he timing of the attack of the Islamic State (IS) group in Nice was not a coincidence. The attack did not simply coincide with the most important French celebration with global significance. It was not only the fact that the attention of the French people and the world was focused on France. The assault did not intend merely to cause a large number of victims so as to show the world IS’s operational prowess. It also did not intend to simply highlight the failure of a large country and geopolitical power to protect its own citizens within its territory. It aimed at the heart of the symbolism of the Bastille and everything that it professes and is associated with the French Revolution to the Western world in the past two centuries and more: the primacy of race over religion, secularism vs metaphysics, materialism on spirit, individualism against collectivity, rationality vs emotion, atheism against faith, democracy vs monarchy and ultimately the separation of church and state.
The French Revolution marginalized God from the daily life of western man and laid the foundations for the vast change of the Christian world into what it has been shaped today and evolves into day by day: a globalized consumer society without a particular culture and particular perception of reality. Islam and all religions that have God at their center disagree with the message of the French revolutionaries. The Islamist Wahabites of the self-proclaimed Islamic State are not an exception.
Islamists around the world believe that the French revolution was not limited to the change of the Christian world, but throughout the colonial period set the target of vehement and unrealistic transformation of the Islamic world on the part of the British and French empires. Apparently the ideas of the French Enlightenment affected only the superstructure of every Muslim society without penetrating the base of society. Even though nation-states were founded at the time, tearing the meaning of the Muslim community (Umma) and unity of Muslims, nationalism has not been popular among the masses of pious Muslim population. Why? Because Islam is not just a religion, like Christianity, but a religious-social-political-economic system and detailed lifestyle. This system does not accept any of the messages of the French Revolution. And that is why even now it reacts to these messages and the resulting globalization.
The Bastille has fallen once more. But this time the French and the rest of the western world are invited to realize that without the rational outlook which is advocated by the principles of the French Revolution itself, and without intercultural respect which is dictated by the principle of freedom, the West becomes dangerously narcissistic, thus eliminating the intercultural reciprocity and respect. The demonization and devaluation of the Other with over-simplistic interpretations – alleged “psychopathy,” the alleged “lack of education” of attack perpetrators – are not objective and mislead western public opinion about the motives of confrontation with the Islamic world. Rather than looking for the “root of evil” in the Middle East, it is imperative for the West to understand how unfairly it views other cultures and to exercise some self-criticism in regards to its geopolitical decisions vis-a-vis the Islamic world (Palestinian issue, the destabilization of governments, etc), creating situations that ignite public opinion on both sides and allowing extremism to emerge more powerful than ever…
* Dr Evangelos Venetis is the coordinator of the Middle East Research Project of the Hellenic Foundation for European and Foreign Policy (ELIAMEP). He recently joined the Refugee Studies Program at the Stavros Niarchos Center for Hellenic Studies, Simon Fraser University, Vancouver.