Local Mideast experts put Paris attacks in context

MIDDLEBURY — “How do we explain the willingness of men to murder people cheering for a soccer team, laughing over dinner or dancing in a club?” asked Erik Bleich, at a Middlebury College forum assembled just four days after the Nov. 13 attacks in Paris.
The Nov. 17 campuswide forum drew so many students, faculty and staff to Dana Auditorium that many people had to be turned away to watch the event elsewhere over closed-circuit television. The forum was moderated by Tamar Mayer, director of the college’s Rohatyn Center for Global Affairs, and featured members of the political science department whose expertise could help to put the attacks in context.
For Bleich, a political science professor who recently returned from a year of living and researching in France, what is most important to communicate to friends and neighbors in Vermont is that these horrific acts in no way represent the overwhelming majority of French Muslims.
“The people who are doing these acts do think that they are inspired by Islam, but the vast, vast majority of people in France who are Muslim do not have anything in common with the propensity or willingness to be violent,” said Bleich.
“It’s very easy to make a connection between ISIS, Islam, Muslims in France, and terrorism, to sort of throw them all into the same big pot and stir,” Bleich continued. “But that is going to mislead people about what’s really going on. There are over 4 million Muslims in France out of a population of about 60 million or so. And there are probably maybe 2,000-3,000 Muslims in France who probably are active radicals in one way. So that’s a fraction of 1 percent that are French Muslims who are radical enough that they’re a true threat.”
“However,” Bleich soberly acknowledged, “it doesn’t take more than two or three thousand to cause death and destruction. So I think the challenge for people who are not in France, who are looking at it from afar, is to understand that it’s certainly not a problem of Muslims in France. It’s a problem of a couple thousand radicalized individuals, who claim the inspiration of Islam to do the things that they’re doing to kill people in the name of Islam, whereas millions of others would reject out of hand these kinds of violent acts.”
Assistant Professor Sebnem Gumuscu addressed the origins and objectives of the Islamic State, or IS, and the factors that underpin its current success. Gumuscu, a specialist in political Islam, first explained that like many others she still refers to the group as ISIS (Islamic State in Iraq and Syria) but that as the group has gained a larger foothold and enlarged its objectives it has renamed itself simply the Islamic State. This name, she said, reflects its current ambition to “unify Muslims all around the world” and reestablish an Islamic caliphate, what it sees as a sort of “Islamic utopia.”
According to Gumuscu, the group emerged out of the collapse of governing structures in Iraq, following the American invasion in 2003, and gained strength with the collapse of governing structures in Syria. One of its possible aims with recent terrorist acts outside its current area of control, said Gumuscu, is to bring about what it sees as a prophetic “final battle between the army of believers and the army of Rome (meaning the West).”
Gumuscu refers to IS as a “protostate” because it is both engaged in “state-building” activities like providing public services, establishing its own brand of law and order, and collecting taxes but has no clear borders and no international recognition. She said that part of the Islamic State’s success is its facility with using social media “as an instrument to bend the hearts and minds of Muslims all around the world.”
“We can trace the success of this propaganda by the fact that there are 15,000 foreign fighters who have joined ISIS so far,” said Gumuscu.
Rounding out last Tuesday’s discussion were political scientists Jeffrey Cason, Nadia Horning and Ophelia Eglene.
Cason, who is also the college’s dean of International Programs, addressed the importance of Middlebury College’s study abroad program in expanding students’ understanding of international affairs. Horning provided an overview of the Islamic State’s ties to radicalized jihadi groups throughout northern Africa. She also discussed how France’s colonial history in North Africa makes it a target for current terrorism. Eglene looked at how Europe’s immigration and refugee policies might change in response to the Paris attacks.
Moderator Mayer also acknowledged the importance of giving due attention to the attacks in Beirut and Lebanon, and other recent terrorist events, as well as to the attacks in Paris, when considering the implications of IS’s emerging strategy of extending attacks beyond its current base in Iraq and Syria.
“When we look at the tactics that the Islamic State has employed in the last few weeks,” said Mayer, “I think we see a change. This entity has expanded its geographical reach both in terms of who are its ‘soldiers’ and what are its targets.”
A common thread in the discussion was the ways that IS might be using these kinds of terrorist attacks to provoke the West into its “final battle” scenario and turn Western nations against Muslim immigrants and refugees to drive those seeking a new home elsewhere back into its own distorted version of Islam.
Quinn Mecham, a former Middlebury professor and a Mideast specialist who served on the U.S. State Department’s Policy Planning Staff, was reached at his office at Brigham Young University. Mecham cautions against the understandable impulse to rush in militarily, thus exacerbating the same kind of law and order vacuum that laid the groundwork for IS’s rise to power.
“What’s missing in all of the rhetoric right now about ‘Let’s just go in and destroy these guys and wipe them off the face of the earth’ is that we’d be doing the same thing as we’ve done before, which is destroying the state capacity and putting millions of civilians at severe risk,” Mecham said. “Unless you have a plan to actually provide a system of governance that those people can live under, then it’s going to be anarchic, and it’s going to spiral into the same situation where people are going to have to make it up on their own, and it’s not going to be pretty.”
A small ray of hope can perhaps be found in the rejection of the Islamic State by groups along the broad continuum of Islamic activism. Mecham noted that not only is their ideology “denounced by every mainstream Muslim,” it is “even denounced by al-Qaeda.” Al-Qaeda, said Mecham, did the geopolitical equivalent of “unfriending ISIS on Facebook” in 2013.
“That’s a metaphor,” Mecham said. “They said that ‘We can no longer support your ideology here. It’s too crazy for us.’”
As Erik Bleich noted during his comments at last Tuesday’s forum, “Last Friday’s butchery has been loudly denounced not only by French Muslims but also in the less likely quarters of Hamas, Hezbollah, and Islamic Jihad. Before Nov. 13, it was impossible to imagine an act so horrible that it would impel these three groups to stand with France against terrorism. Not anymore.”
Reporter Gaen Murphree is at [email protected].

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