Mama told me. “Furthermore, we should not be surprised by the scale of the anger of perpetrators when rhetoric has sought to dehumanise ‘the other’ and take away any sense of empathy with them. This is the harsh reality of hate. It permeates society.”
To put it simply, no one is immune to propaganda because of where they are from, or what they believe in. When looking at the bigger picture, and taking the matter out of the lens of Islamophobia in the Western world, it is clear that the anti-Muslim rhetoric is creating a globalised and systematic structure of oppression. Not all of the victims in this structure are Muslims and not all of those on the other side are non-Muslims.
The backlash against refugees, along with the spike in Islamophobia after the Paris attack demonstrates this. As the details about the attackers start to emerge, it is clear that the people who took part were not only settled in Europe and not refugees, but they were also not practicing Muslims. Hasna Aitboulahcen, who now has the dubious distinction of being branded as Europe’s first female suicide bomber, had no real interest in Islam. She did not study it, despite her brother apparently trying to spark some interest within her. She was a party girl, with a troubled childhood; her friends described her as being “extremely vulnerable”. Her brother has admitted to not seeing her for five years, so he was unable to track her radicalisation process. Aitboulahcen’s friends said that her radicalisation was very sudden and unexpected, to the point where she posted a social network status about wanting to go to Syria and no one believed her. She was not a refugee, having been born in Belgium to parents of Moroccan descent; for most of her childhood she stayed with foster families.
One of the attackers was originally thought to be Syrian because of a passport found at the scene, but this was declared later to be fake. The man in question, Omar Ismail Mostefai, was a 29 year old born and raised in Paris; a French citizen of Algerian descent. It is also thought that he recently returned from fighting in Syria, but the French intelligence services did not pick this up and arrest him despite being warned about him twice by the Turkish intelligence services, once in December 2014 and again in June this year. Mostefai had a previous conviction for drug dealing.
Another one of the suicide bombers owned a bar in Belgium. Ibrahim Abdeslam’s ex-wife said that he had never even been to a mosque and spent all of his time smoking an “alarming” amount of cannabis every day.
Despite all of these details becoming clearer, it is the refugees and Muslims who have been the victims of the inevitable backlash from the media, right-wing politicians and xenophobes. Hours after the Paris attacks, a refugee camp in Calais was set on fire and the anti-refugee campaign was magnified to terrifying levels. Europe is now expressing doubts about hosting refugees and Poland has said that it will not take any at all. The French response was military, with airstrikes ostensibly at Daesh/ISIS targets in the group’s stronghold of Raqqa; predictably, these attacks also affected civilians who suffer under the extremists’ rule.
If the French intelligence services had taken warning signs more seriously and focused more on preventative measures, not only would Paris have been a lot safer, but it would also have spared innocent people of all races and faiths from extremism across the political spectrum. Terrorism is not a simple issue; things are rarely black and white. By prompting such responses to the Paris attacks, the terrorists have already globalised xenophobia. If right-wing politicians and media in the West don’t understand this and reflect it in their discourse, then the terrorists will have won.
The views expressed in this article belong to the author and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of Middle East Monitor.