As Cameron tries to make the case for the UK bombing Syria, Rick Lighten argues that as well as arguing against bombing Syria we should build a vibrant anti-racist movement that is able to counter Islamophobia and provide ideological and practical solidarity to migrants and refugees. Protests against the bombing of Syria are taking place in towns and cities across the UK tomorrow (Saturday 28 November)
What do we do about ISIS? This is the question many are asking since the horrendous attacks in Paris on 13 November. According to some, such as the French President François Hollande and our own David Cameron, the answer is to respond with military power. It’s pretty easy to see why this isn’t such a good idea – as comedian Frankie Boyle put it, you don’t defend yourself against a wasps’ nest by hitting it with a stick. But simply saying “don’t bomb Syria” doesn’t quite feel sufficient. Is there anything else we can be saying to answer this question?
Their response and ours
Part of the answer will depend on what we mean by “we”. “We” are not the French state, or the British state. Their answer to the question “what do we do about ISIS?” is a short-sighted, chauvinistic, chest-beating, war-mongering drive to further devastation and terror.
Bombs from the air or boots on the ground won’t help. This is because you can’t simply bomb ISIS. When French planes drop bombs on the ISIS stronghold of Raqqa, they are bombing a living city. The “collateral damage” caused by the bombing will include civilians who have no allegiance whatsoever to ISIS. The bombs will take out housing and infrastructure. This will play into ISIS’s narrative of a battle between the West and Islam (as does the rhetoric coming from our governments), and will drive up recruits to ISIS.
Even the warmongers themselves partly recognise this. A useful article from Stop the War Coalition explains how a retired US Army General agreed that “drone strikes tend to create more terrorists than they kill”. It is this dynamic that has played out over the years of the US-led invasions of Afghanistan and Iraq, and that has helped to create ISIS. A fascinating article published in the Guardian last year traces the origins of IS to the US-ran prisons of Camp Bucca and Abu Ghraib, the prisons acting as recruiting grounds and organising space for militant groups which would later form ISIS. The failure of politicians to learn the lessons from the disastrous wars in Afghanistan and Iraq is astonishing.
Less than two years ago Cameron wanted to use the atrocities of Assad (who has killed far more Syrians than ISIS) to justify bombing Syria. Russia has been bombing Assad’s opponents, including those resisting both Assad and ISIS. Cameron now wants to use ISIS as his excuse for bombing Syria. We can’t trust any governments to pursue humanitarian objectives in war: they always pursue their own agendas at the expense of ordinary people.
Others have responded by calling for restrictions on the movement of migrants and refugees. This is the knee-jerk response of idiotic racists, and it is being taken up by some European governments including Poland and France (much to the delight of the far-right Front National leader Marine Le Pen, whose popularity continues to soar). So far, none of the Paris attackers have been confirmed as refugees; they are all either French or Belgian. These were home-grown terrorists, most likely becoming radicalised by the French state’s increasing marginalisation of Muslims and French invervention in the Middle East.
The French government has also responded by declaring a state of emergency. This is a huge clampdown on civil liberties. The current measures give police powers to search homes and place people suspected of causing a threat under house arrest, and to dissolve groups that pose a “threat to public order”. Already there are reports of racist discrimination by French border police; a Muslim member of the London2Calais solidarity group was denied entry to France recently after being told he was a “threat to national security”. The state of emergency also entails the banning of public protest, including those planned by a coalition of environmental groups and trade unions against the COP 21 inter-governmental climate talks due to take place in December.
It is for these reasons I won’t be expressing my solidarity with those killed in the Paris attacks by draping my Facebook profile in the French flag. That flag represents a state that is part of the problem, not the solution. It has played its part in the imperialist game that has caused poverty and devastation across large parts of the world, and that has led to the conditions in which groups like ISIS can grow.
So what’s our response?
As this piece sums up quite brilliantly, the policies pursued by our governments will lead to more terrorism and more devastation. So firstly, we should be pressurising our governments not to bomb Syria. We should be joining protests like those organised by Stop the War coalition. And this is a good initiative from Momentum, writing to MPs to ask them to back Jeremy Corbyn’s stance against bombing.
We also need a vibrant anti-racist and pro-migrant movement on the ground. This can undermine the increasing isolation of Muslims by the British state through opposing racist initiatives like Prevent. This state-sanctioned racism will further marginalise Muslim people in Britain, and bolster the narrative of ISIS leaders about Islamophobia in the West. We need an anti-racist movement that is the natural home for those people who might otherwise be drawn to fruitless and destructive terror groups. However, we should be clear that we don’t believe Muslims are especially prone to this kind of radicalisation.
Another aim of this movement should be to provide ideological and practical solidarity to migrants and refugees. We need to continue the great work of the solidarity groups helping those in the camps in Calais, and continue pressurising our government, and the EU, to take up a more humane approach to the migrants and refugees fleeing poverty and war.
We cannot do away with war without getting rid of the system that creates it. So finally, underpinning all this, we need a strong and vibrant anti-austerity movement that weaves together all the threads of resistance to our government’s continued assault on the living standards of the majority. We need an anti-capitalist movement that points a spotlight on the links between poverty, racism, imperialism, climate change and war, and one that can begin the task of dismantling the system that creates them.