T-M: Prof. Pastori, Paris massacre had an extraordinary impact on public opinion in Europe and in the World. For some aspect, the emotional reaction could be considered similar to September 11 one. Do you see some similarities between these two events?
GP: Despite the impact that the Paris massacre has had, I think that the event cannot be compared to 9/11. 9/11 was a watershed. It happened — from a Western point of view — in a phase of ideological void and helped in filling it. In the post-cold war age, 9/11 provided a long expected enemy to surrogate the USSR. The Paris massacres are – at the best – only a product of 9/11. Moreover, 9/11 had a ‘greatness’ that lacks in the Paris massacres: it was an unexpected challenge to the ‘hyperpower’, carried out on her own territory, against highly symbolic targets (WTC, Pentagon, maybe Capitol Hill or the White House). In Paris, all these elements recur in a far lesser scale. Vengeance against the (supposed) blasphemy of “Charlie” strips and grass-root anti-Semitism in the case of the killings at the kosher shop, seem the key movers of the attacks, while the ‘Islam vs. West’ logic comes second and seems more deeply perceived from ‘our’ side than from ‘theirs’.
T-M: Many analysts spoke about “molecular terrorism” referring to this attack. In your opinion, is this definition correct? What does it mean?
GP: The concept of ‘molecular terrorism’ highlights the extreme fragmentation of this phenomenon. It is, from a certain point of view, another step in the process started with the ‘brandization’ of al-Qaeda: loosely connected ‘cells’ operating under the same label (‘brand’) but with no (or very weak) coordination among them. With the Paris attacks (but we have had other examples) this process reaches a new extreme. On the other hand, I think that the ‘molecular metaphor’ can be misleading. In other words, I am not sure that the different ‘molecules’ really belong to the same body. In the last years, the ‘jihadi discourse’ has grown so widespread (and so intrusive) that almost everybody can find in it a mirror of his/her own frustrations/ambitions. ‘The establishment of the Caliphate’ of ‘the fighting against the crusaders’ are just two of the reasons that push people to join the jihad; social, economic and personal malaise – both in and outside Europe – can be an equally good one…
T-M: Do you foresee a French international initiative? Also in order to strengthen French position in Mediterranean Area?
GP: French position in North Africa and the Middle East is already strong; France was one of the leading powers of the coalition that ousted Muammar Gaddafi from power in 2011, opening the Libyan Pandora’s box, and her profile – in the MENA region – is traditionally high. At the eve of the Paris attacks, the country was living a phase of retrenchment, due to the domestic weakness of President François Hollande and the budgetary cuts affecting the armed forces. Despite the deep emotional impact of the terrorist attacks, I am not sure that these things will change. To put it bluntly, I do not think that France will ever start a military campaign somewhere in the world as the US did in 2001 in Afghanistan. The attacks themselves are – from a certain point of view – a product of France’s activism in the Middle East. More probably, reactions will focus on the domestic dimension, stressing the role of security agencies and increasing the efforts in the field of intelligence.
T-M: The attacks reverberated in Turkey perhaps more than in any other Islamic country, in fact Turks are divided along the Islamist and secularist fault line. In which direction do you think the Turkish debate on freedom of expression will be directed?
GP: Turkey is currently facing a very difficult period, whose results will be pivotal in the future of the Middle East. Beyond the Islamists/secularists fault line lays the deep cleavage opposing conservatism and liberalism on the meaning and foundations of the state. This cleavage cuts across the Islamist/secularist divide, sometimes with rather problematic results. Erdogan and the AKP, for example, which now appears as champions of conservatism, reached power in 2002 by embodying a liberal challenge to the old (post-)Kemalist order. On these assumptions, drawing a too strong relation between Turkey and France could be misleading. In the same way, it could be misleading associate Islam with intolerance and poor freedom of expression. Erdogan’s policies have far more to deal with the conservative character of the AKP than with its – largely mythologized – adherence to Islamic values.
T-M: Do you think Western values are actually in danger in front of Islamists?
GP: Maybe paradoxically, I think that the main danger to Western values comes from the West itself. Finding the right way, not overreacting to the terrorist threat while, at the same time, dealing effectively with its destabilizing effects is extremely difficult. If the West chose to ‘wage war on terror’ by renouncing to its civil and political conquests, things could become quite nasty. The West’s main strength is not military power; is the capacity to build consensus on some key issues such as freedom, tolerance, respect, etc. Far from being perfect, the West (I use this word for the sake of simplicity, but the concept is rather problematic) is the only subject that can really play this role in present-day international environment. Applying two-way standards in dealing with the ‘Islamist problem’ is the best way to abdicate this position, which is now the main asset that the West has in its hands.
T-M: What is, in your opinion, the wisest strategy for EU and US to react to these attacks?
GP: I think that there is no single ‘wise strategy’ to react to terrorist attacks. Any strategy has to be comprehensive and multidimensional. Intelligence is pivotal in preventing attacks, but it is not enough to eradicate the problem. Equally, military intervention (if effective) can help in reducing the appeal of the terrorist option and in contrasting its territorial dimension, but it too does not tackle with the issue definitively. Unfortunately, terrorism seems a problem that the world has to learn to live with. In this perspective, I believe that every wise strategy has to focus on damage reduction. Containing the spreading of the military threat can be a step in the good direction but, most important, it is having a political strategy behind it. In these days, the situation in Libya is providing us a striking lesson: if a political project does not support the military action, situation can easily evolve from bad to worse…

*Gianluca Pastori is an Italian Researcher and Professor of International Relationship at Catholic University of Sacred Heart of Milan.

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