Last month’s attack at the Charlie Hebdo HQ once again brought Islam to the attention of a world already focused on the exploits of armed groups in the Middle East. After the tragic events that took place across Paris, Western governments promised tough measures to tackle 'homegrown extremism' and new powers to monitor citizens returning home after fighting abroad.
ISIS are arguably the strongest militant group in the Middle East at the moment, residing comfortably in their self proclaimed 'Islamic State' where laws there are dictated by a ultra-conservative interpretation of Islam. Capital and corporal punishment are the norm for a multitude of offenses there, including renouncing one's faith, alcohol consumption and adultery. Looking at life in Raqqa, the capital of the 'Islamic state', it is striking that the barbaric laws advocated by the governing institutions are not at all unique to the borders of the 'Islamic State'. Political establishments advocating similar reactionary ideology are not only prevalent in the Middle East, but are supported by the governments of the West.
Most recently we heard the alarming story of a liberal Saudi blogger who received the first 50 of 1,000 public lashings after peacefully campaigning for a fairer political system. This, coupled with his ten year jail sentence, paints a bleak picture of freedom of speech and civil liberties in the Saudi state where the authoritarian system he was campaigning against has numerous parallels to that of the Islamic State. In 2014 alone, Saudi Arabia beheaded over 80 people and sentenced anti-government protesters to death. The corrupt oil rich state’s heavy handed grip over its citizens has long been criticized by groups such as Amnesty International for violating the International Declaration of Human Rights. Yet this preposterous and inhumane regime, which embodies a very similar ideology to that of the political forces our leader label as evil 'religious extremists' is the largest US Foreign Military Sales customer, with active and open cases valued at approximately $97 billion. The UK also enjoys substantial arms sales to Saudi Arabia and Bahrain and has approved over £30 million worth of arms export licences to the latter, including machine guns, hand grenades and military training equipment.
Similarly, the manufactured hubs of capital in Dubai and Qatar have welcomed a huge tide of economic investment from the West which has helped to transform these nations. Here, we mustn’t forget, what essentially amounts to slave labour has played a crucial role in this rapid development. In Qatar the International Trade Union Federation recently estimated that there could be as many as 4,000 deaths of migrant workers by the time the 2022 World Cup kicks off.
It’s evident that the West is perfectly willing to turn a blind eye to the brutality of regimes they do business with, and indeed to facilitate such brutality, in pursuit of their strategic dominance.
The reluctance of the West to speak out against the internal affairs of their regional partners was perfectly exemplified in the recent Paris unity march after the Charlie Hebdo killings. Head of states from Europe and the Middle East came together in an almost comical celebration of freedom of speech, totally disregarding their own governments’ routine violations of this value. Indeed, the West was directly responsible for the massacre of journalists during the 1999 bombing of the former Yugoslavia and NATO has since tried to justify the murder of these 16 Serbian RTS journalists by claiming they were a 'legitimate target of the Serbian state’s apparatus'.
For years a sense of superiority and a manufactured 'us and them' mentality has been induced by the state and media to numb our emotions to the atrocities committed by our own governments and their allies and to devalue the lives of our victims. The same can be seen in the contemporary struggle against certain political forces in the Middle East. If we examine the popular definitions of 'terrorism' we find that both the West and their opponents comfortably fit into this description. Each party are clearly guilty of 'the systematic use of violence and intimidation to achieve a political goal', but the connotations of a 'terrorist' have been forged in the West to dehumanise a particular enemy, and with it their race and their religion; the word 'terrorism', has become closely associated with Muslims and Islam.
It’s also important to highlight the role that our governments have played in strengthening the political forces they now designate as 'terrorists'. It's no secret that the West supported the Mujahideen against the Soviet Union in Afghanistan during the late 1980s, and then as a counterbalance to Serbian influence in Yugoslavia during the 1990s. But even after 9/11, and throughout the 'War on Terror', the West has consistently worked alongside militant groups that fall into their own definition of 'Islamic fundamentalists'.
The Syrian Ambassador to the UN recently commented: 'Now they (the West) call them terrorists because today they are killing French people. But when they used to kill Syrian people, they were jihadist'. Indeed, obscure as the dividing lines between the rebel groups in Syria may be, it is impossible to deny that ISIS and other similar groups make up a considerable proportion of the forces battling the government. Yet in 2013, the UK (among other countries) almost bombed Syria as they were embroiled in a bitter struggle against these forces, prevented only by an unprecedented commons defeat.
Geo-politics is a complex game dictated by an overreaching strategy of dominance, not by the noble ideals invoked by our politicians. In Afghanistan, Yugoslavia, Iraq, Libya and Syria, the West has had no qualms about forming coalitions with forces usually designated as 'Islamic fundamentalists', and through its neocolonialism it continues to promote the spread of these movements. This is true not only by the company that the West keeps in the form of authoritarian Arab states, and shady affiliations with these militant forces, but perhaps most importantly by all the lives it is responsible for taking.
The harsh reality is that the awful attacks in Paris last month cannot be compared to the devastating mortal and psychological damage the West has inflicted through more than a decade of bloodshed across the Middle East. From Iraq to Palestine, leaders of the 'free world' have continued to arrogantly ignore international law, taking countless innocent lives in the process.
As we find ourselves mourning en masse for the victims of the Charlie Hedbo massacre, we must surely acknowledge the irony in the lack of collective empathy afforded those killed due to the actions of our own governments. And we must recognise that it’s our own governments’ campaigns of 'terror' in the Middle East that help perpetuate the kind of madness we saw in Paris.
Marko Randelovic is a British-Serb politics graduate and ardent writer.
Artwork by Andrea Martinovic.