We Can Avoid Another Paris and Defeat ISIS If We Remember This History

BARCELONA, SPAIN - NOVEMBER 16: Muslims from Barcelona gather to condemn Friday terror attacks in Paris by holding posters at
BARCELONA, SPAIN - NOVEMBER 16: Muslims from Barcelona gather to condemn Friday terror attacks in Paris by holding posters at Placa Sant Jaume in Barcelona, Spain on November 16, 2015. (Photo by Albert Llop/Anadolu Agency/Getty Images)

The terrible and tragic violence in Paris is France's 9/11, commentators are saying. The reaction must ensure that the many precious lives lost and the suffering of the injured are not in vain. The scale of the tragedy should concentrate the mind to find a strategy to check and defeat the Islamic State. The first step is to understand the roots of the crisis, which lie both in the soil of France and far from it in the deserts and mountains of the Middle East and North Africa.

Behind the current uneasy relationship between Muslim immigrants in Europe and the host countries looms the history of European imperialism -- a fact that is often overlooked in the analysis. Imperial Britain and imperial France between them ruled much of Africa and Asia and thus dominated three great civilizations: Indian, Chinese and the predominantly Muslim. Imperial attitudes reflected the racism of the era and the belief in Western superiority. Take the example of Winston Churchill, the "grand old man" of British imperialism in its most unrepentant form. Churchill made no secret of his racial opinions -- the Hindus were a "foul race" for him -- especially those who would challenge the world order. He reserved his choicest phrases for none other than the great Mahatma Gandhi himself. He called Gandhi the "half naked fakir," and once said notoriously that Gandhi, "ought to be lain bound hand and foot at the gates of Delhi, and then trampled on by an enormous elephant. "

Behind the current uneasy relationship between Muslim immigrants in Europe and the host countries looms the history of European imperialism.

Churchill, a European of the late 19th and early half of the 20th century, was echoing the supreme arrogance of his time, which saw Europe as the mother continent of civilization itself. Yet a mere half-century after his passing another British prime minister, also of Churchill's Conservative Party, expressed a dramatic reversal in the relationship between Britain and India. Prime Minister David Cameron hosted Prime Minister Narendra Modi of India on his first official visit to Britain on Nov. 12. The two made a trip to a new statue of Gandhi in London. Cameron followed Modi exactly in paying homage to Gandhi by walking up to the statue with his hands joined in the Hindu sign of supplication and bowed his head deeply, almost touching Gandhi's feet, while he scattered flowers in tribute. Churchill would have been turning in his grave.

Just a few weeks earlier, Cameron had to perform similar fawning exercises to welcome President Xi Jinping of China on his first official visit to Britain. Cameron was desperately seeking to strengthen trade and commercial relationships with these two emerging Asian giants. His attitude would have confirmed what Napoleon had said all along -- the British were merely "a nation of shopkeepers."

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India's PM Modi stands by as he and British PM Cameron pay homage in front of a Gandhi statue in London. PETER NICHOLLS/AFP/Getty Images.

While Cameron was still with Modi, this time introducing him to an audience of 60,000 delirious fans at Wembley Stadium, terrorists struck in Paris. Some 129 people were killed and around 400 injured. President Hollande called this an "act of war," and "barbarity" and promised he would show "no pity" to ISIS or Daesh, which he accused of carrying out the attacks. Hollande called out the army, declared a state of emergency and closed the borders of France. The year had begun with the bloodshed of Charlie Hebdo and was now ending even more bloodily.

The events in Britain and France reflect the changing fortunes of Europe and its relationship to its former colonies. In an important sense, history is being reversed -- the vast populations and rapidly growing economies of China and India are now dwarfing those of European nations like the U.K. and France.

Of the three great civilizations that Europe dominated, the Chinese and the Indians are viewed in Europe as powerful economic players and wooed. The Muslims have been left behind. In the public perception, the Muslims coming to Europe are seen as impoverished refugees who could be harboring terrorists. They are not welcome.

As if the loss of economic and political power, coupled with the violence inflicted upon it, is not enough to create insecurity in European minds, hundreds of thousands of refugees, mainly from the Middle East, are desperately pushing to enter Europe. The economic uncertainty, the violence associated with Muslims and the unwelcome arrival of the refugees is like manna from heaven for the right-wing parties as they sound the alarm. They have struck a nerve, and for the first time since the Second World War, right-wing parties are finding themselves gaining popular support as their sentiments are increasingly shared.

Of the three great civilizations that Europe dominated, the Chinese and the Indians are viewed in Europe as powerful economic players and wooed. The Muslims have been left behind.

The argument of the right-wing parties is simplistic, but there is no denying its strength in the context of European today. The violence in Paris is being widely interpreted as an attack on Western civilization itself: it took place on Friday night as Parisians relaxed in bars, attended a rock concert and watched a football match in a stadium. None of these had strategic or military value. As such, there was a chilling subtext: These were targeted killings aimed at a way of life. The concept of modernity was left rocking on its heels.

When Max Weber, the great German sociologist, wrote of modernity and bureaucracy as the best expression of modern European civilization in the early part of the 20th century, the world was a very different place. Europe dominated the planet. Its standard of living, education, industry, armies and social services were the best in the world. But Europe was soon to plunge the planet into two world wars that would cost some hundred million lives. Implicit in the worldview of modernity was its association with white Europeans -- and their kin living in North America and Australia -- who were influenced culturally if not religiously by Christianity. Modernity meant the creation of a society based in democracy, literacy and one with high standards of living and respect for human rights. It was assumed that Western societies were on a trajectory that moved onward and upward to better and better standards of living.

In contrast, non-European societies, such as those in China and India, were seen as backward and stagnant. Weber's contemporaries were not shy about expressing their contempt for such "Oriental" societies doomed forever because of their inherent vices like laziness and moral turpitude.

