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Interview with Pierre Conesa: 'We’ve declared war first in the Middle East'

'The Salafists kill more Muslim people than non-Muslim ones,' says Pierre Conesa
132 people were killed on Friday's attacks in Paris (AFP)

Pierre Conesa, a former senior civil servant at the Department of Defence and lecturer at Sciences Po (the Paris Institute of Political Studies), talks to Middle East Eye about the potential aftereffects of the Paris attacks and the rising dangers of Salafism. 

MEE: How do you explain that the Islamic State (IS) group targeted France and not other members of the international alliance currently carrying out military actions in Iraq and Syria?

Pierre Conesa: From the moment [now former president] Nicolas Sarkozy was in office onward, France has entirely aligned its politics with the US. For the Arab world, France has become a spearhead of European defence. It started in Libya with the HIV trial, and has been carried on with Francois Hollande and his statements against Syria, which have been harsher than Barack Obama’s. The IS must have known the difference between Jacques Chirac - who refused to go to war against Iraq - and the neocons, Nicolas Sarkozy and Francois Hollande. There’s a clear link between neocon activism in France and those attacks. Fatally, France got ranked high up on the enemies list.

The second reason is the fact that France is a land of immigration. It has the biggest Chinese, Jewish, Armenian and Muslim communities in the EU. In fact, French public opinion is more sensitive to diplomacy matters. It has been proven in the past, ie the Mohamed Merah case [a reference to 2012 killings in southern France carried out by a Frenchman of Algerian descent], that few people were ready to attack the territory, solely based on France's foreign military actions.

MEE: In the released video claiming the attacks, the IS called out to all the French Muslims who cannot go to Syria to fight, to carry out more attacks in France. Beyond the obvious strategy of spreading terror, don’t you think that IS wants to create a division among the society, a scission, or even worse, a civil war in France?

PC: In order to answer that question properly, we need to talk first about the Salafi movement. Salafists claim that they are the best Muslims in the world, and it is up to them to speak for the global Muslim community, the Ummah. Last year, I wrote my report entitled “Anti-radicalisation policy in France,” in which I was telling the difference between those people who are claiming to speak for all Muslim people and a French middle class from a Muslim background, which “gave birth” to elites, artists, writers, engineers … That middle class is being brought face-to-face with those Salafists, who have called them traitors and “snitches”. Ironically, the Salafists kill more Muslim people than non-Muslim ones.

MEE: Isn’t it a clear aim for IS to create or fuel an atmosphere of suspicion toward Muslim people in France?

PC: Yes indeed. That so-called coming together appeal will only fuel the already existing conflation and pave the way for the ultra-conservative fringe. Against the idea that all Muslim people are responsible and now that the state of emergency has been set off, it is even more necessary to talk with French Muslim people in order to avoid serious mistakes. For instance, let’s take Mohamed Merah’s family. One of his brothers and his sister were supporting him; however, his other brother clearly condemned his actions. The authorities need to be able to make the distinction. Even more so, cooperating with the representatives of the Muslim community, its theologists, and everyone who is willing to prevent other attacks from happening. They are the ones who can best help the authorities.

MEE: So far, haven’t the authorities done it properly?

PC: Before the [January 2015, Paris] attacks against Charlie Hebdo and the Kosher supermarket, anti-radicalisation policies were neither steady nor clear. Police actions were quite efficient and successful. However, in order to thwart the radicalisation of its society, France needs to tackle the victimisation speech used by the Salafists by using theologists and social and cultural tools that will reveal the real responsible ones: the Salafists and not the regular Muslim community.

I’ve always stressed the fact that we need to name the real target: “The real enemy of the Republic is the Salafi movement,” but common phrases like “fanatic Muslim or Islamist” only contribute to the conflation.

MEE: Francois Hollande has said that those attacks targeted “the values we are spreading all around the world, who we are, a free country”. It reminds us of what George W Bush said after 9/11: “They hate our freedom.” What do thing about that similar choice of words?

