South of Paris, at Orly Airport, on the morning of 18 March, a man was shot dead by police. A French-born individual of Tunisian descent, 39-year old Ziyed Ben Belgacem, has been identified as the attacker killed by security services at the airport. The usual surfeit of reporting has focused on the idea that this was a form of Islamic radicalism. Others have referred to him as a ‘career criminal’
At this stage, the motivations of the assailant have yet to be established. From events pieced together earlier in the day, it is now known that the attacker was involved in an incident with a police officer that left her injured in the face. He fired at her with a pellet gun.
This ‘radicalised Muslim’, the term immediately propagated in the light of these events, may well have been far from it. Some reporting has suggested that Ziyed Ben Belgacem was radicalised in prisons, but there is no real detail on this accusation. Rather, a series of events could have occurred, where the step towards may well have been elsewhere in the mind of the assailant, not one rested on some notion of Islamic extremism. The fact that it is something that has emerged as a question in point so early on suggests that it may be pure speculation rather than factually determined. More will be established when further details can be gleaned.
The immediate problem, however, is the potential damage to community relations between a sensitised majority French population and a somewhat under pressure Muslim minority demographic in France that has faced the wrath of negativity for some time. France has experienced nearly 300 deaths in the last two years at the hands of the Islamic State or attacks inspired by it, successfully terrorising the population, which are the precise aims of such terrorist groups.
The issue, therefore, is not that this attack should be seen as a minimal incident because a police officer was only slightly injured or that there were no other casualties. The focus should be on taking attention away from the idea that Islam, or whether the attacker had any association has to ‘Muslimness’, has anything at all to do with the outcomes.
The implications are that by focusing on Islam as somehow complicit in determining the actions of the attacker, it places concentration on a religion and not on the wider criminological or sociological dimensions of terrorism. Actual violent Islamist radicalisers will capitalise on the negative reporting and commentary as confirmation of the inherent bias of the West in relation to Muslims. Radical far right groups will generate political capital, securing greater support for their cause in the light of these dominant hegemonic outpourings.
Such assumptions also damage the extensive work that security, intelligence and policing services carry out in the background, much of which has been determined after a great deal of effort and resource investment in trying to understand the problems and in being able to determine effective solutions. There are also numerous community, civil society and NGO organisations whose efforts in countering violent extremism could face setback, undermining important work in an already charged environment.
There is already considerable fear and alarm among many Western Europeans that has grown in the light of populist messages at the behest of political elites whose aims have been more to scare populations rather than delicately balance security and freedom. The spectre of Islamophobia has become the new normal. We must be careful not to allow it to take away our abilities to question before we respond with statements that can influence others.
The French presidential elections are a mere six weeks away. There is a danger that in an already sensitive time, where populist politicians have begun to garner greater support, this event will be regarded as another reason to introduce draconian security measures or legitimise a sense of urgency in delimiting the threats of specifically Islamist extremism. There will be many ready to capitalise on this, and it is only right that there is sensitivity and care on the part of all concerned.