After two centuries, the stanchions of Western modernity are shaking and modernity itself is under question. Weber's definition of modernity has no answers to the violence seen in Paris and the question of what to do with the flood of refugees coming into the continent.

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Great Mosque of Cordoba, now St Mary's Cathedral (Mezquita Cathedral), Andalusia, Spain. Photo by DeAgostini/Getty Images.

Neither did Weber make anything of perhaps the answer to Europe's problems of violence, religious and ethnic conflict and how to live together with the other: the European example of La Convivencia, or Coexistence. There was a time in Andalusia, Spain, when Jews, Christians and Muslims lived together in peace, harmony and prosperity. They also created impressive works of art, philosophy and science.

The reason Weber had a blind spot for La Convivencia in Andalusia was that the concept had been written out of history and was not taught in Western educational institutions. When Muslims and Jews were expelled from the Iberian Peninsula in 1492, all books and literature associated with the Muslim period were systematically burnt. The Muslim period of European history was literally eliminated from history.

If we cannot analyze Europe through a Weberian frame, where can we look in the social sciences for the answers? I believe Ibn Khaldun, the great medieval Arab sociologist of Muslim tribal societies, allows us to see what is happening in Europe today and make sense of it. Khaldun's notion of asabiyyah, meaning the mechanism a community employs to maintain social or group cohesion, explains both the violence in Paris and the response to the refugees.

In both cases, Europeans have responded by a reinforcement of asabiyyah in the face of a "foreign" threat by drawing tribal boundaries and emphasizing local identity. For example, Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orban has rejected the mostly Syrian refugees because he equates them with the Ottoman Turks who once ruled Hungary. This is ironic because the Syrians were also ruled by the Ottoman Turks and now are being rejected by Turks. For Orban, all Muslims are antithetical to Hungarian and European identity and must be prohibited from entering. As such, Orban rejected coexistence and pluralism outright, saying there was no way anyone could "force us to create ways of living together in Hungary that we do not want to see." Other European heads of state such as Milos Zeman, the president of the Czech Republic, who addressed an anti-Islam rally Tuesday in Prague, express the same position. This is classic group cohesion.

Europe's leaders have little understanding of this side of the community and therefore no idea of a long-term successful strategy to defeat groups like ISIS ... The tragic explosion in Paris was almost inevitable. History has come full circle.

Khaldun had always emphasized the importance of studying history when examining societies. It is easily forgotten in the Western commentary on the violence and refugees that it was European powers in the last century that created the artificial states of Syria and Iraq, slicing tribes and clans into different nations and lumping together different groups which laid the grounds for the emergence of the brutal dictators who would rely on their own clans and wreak havoc on the rest of their people. These shakily constructed nations are now literally exploding as, once again, European forces and their allies bomb and attack the same region. The disastrous and brutal tribal policies of their own leaders -- like Assad of Syria -- ensured that hundreds of thousands have been killed or maimed and millions have been displaced as refugees.

It is this explosion in the former colonies that is now acting as a catalyst to the violence and flood of refugees in Europe. There they have met with the growing distrust and hatred led by the right-wing parties freely using fascistic rhetoric against the marginalized, largely unemployed and impoverished local Muslim communities.

The suspected Paris killers were petty criminals and lived hopeless lives on the margins of society. France had failed them, and they were rejecting France. Samia Hathroubi, the French social activist of North African descent, has expressed the predicament of France and its Muslim minorities in my new documentary film Journey into Europe with a powerful metaphor. She said that if you look at the lives of people who have committed terrorist attacks in France, they are similar in many ways:

Dislocated family, being in the very beginning drug dealers, going to jails and being radicalized in jails. France failed, we failed to integrate and to make those people feel happy in their own country. When I think about those guys and about all of those people, I really think it's like young kids being abandoned by their mother, which is France, and getting very frustrated and finding this ideology that can give them a reason to go to Daesh or to destroy the mother that didn't fully love them.

The leaders of Europe have little understanding of this side of the community and therefore no idea of a long-term successful strategy to defeat the scourge of groups like ISIS who would take advantage of it. The tragic explosion in Paris was almost inevitable. History has come full circle.

Today, unfortunately, there is little doubt that more such tragic violence is likely to occur. There needs to be, therefore, a permanent and effective solution to end such violence. Time is running out, and the matter is of the utmost urgency. Ironically, Europe is missing a possible answer to the present violence -- the promotion of La Convivencia. It is a European answer to large-scale conflict. This is something that Rabbi Lord Jonathan Sacks, the former chief rabbi of the United Kingdom, fully recognized when he spoke to me recently:

When you talk about good relations between faiths at moments of high intensity conflict, people think you're being utopian, people just aren't that good. So what brings these aspirations from utopia to reality is the knowledge that we have been there before. Andalusia showed how it could be done and showed that it could be done. And because of that, for me, Andalusia is the single most important feature of our current situation.

So while bombers and aircraft carriers need to do their stuff, the problem of terrorist-related violence will not be solved by force alone. President Hollande must also engage with his alienated Muslim community with the same determination he has shown in attacking ISIS and win them over. It will require a long-term political and cultural strategy before the minority Muslim community is woven into French society so that they become the first line of defense. Muslim citizens must be made to feel they have a place and a stake in society. They must be given a sense of respect and honor. Mother France must take her children to her bosom.

Andalusia wasn't a perfect paradise, but it had its moments and still has something to teach us about the ability of people of different backgrounds to live together. We cannot -- and do not want -- to resuscitate history, but we can learn from the positive parts of our history in order to avoid repeating the horrid and tragic. Given Europe's recent past, promoting coexistence and equality for all citizens is an imperative we cannot afford to ignore.

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