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Gilbert Achcar on the Clash of Barbarisms from the Massacre in Paris to the U.S. Occupation of Iraq

StoryJanuary 09, 2015
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Guests
Gilbert Achcar

professor at the School of Oriental and African Studies at the University of London. His most recent books are Marxism, Orientalism, Cosmopolitanism and The People Want: A Radical Exploration of the Arab Uprising.


French police have surrounded a building in a northern town near Charles de Gaulle Airport as part of a massive manhunt for the two men accused of carrying out the Charlie Hebdo massacre. Police say they believe the suspects, Said and Chérif Kouachi, are holed up in a small printing business where they have taken a hostage. Meanwhile, French officials are now saying there is a link between the two brothers accused of the Charlie Hebdo attack and the heavily armed man who shot dead a French policewoman on Thursday. That man is now holding five hostages, including women and children, at a kosher supermarket in Paris. Sources told Reuters the three men were all members of the same Paris cell that a decade ago sent young French volunteers to Iraq to fight U.S. forces. Chérif Kouachi served 18 months in prison for his role in the group. At the time, he told the court that he had been motivated to travel to Iraq by images of atrocities committed by U.S. troops in Abu Ghraib prison. We speak to Lebanese-French academic Gilbert Achcar, professor at the School of Oriental and African Studies at the University of London.


TRANSCRIPT
This is a rush transcript. Copy may not be in its final form.

JUAN GONZÁLEZ: French police have surrounded a building in a northern town near Charles de Gaulle Airport as part of a massive manhunt for the two men accused of carrying out the massacre at the Charlie Hebdo magazine. Police say the suspects, Said and Chérif Kouachi, are holed up in a small printing business where they have taken a hostage. The brothers reportedly told police they wanted to die as martyrs. Earlier today, shots were fired as police chased a car believed to contain the suspects. The two brothers have been accused of carrying out Wednesday’s attack on the office of the satirical magazine, killing eight journalists, two police officers, a maintenance worker and a visitor. Eleven people were also wounded, four of them seriously.

Meanwhile, French officials are now saying there is a link between the two brothers accused of the Charlie Hebdo attack and the heavily armed man who shot dead a French policewoman on Thursday. That man is reportedly now holding five hostages, including women and children, at a kosher supermarket in Paris.

AMY GOODMAN: Sources told Reuters the three men were all members of the same Paris cell that a decade ago sent young French volunteers to Iraq to fight U.S. forces. Chérif Kouachi served 18 months in prison for his role in the group. At the time, he told the court he had been motivated to travel to Iraq by images of atrocities committed by U.S. troops in Abu Ghraib prison. Said Kouachi was reportedly in Yemen in 2011 for several months training with al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula. U.S. government sources told Reuters the two brothers were listed in two U.S. security databases—a highly classified database containing information on 1.2 million possible counterterrorism suspects called TIDE and the much smaller no-fly list maintained by the Terrorist Screening Center.

Vigils are continuing to take place across France to remember those killed. Last night, the lights on the Eiffel Tower were turned off as a mark of respect.

For more on the attacks, we are joined again by Lebanese-French academic Gilbert Achcar. He’s a professor at the School of Oriental and African Studies at the University of London. His most recent books are Marxism, Orientalism, Cosmopolitanism and The People Want: A Radical Exploration of the Arab Uprising. The French newspaper Le Monde has described him as "one of the best analysts of the contemporary Arab world."

Gilbert Achcar, thanks so much for joining us again today on Democracy Now! So the situation is thousands of French police have surrounded this printing press right near Charles de Gaulle Airport. They are saying that the two brothers are inside, that they’ve got a hostage with them. Police say that they have made contact with the men, that they say they want to die as martyrs. That’s according to the police. Can you just talk about the developments of the last few days, from the attack on the newspaper, Charlie Hebdo, to where we stand today?

GILBERT ACHCAR: Thank you, Amy. Well, I mean, the obvious thing—and it should be said to avoid any misunderstanding—is that, of course, this was an appalling attack and a really barbaric act to, you know, slaughter like this these journalists, whatever disagreement one may have with their kind of drawing and their kind of perspective. That, I should say, is the obvious.

Now, again, what we are seeing now unfolding is, unfortunately, something predictable, which is trying to blame Islam, actually, for this. And there are so many pronouncements in this direction now in Europe, in the West, and all that—of course, not official pronouncements, but you have a deluge of far-right and, let’s say, vulgar kind of racist attack on Muslims, in general. And that’s why I think it’s very important to put such events in context.

And, well, yesterday when we spoke, I tried to remind the viewers that, well, on the scale of rampage killing, this appalling killing in Paris comes, you know, after—I mean, beneath, I mean, on the list, the Islamophobic mass killing by the Norwegian, Breivik, if I remember his name correctly—

AMY GOODMAN: Anders Breivik.

GILBERT ACHCAR: Yes, and the—which, I mean, made something like over 75 people killed, young people in Norway—and the massacre perpetrated by also ultra-Zionist killer Baruch Goldstein in Hebron in 1994, which made something like 29 or more people killed. Again, these are, I mean, appalling acts of what I described some years ago as a clash of barbarisms, because that’s what we are getting—the barbarism of the strong, of course, being the primary responsible in this awful dynamics. And it leads—it leads, you know, to a counterbarbarism on the side of those who see themselves as the downtrodden, the oppressed.

