Guest Author: Pieter Nanninga
The attacks in Paris have led to huge debates about the perpetrators and their backgrounds, the strategies of the Islamic State, security policies in Europe, the role of Islam in the West, the possible risks of refugees and the most effective measures to “degrade and destroy” the Islamic State in Syria and Iraq. Less attention has been paid to how the supporters of the Islamic State have perceived the attacks. Which meanings do they attribute to the violence? Continuing our series of reflections on the recent terrorist attacks, in this post, Pieter Nanninga (Middle Eastern Studies, University of Groningen) elaborates on the reception of the attacks among IS sympathisers.
“A group of believers from the caliphate (…) divorced the worldly life and advanced towards their enemy hoping to be killed for Allah’s sake”, the Islamic State wrote in a statement that was being distributed in several languages about twelve hours after the Paris attacks. They attacked “precisely chosen targets” in the French capital and, according to the statement, they succeeded. “Allah granted victory upon their hands and cast terror into the hearts of the crusaders.”
By now, much has been said – and speculated – about the backgrounds of the attackers and the strategies and aims of IS. What has been hardly discussed, is the reception of the attacks among IS supporters. In this post, I reflect on how IS supporters reacted on social media in the 24 hours after the attacks.
Reception of the attacks
Immediately after the initial reports that Paris was struck by multiple attacks, IS supporters started cheering the events. God was being praised and the death of “kuffar” (unbelievers) was being celebrated, even though the identity of the perpetrators was still unknown at that moment. “I must say I’m enjoying this”, a (non-European) IS supporter I was talking to via private messages at the moment of the attacks confessed.
As the events unfolded, the scope of the attacks, which lasted for over three hours in total and reached six locations in the city, increased their perceived success in the eyes of the supporters. “Paris is burning” was the hashtag that was being used to comment on the events, and soon the first edited pictures appeared of a ruined city and an Eiffel Tower shattered to pieces. At one point during the evening, I was even advised not to go to any crowded places in European capitals anytime soon. The range of the attacks increased the supporters’ belief in the strength of their movement. The violence empowered the supporters.
Yet why did they celebrate the attacks? The main reason provided by IS supporters in the hours after the attack was the role of the West, and especially France, in Syria and Iraq. “Reminder: the first French airstrikes in Syria [on 27 September 2015, P.N.] ended with the killing of 30 children in a school in Mayadin”, one of them tweeted. “It’s about time the filthy French pay dearly for their crimes”, the supporter I was talking to via direct messages commented during the attacks. “It’s indeed for Syria”, he added. “And for Iraq, Afghanistan, North Africa and Mali. Violence committed by the French colonists against Muslims and African nations in the last decade cannot go unpaid.”
Just like other IS attacks against Western targets, the Paris attacks were perceived as a retaliation for the role of Western states in the Muslim world. We kill your civilians as you killed ours, the argument runs, which was often supported by images allegedly showing the devastating results of coalition airstrikes. It is interesting to note that the supporters compared the Islamic State to other states in this respect. When the US was attacked, they too, struck back, it was being argued. Moreover, the argument continues, the response of the Islamic State was rather restricted as compared to the US-led “war on terror” after Western countries had been attacked. In the eyes of the supporters, the attacks underlined that the Islamic State should be seen as a state that has the right to defend itself, and that acts accordingly.
So far, the reception of the Paris attacks might lead us to the conclusion that geo-political, strategical and military factors are predominant in the supporters’ understanding of the events. Yet what about religion? Concepts, stories, beliefs and values derived from Islamic texts and traditions also featured prominently in the statements of the IS supporters after the attacks. The attacks were referred to as “ghazawat”, raids, which is the same term used to refer to the expeditions of the prophet Muhammad in the seventh century. Besides, retaliation was, in some cases, framed in religious terms, for example by referring to jurisprudence that legitimises the killing of civilians in case the enemy has killed Muslim civilians. The attacks were perceived as following the method of the prophet and therefore as in accordance with the “pure Islam” that IS claims to uphold.
