Panel of Political Science Professors Discuss Paris Attacks, Repercussions


By Hye-Jin Kim

Over 250 students and faculty crammed into Dana Auditorium on Tuesday, Nov. 17 for a panel discussion hosted by the Department of Political Science on the Paris attacks. Mediated by Robert R. Churchill Professor of Geosciences Tamar Mayer, the panel consisted of Professor of Political Science Erik Bleich, Edward C. Knox Professor of International Studies Jeff Cason, Visiting Assistant Professor of Political Science Ophelie Eglene, Assistant Professor of Political Science Sebhem Gumuscu and Associate Professor of Political Science Nadia Horning.

The discussion explored how issues of French-Muslim identity, the European Union’s open-border policy and regional instability in the post-colonial era created a volatile mix, allowing the Islamic State to recruit, organize and implement the Nov. 13 attacks in Paris. They also discussed possible ramifications of the attacks on the E.U.’s policy on border security, France’s declaration of war on the Islamic State (IS, formerly known as ISIS and ISIL) and the College’s study-abroad programs.

According to Bleich, the Paris attacks should not be misconstrued to represent all French-Muslims as extremists who support the Islamic State. Citing interviews with French-Muslims in Lyon, France for a research project last January, he said:
“Most French-Muslims feel very French. Research shows French-Muslims identify with their country more than in any other European country. So why did these French-Muslims turn on their country?”

Although France has a controversial immigration policy, it has one of the easiest paths to citizenship for immigrants, even compared to Germany, which accepts more refugees than any other country in the E.U.

“Once you’re [a citizen], France promises liberté, égalité and fraternité,” Bleich said.

However, he also noted racism towards French-Muslims is not uncommon in France. He recalled interviewing a French-Muslim mother whose nine year-old son was called a “dirty, shitty Arab” in front of his classmates and his teacher.

“The vast majority of non-Muslim French people may be kind to French-Muslims in one-on-one interactions. But that doesn’t take the sting out [of racist events like this],” he said.

Racism is rampant in the poor Parisian suburbs where most Muslim immigrants live, separated from the rest of Parisian society and generally ignored by the city’s government.

“Unfortunately, France has failed to deliver in other ways,” Bleich said. “These suburbs are plagued by vandalism, violence, drug use and riots.”

Mayer added that these same neighborhoods have high unemployment rates and high birth-rates, creating communities of young, unemployed, disenfranchised men that IS recruiters prey on.

“It’s not the sermons at the mosques that radicalize people,” Mayer said. “The recruiters go to the gym where all the young people hang out. If there is a concerted effort to fight IS, it can’t be bombings.”

Horning showed two maps to explain the context of what happened in Paris and what may happen in the near future. The first map showed regions controlled by terrorist groups in Africa and the Middle East.

“The geographic spread of Islamic extremist groups connects West Africa, Central Africa and the Middle East,” she said. “The problem is bigger than the Islamic State.” The second map depicted the spread of IS and how it straddled state borders.

“The problem is bigger than individual states,” she said. “The enemy is not the state. It’s actually an idea [jihad and shari’a law]. You don’t fight an idea with bombs.”

Professor Horning was dismissive of the West’s current foreign policy when it came to dealing with IS and the crisis in the Middle East, including the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.

“The problem we’re facing today has a lot to do with interventions that have no grand strategy, no real political project, just immediate action; countries flexing their muscles and showing strength to their democratic population who demand this kind of action.”

She noted that the current breeding grounds for terrorism like Afghanistan and Iraq are countries that have weak central governments.

“Jihadism is simply a view that the application of Shari’a law is the means of establishing social justice where people feel disenfranchised and mistreated,” she said. “These groups [like IS and Boko Haram] begin to constitute themselves as a voice against oppression or a voice against an inept, unfair, negligible government … Let’s not forget that we might be dealing with the ramifications of colonization. I don’t think it’s a coincidence that the Islamic State [is] in Iraq and Syria, [which] used to be British colonies.”

Eglene discussed the potential effects of the Paris attacks on the E.U.’s policy within the Schengen zone, which removes border controls between certain states across Europe.

“President Hollande immediately closed France’s borders,” she said. “Hollande has asked for suspension of the Schengen area for three months.” She mentioned the possibility of the Paris attacks in dismantling Schengen agreement, already in talks due to the recent refugee crisis.

The E.U. council will meet tomorrow in the aftermath of the attacks. Strengthening the external borders of the E.U., either directly through patrolling or indirectly through multi-national police and intelligence cooperation, is likely.
“The Paris attacks have shown a lack of intelligence sharing among members of the E.U.,” she said, noting that the terrorists responsible for the Paris attacks were active in Brussels, Belgium prior to Friday.

In regards to the College’s study abroad program in Paris, all students were located as safe within an hour and half of the first attack. Three of them had been at the soccer stadium when the bombing happened. Cason, the last panelist to speak, emphasized that the recent attacks should not dissuade students from going abroad. The recent attacks, he said, highlight the difference between studying abroad and simply traveling on vacation.

“Students should feel uncomfortable. They should be shaken up,” Cason said. “There is inherent risk in the world … students somehow think that going to Europe is less risky [than Cameroon or India], perhaps because it is more prosperous. But prosperity does not guarantee safety.”

Despite the attacks, no undergraduate students at the Middlebury School in Paris have asked to leave the program early.
“The communication we have been getting from students [in France] indicate how embedded they’ve become in the culture they are studying,” he said. “To me, this is a good sign.”