In the case of Iraq, this was—I mean, this is something that I said immediately after 9/11 and even before the invasion of Iraq, and what we saw in Iraq was the best illustration of that. You just mentioned how these killers, the French—the two French killers, or alleged killers, let’s say, had even been affected by these developments in Iraq and had fought or been connected with networks fighting in Iraq against U.S. troops. Well, what you had in Iraq is that the barbarism that—represented by the U.S. occupation of that country, which went actually beyond what even one could expect, with things like the torture in Abu Ghraib or the massacre in Fallujah, of course, bred a counterbarbarism represented by al-Qaeda. And the Bush administration invaded Iraq in the name of eradicating al-Qaeda, and it only managed to give al-Qaeda the largest territorial base they could ever have dreamt of in Iraq. And what we are seeing now in the name of the so-called Islamic State in Syria and Iraq is the continuation of al-Qaeda, of this same al-Qaeda that the Bush administration was supposed to eradicate. So that’s what you get, because this kind of actions by the United States in invading other countries and, of course, acting as an occupying force, with all what this means, leads, of course, to such extremism on the other side, as we have seen.

Moreover, I mean, we have to take into consideration that for decades the United States, in alliance with its best friend in the Middle East, which is the Saudi kingdom, the closest friend, even closer than Israel in that regard, the Saudi kingdom, has used their kind of ideology, the Wahhabi interpretation of Islam, which is the most fanatical interpretation of Islam, even against other Islamic—other branches of Islam. It’s extremely offensive. They use this ideology in the fight against anything left-wing, anything progressive in the region. That was in the ’50s and the ’60s and the ’70s, and ultimately, I mean, of course, it peaked in the war in Afghanistan, where such ideologically inspired groups were used by the United States in the fight against the Soviet occupation of that country. And ultimately, well, a chicken came home to roost, as you know, and tragically, with the appalling massacre of 9/11, but that was a direct continuation of that. And every—I mean, everyone knowing about the whereabouts of all this knew that, I mean, at that time, and it was very much emphasized, although it was, of course, blurred in the public opinion by the kind of characterization that we heard from the Bush administration: "They hate us because of our freedom and our democracy." And, you know, we hear the same, the same kind of tune now, and this is quite misleading, I would say.

Let me also add another dimension concerning France, which was not part of the occupation of Iraq. But in France, I mean, the fact that you have had some young French citizen from Algerian background in the last few years behaving, I mean, in such extremist and fanatical forms, as we have seen, is something to be related also to the overall racism and Islamophobia that are quite, I would say, pervasive in French society, in French media. And this is a country that has not really cleared, you know, its memory—I mean, its past, the problem of its past, its colonial past. In France in 2005, the Parliament voted a law requiring that in the schools it should be taught—I mean, what should be taught is the positive role of colonialism in Africa, North Africa and sub-Saharan Africa. Imagine. Imagine in the United States a law asking schools to teach the positive role of slavery. This is quite, I mean, unimaginable. One has to understand all this background, not of course as an excuse for these appalling murders—definitely not—and these guys belong to a completely crazy kind of ideological perspective. But one has to understand how, in a society which is supposed to be, you know, relatively wealthy and all that, you can have such hatred growing and coming to such extremes.

JUAN GONZÁLEZ: Well, Gilbert Achcar, I wanted to follow up on that, asking about, now that we have gotten these reports that the two attacks—not only the attack on the magazine, but also the shooting of the policewoman—were individuals that had apparently had ties together, what’s your sense of the extent of support for jihadist perspectives and viewpoints within the Muslim community in France, a rather large Muslim community, and also your sense of the extent of these right-wing, Islamophobic movements within France?

GILBERT ACHCAR: Well, there are definitely much more Islamophobic-minded persons and militants in France than supporters of such appalling act as the one, this attack on Charlie Hebdo. And I would say, fortunately, that those who identify with this kind of jihadist perspective may be in the hundreds, out of a community of several—I mean, a community or a—let’s say, out of several millions of people in France of Muslim background. So, we are speaking here of a tiny minority.

But nevertheless, the risk is that the kind of victimization of Muslims in general, the kind of the targeting of Islam, the finger pointed at Muslims, requiring from them that they should condemn all that as if it were their problem and their specific problem, and not seeing that this is a problem of the French society and the French state in the first place, all this, you know, creates the risk of people finally identifying even with these two crazy guys, you know, as a kind of—I mean, think of what you had in the United States turning Bonnie and Clyde into heroes, you know? Although, I mean, if you look at the record, it’s not exactly a humanistic record. So, I mean, there is here a real danger, a real problem, of getting this dynamics of what I call the clash of barbarism going further, developing and all that.

AMY GOODMAN: Gilbert, we have to break, but we’re going to come back to this discussion, and we’ll be joined by a young French-Arab student who’s here in the United States. Also, the latest news is that in these two standoffs that are taking place, one near Charles de Gaulle Airport with the brothers holding a hostage, the other at a kosher supermarket—that one, it looks like two hostages have been killed. We’ll keep you updated throughout this show. This is Democracy Now! We’ll be back in a minute.

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