Interesting in this respect was a conversation that I had via direct messages on Saturday. By then, countless individual Muslims as well as several Muslim organisations had condemned the attacks. The IS supporter I spoke to harshly criticised these “coconut Muslims”, as IS sympathisers typically label them. “Islam is about peace and love, bla bla bla,” he summarised their views, after which he advised me to ask them about the Banu Qurayza massacre. He explained that, according to Islamic tradition, the prophet Muhammad massacred 700 Jews of the Banu Qurayza tribe, even though they had not killed a single Muslim. Islam is not all about peace and love, he implied, and these so-called Muslims have forsaken their tradition. IS, in contrast, follows the true Islam. What we notice here is that violence (against non-combatants) is perceived as a boundary marker, distinguishing IS (supporters), as true Muslims, not only from the West, but also from other Muslims or, in their terms, “wannabe Westerners”.
In the online reactions on the attacks “religious” arguments were being used side by side with “non-religious”. To put it more precisely, “religious” and “secular” arguments are strongly intertwined and cannot be separated consistently. As Erin Wilson elucidates in another blog post on this topic, “religious” factors are entangled with factors that we could label “historical”, “political”, “socio-economic” and “cultural”. Conceiving the Paris attacks as “religious violence” – be it the product of Islam in general or of a radical interpretation thereof – is therefore not very fruitful. Further, William Cavanaugh has argued that the concept of “religious violence” is based on Western conceptions of the religious and the secular. Whereas secular violence is associated with Western states and ideals, religious violence is seen as a product of non-Western, and especially, Muslim forms of culture. And while the former is viewed as rational, functional and restrained, the latter is seen as fanatical and uncontrolled. This distinction might legitimise “secular” violence in the name of Western nation states that is deemed necessary to contain religious fanatics.
“Religious” vs. “secular” violence
These insights are important with regard to current debates on the Paris attacks. “Our” violence against IS is seen as controlled and instrumental. It is embedded in a discourse of international law and counter-terrorism, and, as French President Francois Hollande noted, it is presented as being carried out in defence of “the values of humanity” and “a free country that means something to the whole planet.” The battle against IS is perceived as a clean war, symbolised by military briefings showing videos of advanced fighter aircrafts and precision bombings.
The violence of the Islamic Sate and its sympathisers is conceived as the opposite. It is the product of non-Western cultures and ideologies. It is limitless and valueless, symbolised by shocking stories and footage of Parisians who were celebrating their weekends in a theatre, a restaurant or a soccer stadium. The attacks in Paris were, in Hollande’s terms, “an act of absolute barbarism” and, as Obama phrased it, “an attack on all humanity and the universal values that we share.” They were actions of “killers with fantasies of glory”, “the face of evil”. For that reason it must be confronted. Again, war was declared against “terrorists”, this time against “the barbarians of Daesh.”
Much can be said about these reactions, for example about the war rhetoric that reminds of the responses to 9/11 and the unsuccessful wars that followed. I want to emphasise two other points.
First, the distinction between “our” Western violence and “their” non-Western, Muslim violence is artificial. After all, (most of) the perpetrators of the Paris attacks were raised in France and embraced the Islamic State’s ideology in Europe. These men and their violence are the products of “Western” societies. Rather than increasing the airstrikes in Syria and Iraq, and thus suggesting that the problems are caused over there, it should be asked why thousands of European youngsters have turned their backs to the “universal values” that Western leaders claim to represent.
Second, the dichotomy between the secular, limited violence of Western nation states and the Islamic State’s fanatical, religious violence is inconsistent. On the one hand, the military actions of North American and European nation states against “terrorists” in countries such as Pakistan, Afghanistan, Iraq, Syria, Yemen and Libya may be perceived as “controlled” and “clean” by many people in the West. However, as we noticed above, the perception of IS supporters is quite different. In their statements, they frequently emphasise civilian casualties of the bombings. These grievances are widely shared by people living in the regions that are targeted by the “Global War on Terror”. For them, the results of the airstrikes do not remain limited to aerial footage of precise bombardments. For example, opposition to drone attacks, which have been a prime tool in the “war on terror” over the last decade, is overwhelming in targeted countries such as Afghanistan and Yemen. Besides, how “rational” was France’s – widely applauded – response to the Paris attacks consisting of at least twenty airstrikes on Raqqa on Sunday evening? The effectiveness of these attacks has remained debatable. Rather, they show that feelings of revenge play a role here too; feelings that are remarkably comparable to those among IS supporters, who, ironically, view the Paris attacks as revenge for bombings like these. The view on “Western” violence as rational, controlled and clean is debatable.