PC: Indeed, the similarity is obvious. We need to keep in mind that Western countries have always tried to micro-manage the Middle East. For the Salafists, it started in 1979, when the Soviet army invaded Afghanistan. Muslim people then began to see the double standard: an always-interested Western intervention in [in the Middle East] but not so much to defend the Palestinians. On a Salafist website I read once: “1,000 people killed in Gaza, nothing is done, 4 Western individuals slaughtered, military forces sent.”

People in charge in Paris or Washington have no clue about how to deal with those situations. If it were suggested to them that Saudi Arabia could have taken action in Northern Ireland to separate Catholics and Protestants, they would have called that madness. Which is exactly what Western countries are doing. They justify their actions in the name of human rights and democracy. Fair enough! However, if we are fighting the IS because they behead people, they cut hands, forbid other religions, oppress women, why do we stand by Saudi Arabia, which does the exact same things? That schizophrenia is accepted. Now that Western countries are facing the problem, they get the obvious link between those attacks and the war in Syria, they now find themselves trapped, and they need to step back and yield to the terrorist provocation.

Now that the damage is done, we need to know if military actions have to be intensified, which is a clear mistake to me, or if we manage our way out. Unfortunately, that second option would mean admitting that we were wrong, which is a delicate thing to do just before the regional elections. I’m afraid politicians will not pick the second one.

MEE: What has been called “the war against terrorism” is simply called the war in the Middle East?

PC: Yes, we did declare war. Terrorism is not an enemy; it’s a means of action. There was terrorism in the Basque region, but we didn’t go to war there. When we say "terrorism", we shortcut it to Islamist terrorism. The phrase “global war against terrorism” directly comes from ultra-conservative parties. Moreover, 15 out of the 19 9/11 terrorists were Saudi. However Iran, Iraq and North Korea were designated as part of the “Axis of Evil”.

The same strange logic happens when Israel bombs Gaza and we say that it is self-defence. That type of intellectual perversion only fuels that feeling of injustice among young Salafists. Lately, I have talked to young Salafists in prison for terrorism; they have their own geopolitical logic, which is quite difficult to contest. We need to acknowledge some sort of legitimacy in their actions and show them at the same time that the first victims are Muslim people themselves.

MEE: So, how can we fight terrorism?

PC: We need to solve the situation politically. History proved it in the past. Terrorism stopped in Algeria with its independence. Whenever we think it is not necessary to talk with the terrorists, we do know that at the end, if we have no way to exterminate them, we will be overwhelmed. The more we get stuck in a military logic, the more attacks we will face. We need to prevent terrorism with the law and not military actions, and then engage with a political process. We cannot get picky when it comes to our interlocutor. Take Syria: France doesn’t want to talk to [Syrian President] Bashar al-Assad, the US doesn’t want to talk to al-Qaeda, Saudi Arabia doesn’t want to talk to Daesh [Islamic State] … who do you put at the table? Political action means acknowledging the adversary’s legitimate claims.

MEE: About the radicalisation process, former anti-terrorism judge Marc Trevidic considers that the European jihadists who enroll themselves in the war in Syria are only 10 percent motivated by religious matters. What do you think about that?

PC: An ideological shift started in 1979, when the Soviet army invaded Afghanistan. And there was a failed attempt to convert a Muslim country to socialism. The Salafi movement took over. A young man going through an identity crisis is the perfect target. Defending Muslim people has become a fight for justice, the new fight against imperialism. The religious argument is a bonus. France with its 1905 law on the separation of church and state is ill-equipped to fight on that field, since the state is not supposed to mingle with religious issues. Nevertheless, we need Muslim theologists to offer an alternative way.

MEE: Basically, is France trapped in its own definition of secularism?

PC: Absolutely! This is hard to admit. I have met with theologists who are ready to engage, to issue a fatwa against jihadism in France. Unless the government gives them a platform to expose their ideas, the conflation between Muslim people and terrorism is inevitable.

This article was originally published in Middle East Eye's French edition and translated by Nassima Demiche.

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