The Roots Of Charlie Hebdo Attacks: Colonialism & War

Above: French protest expressing Not Afraid in reaction to the killings of cartoonists of Charlie Hedbo. Source Getty Images.

There is a deep fear — the fear of admitting that terrorism is a reaction to mass killings, torture, wars of aggression and state-based terrorism. If we look for the source of the violence in France, we need to look in the mirror.

On Sunday, France showed unity with mass demonstrations in reaction to the Charlie Hebdo mass killing. The French Prime Minister Manuel Valls declared that the country is at war with radical Islam in a speech late Saturday. The language of war returns, as across France people are attacking Muslims. Here’s a map from two days ago showing attacks on the Muslim community.

Map of French attacks on Muslims

Vox reports:

According to reports by AFP and others, the attacks have included:

– Three training grenades thrown at a mosque in Le Pen; a bullet hole was also found in one of the mosque windows

– A bomb blast at a restaurant adjacent to and associated with a mosque in Villefranche-sur-Saone

– Gunshots fired at a mosque in Port-la-Nouvelle

– A boar’s head and entrails were left outside an Islamic prayer center in Corsica with a note: “Next time it will be one of your heads.”

The attacks have been relatively small-scale, especially compared to the Charlie Hebdo massacre and subsequent violence committed by its apparent culprits. The only serious harm so far came from a gang assaulting a 17-year-old of North African descent. But these incidents point to a long-worsening trend of hostility in France toward the country’s Muslim minority, which makes up an estimated eight to 10 percent of the population, and a sense among French Muslims that they are not welcome.

Understandably the government of France does not want to admit that its policies contribute to the anger of Muslims living in France and around the world. No one wants to justify these mass killings, really they cannot be justified, but that does not mean we should not try to understand where this anger comes from. 

The roots run deep. Al Jazeera reports the killings are “rooted in generations of violence, hypocrisy and greed.” Mark LeVine points out people do not want to face these truths because “The problem is that this system is hundreds of years old, implicates most everyone . . .” The roots are in French colonialism:

“It’s no mere coincidence that at least two of the Charlie Hebdo attackers are reportedly of Algerian descent and the third from Senegal. France’s 1830 invasion of Algeria began a 130-year odyssey of murder, expropriation, racism, exploitation and misrule that only ended after a vicious anti-colonial struggle costing well over one million Algerian lives.

“. . . the story of the modern Muslim world, where with the exception of Turkey, Iran and part of the Arabian peninsula most every society from Morocco to Indonesia fell under generations of European rule in the 19th and 20th centuries. The collective wound of colonialism, its distortion and often destruction of existing pathways to modernity, is for all practical purposes immeasurable. As with a body that takes only seconds to stab or shoot, the deep wounds of foreign domination and postcolonial dictatorship can take a lifetime to heal properly, if ever.”

This dynamic of colonialism continues today and France remains central to it, LeVine writes:

“As one of the world’s top arms sellers and home to one of the five ‘supermajor’ oil companies, Total, France has been at the heart of this dynamic. It is not surprising that one of the main long term clients of France has been the Assad family in Syria, whose refusal to honour a shred of the legitimate democratic aspirations of its people produced the horrific civil war whose violence and lawlessness were the perfect petri dish for the growth of al-Qaeda 2.0 (its policies towards Gaddafi’s Libya and its former Maghrebi and West African colonies have been no better.)”

Robert Fisk makes similar points in The Independent, pointing out that it is not surprising that the two brothers were Algerian: 

“. . .there’s an important context that somehow got left out of the story this week, the ‘history corner’ that many Frenchmen as well as Algerians prefer to ignore: the bloody 1954-62 struggle of an entire people for freedom against a brutal imperial regime, a prolonged war which remains the foundational quarrel of Arabs and French to this day.

“The desperate and permanent crisis in Algerian-French relations, like the refusal of a divorced couple to accept an agreed narrative of their sorrow, poisons the cohabitation of these two peoples in France. However Cherif and Said Kouachi excused their actions, they were born at a time when Algeria had been invisibly mutilated by 132 years of occupation. Perhaps five million of France’s six and a half million Muslims are Algerian. Most are poor, many regard themselves as second-class citizens in the land of equality.”