On the other hand, current debates on the Paris attacks show a flawed perspective on the Islamic State’s violence. We tend to view violence in instrumental terms; as a means towards a certain end. Thus, the Paris attacks have been primarily explained as attempts to produce fear, to polarise Western societies, to enforce Western “boots on the ground” in Syria and Iraq, etc. However, violence cannot be fully understood by analysing its strategic aims only. Violence is more than a means to an end; it also has meanings for its perpetrators and their sympathisers. This is important to understand regarding the violence that has been carried out by or in the name of IS.
The meanings of the Paris attacks for IS supporters are multiple, as we have noticed above. For them, the attacks are expressions of outrage over France’s role in the Muslim world and demonstrations of the caliphate’s ability to retaliate against these crimes. The attacks underline the weakness of the West and the hypocrisy of Westernised Muslims, and they show that they, the caliphate’s supporters, are followers of the pure Islam and part of the powerful vanguard that defends Islam in the footsteps of the prophet Muhammad.
In other terms, the Paris attacks reconfirm the worldview and ideology of the Islamic State’s supporters. The violence defines and authorises their identity, creates bonding, provides a sense of agency and empowerment.
To conclude, a more nuanced understanding of the Islamic State’s violence is necessary. The Paris attacks cannot be understood by paying attention to their strategic aims only. Attention should also be paid to the meanings of these attacks for the perpetrators and their supporters, which is crucial to grasp the potential attractiveness of the Islamic State for youngsters from different parts of the world.
Further, there is need for a thorough self-reflection on North American and European policies in the Middle East. Like in the past, security issues, integration policies, the role of Islam in the West, refugees and the risks they pose for our societies dominate current debates about the attacks. Middle East policies are only discussed sporadically and, when they are being discussed, these debates remain largely limited to the question of how to battle the Islamic State. This is remarkable, as most experts on jihadism will subscribe to the view that the role of the U.S. and Europe in the Middle East is a prime cause of violence carried out against Western targets in the name of Islam. Nevertheless, Middle East policies have played only a marginal role in our debates over the last years. I have been interviewed many times on radicalisation, violence and IS over the past period. Only once, Middle East policies were the main topic, and this article has never made it into the newspaper.
I am not arguing that we should re-evaluate our Middle East policies because IS supporters claim we should. The feelings of discontent are shared widely in the region, and beyond. Many find it hard to understand why drone strikes are being used by states that claim to uphold international law and human rights. Why Western states align with authoritarian regimes in the Gulf while claiming to promote freedom and democracy. Why Guantanamo has not been closed yet. Why human rights violations committed by Shia militias in Iraq are largely neglected. Why everyone in Syria is being bombed, except for Assad. Why retaliation is being carried out in response to Paris, but Ghouta has already been forgotten.
The “universal values” that Hollande, Obama and others claim to defend have different associations for many people in other parts of the world, as well as in the West itself. These associations are the products of decades, in some cases centuries, and they cannot be changed overnight. Yet they should be part of our debates in the aftermath of the Paris attacks.
Pieter Nanninga is an Assistant Professor at the Department of Middle Eastern Studies at the University of Groningen. His research focuses on jihadism, violence and media, and in particular on the Islamic State. This article was published on ReligionFactor as part of a series of reflections on the Paris Attacks and re-published here with permission.
 The statement was released on Telegram and soon thereafter widely shared on other social media platforms. The following link was used, where the statement is still available at the moment of writing: http://justpaste.it/attaqueParis
 The reactions mentioned here are derived from public posts, mainly on Twitter, as well as from private conversations I had during and in the immediate aftermath of the attacks. The latter are quoted here with permission.
 I was being referred to a video statement by the Saudi ‘Umar Ibn ‘Abd ul-‘Aziz, who argues along these lines: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=X0tsfd9OQpk&feature=youtu.be
 For an overview of Dutch organisations, see http://religionresearch.org/act/2015/11/14/dutch-mosque-organizations-condemn-parisattacks/
 William Cavanaugh, The Myth of Religious Violence: Secular Ideology and the Roots of Modern Conflict, Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2009.
 On the statements of Hollande and Obama, see http://www.theguardian.com/world/2015/nov/13/paris-attacks-shootings-explosions-hostages and http://www.msnbc.com/msnbc/obama-paris-attacks-isis-the-face-evil
 For an interesting argument in this respect, see http://marginalia.lareviewofbooks.org/mrblog-parisisburning-on-recent-representations-of-terror/
 For example, both the Islamic State-affiliated A‘maq News Agency as well as the Islamic State’s opponents from Raqqa Is Being Slaughtered Silently claimed that last Sunday’s airstrikes have not caused any casualties.