What lies behind different reactions to Paris and Beirut attacks

There has been a global outpouring of grief and support for Parisians after the terror attacks in the city. EPA/Raminder Pal Singh

Events of this past weekend shook the core of the world as ISIS struck not just in Beirut, but Paris as well. These attacks follow an equally brutal show of terror in January 2015 when Charlie Hebdo’s offices were targeted because of cartoons ridiculing the Prophet Muhammad.

France is also a country with a strong anti-immigration political rhetoric that actively discriminates against those who are different. The most renowned case was the controversy surrounding the hijab.

ISIS has claimed responsibility for these attacks. World leaders have pledged support, solidarity and condemnation of terrorism. In the next few weeks we may even see a resurgence of rhetoric calling for more resources to fight this War on Terror. There is also the inherent risk that Islamophobia may take deeper root – not just in France but in Europe as a whole.

Yet as the world consumed the messages of support, sentiments of outrage and condemnation of violence, some also asked: why such a strong show of support for Paris and not Beirut? The answer, seemingly, was that it is because Arab lives matter less than those of Europeans.

We should not be surprised that this perception exists today – especially if one considers the rise of the radical right in Europe, coupled with a “migration crisis” as many Arabs flee political instability and conflict.

Refugees cast as ‘other’

European right-wing parties increasingly gain political ground on a strong anti-migration rhetoric that can be characterised as xenophobic, perhaps even racist. The message is clear: you do not belong here and have to go back where you came from. This, as hundreds of thousands of refugees flee into Europe.

The European refugee crisis is also in fact a humanitarian crisis that enables terrorist organisations like ISIS to recruit disillusioned youth, who see themselves as having no real opportunity in life to improve their lot. They live a daily reality of no hope for upward mobility out of dire circumstances, in the context of government corruption, socioeconomic decline, deprivation, and, ultimately, exclusion.

This is the case not just in Syria, but also in places like Kenya and Nigeria.

We need to remember that the brutal Afwerki dictatorship in Eritrea and ISIS in Syria, among others, drive millions of people away from their homelands in search of one thing: a safe and secure environment in which to live a dignified life. And, for them, Europe offers a politically secure environment in which to raise their families.

Ultimately, is this not what all humans want: safety and security in which to raise a family and prosper?

The rise of radicalism

Europe has lived through the devastating consequences of a rise in political radicalism. Underemployment, poverty and a general sense of hopelessness drove many to support radical and extremist parties that saw the rise of fascist regimes in the 1930s.

In Germany’s case, Hitler constructed the Jew as the scapegoat for the hopeless situation Germans found themselves in. Auschwitz and other concentration camps serve as reminders of the terrible events that followed.

Similarly, we find that deprivation, unemployment, marginalisation and poverty fuel the imagination of some angry youth, who are motivated to join terror groups in an effort to claim back some form of agency. Corrupt governments entrench absolute deprivation, genocide, displacement, dictatorship, and violence fuel political radicalisation. This creates fertile recruitment fields for radical terror groups.

Two bomb blasts claimed 43 lives in Beirut a day before the Paris carnage. Reuters/Khalil Hassan

The Sahrawi refugees, who are the Western Sahara’s dispossessed, are a case in point. Known as “Africa’s last colony”, many Sahwari have been stuck in refugee camps for two to three decades, with little hope of a referendum on independence in the near future.

With reports highlighting burgeoning criminal network activity and potential terrorist recruitment, life for the Sahrawi offers little hope of security and prosperity. They remain on the periphery of the international agenda; reduced to potentially another failed state if they gain their independence from Morocco.

With accusations of a fresh genocidal onslaught perpetuated by the Bashir regime, the world remains hauntingly silent. The Central African Republic’s (CAR) displaced Muslim population is also ignored. This, even though the United Nations has equated the CAR’s actions to ethnic cleansing.

In this context of marginalisation, ignorance and deprivation, the message that some lives matter more finds some sort of validation.

Giving outsiders a sense of value

The world’s marginalised have been taught that their lives matter less than others. Their culture and humanity is not as important as that of perhaps the West.

In the world they find themselves in, they are marginalised because of a brutal colonial history and postcolonial leadership that do not value them as human beings. Muslims in the West face discrimination, othering and dehumanisation.

It may be this sense of being dispensable – in a context of hopelessness, deprivation and rejection – that pushes young people into the embrace of radical movements that promise acceptance, belonging, but above all agency to do something about their dire circumstances.

French President Francois Hollande said Friday’s attacks on Paris were an “act of war”. These word had echoes of America’s declared “War on Terror” after the 9/11 attacks.

We may see stronger calls for military retaliation as a response to this “act of war”. Yet we must also take a moment to validate the value of the “other”, of those who are different than us. While terror is perpetuated by a few, as humanity, we do need to guard against vilifying entire nations and cultures as representatives of the terrorist.

If not, we run the risk of entrenching a cycle of discrimination that works to further the radical political agendas of terrorist groups.