Another week, another senseless terrorist attack. It is too soon to make clear sense of what has happened. The suspect has been identified as 31-year-old French Tunisian Mohamed Lahouaiej-Bouhlel, but not much is known about him. Lahouaiej-Bouhlel was not in a terrorist watchlist and was not known to have had extremist views.
And yet, it is significant that even before the facts have become known, it was assumed that this was an act of Islamic extremism.
The incident is being treated as a terrorist attack, as Nice’s municipal police force has transferred the case to the national anti-terrorism unit in France. Politicians and the media have rushed to link the attack with so-called Islamic State (IS). This explains French President Francois Hollande’s vow to strengthen action in Syria and Iraq in response to the Nice attack.
IS is indeed likely to claim responsibility for Nice, even if no connection is found by the security services, as happened with the Orlando shooting. IS actively encourages “lone wolves” to carry out attacks without seeking the official approval of superiors. Indeed, no superiors or formal membership of the organisation are necessary.
This presents IS with two distinct advantages. First, it is easier to escape the scrutiny of the security services if no larger plot is afoot. And most importantly, it allows IS to maximise publicity, which is the life-blood of the organisation.
This publicity is the biggest tool the group has in helping it achieve its ultimate goal: the creation of an unbreakable boundary between Muslims and non-Muslims. As the journalist Murtaza Hussain argues, IS aims to eliminate the grey zones of coexistence between Muslims and the West:
“ [The attacks] further [brought] division to the world,” the group said, boasting that it had polarized society and “eliminated the grayzone,” representing coexistence between religious groups. As a result, it said, Muslims living in the West would soon no longer be welcome in their own societies. Treated with increasing suspicion, distrust and hostility by their fellow citizens as a result of the deadly shooting, Western Muslims would soon be forced to “either apostatize … or they [migrate] to the Islamic State, and thereby escape persecution from the crusader governments and citizens.”
This tactic of divisiveness is central to each and every extremist group. Extremists, be they right wing or Islamic extremists, believe that Muslims and non-Muslims are fundamentally at war.
The consistent publicity given to IS by media outlets only gives it more power. Not much is known at this stage about what happened. Why is caution not being advised, as it was surrounding speculation of the motive behind the MP Jo Cox’s murder? The rush to link the Nice attack to a wider network of Islamic extremism further reinforces the Otherness of Muslims, placing them outside the boundary of those hurt and affected by the attack.
Unfortunately, most of the official responses to terrorist attacks reinforces this belief about two civilisations clashing. This is evident not only in military responses like Hollande’s, but in the way we in the West respond to terrorist atrocities that happen in the Muslim world.
For example, fewer than ten days ago, IS attacked Baghdad, with a suicide bomber killing 250 people. On 5 July, IS attacked three sites in Saudi Arabia, including the Prophet’s Mosque in Medina. In May, IS killed 40 people in Yemen as they stood in line to enlist for national military service. IS kills countless people every day in Syria. These attacks have been met with mostly silence in the West. Social media tributes and hashtags have been scarce. The fact that ISIS kills more Muslims than non-Muslims is rarely explored. This is an example of a divisive boundary at work, where lives have different values depending on their geographical location.
So what can be done? To begin with, Western media should give more coverage to those Muslims who are suffering under IS, and politicians should redouble their efforts to support the Muslim population, ensuring that they are not portrayed as suspect communities. This will be very hard to do, considering most terrorism policy frames all Muslims as complicit in terrorism, and a decade of bombing Muslim countries has only sown more division.
Terrorist attacks are often portrayed as attacks on our way of life, but they are much more than that. Terrorist attacks are crimes against humanity; they are attacks on the belief that all of our lives have value, regardless of creed, race, or nationality.
Let this senseless attack in Nice be a reminder that we all need to partake in a monumental exercise of reframing the way we speak about terrorism, with less attention given to the otherness of the attackers and more given to our common humanity. As long as our responses to atrocities perpetuate an Us vs Them boundary, the more power we give to those who’d like nothing more than to destroy us all.