Islamic State has claimed responsibility for last night’s co-ordinated terrorist attacks in Paris, calling them the ‘first of the storm’ and castigating the French capital as ‘the capital of prostitution and obscenity’. Walter Benjamin‘s celebrated ‘capital of the nineteenth century’ has been called many things, of course, and as I contemplated the symbol that has now gone viral (above), designed byJean Jullien, I realised that Paris had been the stage for the 1919 Peace Conference that not only established the geopolitical settlement after the First World War but also accelerated the production of today’s ‘Middle East’ by awarding ‘mandates’ to both Britain and France and crystallising the secret Sykes-Picot agreement struck between the two powers in 1916.
Margaret MacMillan has a spirited summary of the conference here, with some lively side-swipes at the astonishing lack of geographical knowledge displayed by the principal protagonists. Much on my mind was the
For as I watched Friday night’s terrifying events in Paris unfold, I had also been reminded of the horrors visited upon Beirut the evening before.
Two suicide bombers detonated their explosives in Burj el-Barajneh in the city’s southern suburbs; the attacks were carefully timed for the early evening, when the streets were full of families gathering after work and crowds were leaving mosques after prayers: they killed 43 people and injured more than 200 others.
Islamic State issued a statement saying that ’40 rafideen– a pejorative term for Shiite Muslims used by Sunni Islamists – were killed in the “security operation”’ and claimed the attacks were in retaliation for Hezbollah’s role in the Syrian war.
In the 1950s and 60s Beirut was known as ‘the Paris of the Middle East’ (above) – widely seen as more chic, more cosmopolitan than the ‘Paris-on-the-Nile’ created by Francophile architects and planners west of the old city of Cairo in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries.
Now I’ve always been troubled by these city switchings – the ‘Venice of the North’ is another example – because they marginalise what is so distinctive about the cities in question and crush the creativity that is surely at the very heart of their urbanity.
And yet, after last night, I can see a different point in the politics of comparison (from Kennedy’s Ich bin ein Berliner to the post 9/11 insistence that “we are all New Yorkers…”). More accurately, in the politics of non-comparison: as Chris Graham asks (and answers): why the silence over what happened in Beirut on Thursday? Why no mobilisation of the news media and no interruptions to regular programmes on TV or radio? Why no anguished personal statements from Obama, Cameron or, yes, Hollande?
This is, of course, to re-phrase Judith Butler‘s trenchant demand: why are these lives grievable and not those?
To ask this is not to minimise the sheer bloody horror of mass terrorism in Paris nor to marginalise the terror, pain and suffering inflicted last night on hundreds of innocents – and also affecting directly or indirectly thousands and thousands of others.
In fact the question assumes a new urgency in the wake of what happened in Paris – where I think the most telling comparison is with Beirut and not with the attacks on Charlie Hebdo (see my commentary here) – because the extreme right (the very same people who once elected to stuff “Freedom Fries” down their throats) has lost no time in using last night’s events to ramp up their denigration of Syrian refugees and their demands for yet more bombing (and dismally failing to see any connection between the two). You can see something of what I mean here.
And so I suggest we reflect on Jason Burke‘s commentary on Islamic State’s decision to ‘go global’:
In February this year, in a chilling editorial in its propaganda magazine, Dabiq, Isis laid out its own strategy to eliminate what the writer, or writers, called “the grey zone”.
This was, Isis said, what lay between belief and unbelief, good and evil, the righteous and the damned. It was home, too, to all those who had yet to commit to the forces of either side.
The grey zone, Isis claimed, had been “critically endangered [since] the blessed operations of September 11th”, as “these operations showed the world” the two camps that mankind must choose between.
Over the years, since successive violent acts had narrowed the grey zone to the point where by the end of 2014 “the time had come for another event to … bring division to the world and destroy the grey zone everywhere”.
More from Ben Norton here. The imaginative geographies of Islamic State overlap with those spewed by the extreme right in Europe and North America and, like all imaginative geographies, they have palpable effects: not fifty shades of grey but fifty versions of supposedly redemptive violence.