In the six year Algerian war for independence, Fisk writes “a million and a half Arab Muslims and many thousands of French men and women died.”  He describes a bloodbath of  massacres, disappearances and torture that has never been resolved but instead is a “long-standing resentment.” 

LeVine writes that within France the mistreatment and prejudice continues:

“Add to that the ongoing and well-documented structural racism against France’s large Arab/Muslim and African communities, which has included mass murder in the streets of Paris and remains ‘rampant not merely in the poor suburbs of major cities, where concentrated poverty and marginalisation lead so many to crime, drugs, prison and, not uncommonly, to radicalisation.”

How shocking are these killings given that colonial history and ongoing war must drive many to hatred and even psychosis. And how to understand the double standards that justify mass murder while being shocked at these murders? LeVine points out the inconsistencies:

“France, home of ‘liberty’, ‘equality’, and ‘fraternity’, sells billions of dollars of weapons and otherwise provides political and diplomatic support to countries that practice the polar opposite of all three; that the US kills thousands of civilians with drones (and tens of thousands with conventional weapons) that are as merciless as the terrorists they presumably target; that Israel kills 1,500 Palestinians with the complete acquiescence of the US and Europe; or that most every Muslim government condemning the attack on Charlie Hebdo routinely imprisons and tortures artists and activists for far less offensive expression, all with the support of the West.”

Le Monde reports that “During the year and a half he spent in prison, from January 2005 to October 2006, in the prison of Fleury-Merogis (Essonne), Cherif Kouachi met who would become his mentor: Djamel Beghal.” Who was Beghal, another Algerian convicted of a plot to blow up the US Embassy in Paris. Beghal’s mentorship of Kouachi deepens the Algerian connection.

Ian Welsh writing on his blog faults the claim that there is “no excuse” for these killings: 

“Everyone has to prove their moral rectitude by acting as horrified as possible and saying things like ‘there was no excuse’.


“There are worse things happening around the world every day.  Mass murders, rape, torture, starvation.  A lot of these things are the result of government policy and affect far more people, systematically.

“We don’t run around screaming ‘no excuse’ about most of that, we get on with our lives.”

Of course, the deaths of these cartoonists and hostages in the grocery store are terrible, but how do they measure up to the mass deaths caused by wars and economic sanctions or the thousands killed by corporate crime? The truth is they are tiny in comparison. Welch concludes “These moments distract people from what matters; from the people who will really kill them or impoverish them or enact policies which will see them raped or tortured: the rulers of their own countries.”

Former CIA analyst Ray McGovern warns that we should not let these killings lead to another cycle of violence. The attacks on Muslims in France and the “war” comments of the Prime Minister sadly seem to be leading toward more violence. If history were faced would it not be obvious that this violence comes from violence. McGovern points out:

“Carif Kouachi was previously known to the authorities, as he was convicted by a French court in 2008 of trying to travel to Iraq to fight in that country’s insurgent movement. Kouachi told the court that he wished to fight the American occupation after viewing images of detainee abuse at Abu Ghraib prison.”

McGovern who understands the blowback from war, empire and militarism suggests that it should not be surprising that the catalyst for non-state terrorism has its roots in state terrorism, i.e. wars of aggression, drone killings and torture. McGovern quotes Matthew Alexander, who personally conducted more than 300 interrogations in Iraq and supervised more than a thousand saying on Democracy Now: 

“. . . the number one reason these foreign fighters gave for coming to Iraq was routinely because of Abu Ghraib, because of Guantanamo Bay, because of torture practices.

“In their eyes, they see us as not living up to the ideals that we have subscribed to. You know, we say that we represent freedom, liberty and justice. But when we torture people, we’re not living up to those ideals. And it’s a huge incentive for them to join al-Qaeda.

“You also have to kind of put this in the context of Arab culture and Muslim culture and how important shame, the role of shame in that culture. And when we torture people, we bring a tremendous amount of shame on them. And so, it is a huge motivator for these people to join al-Qaeda and come to Iraq.”

Why do they hate us? The question, never honestly answered by US and western political leaders or honestly discussed in the corporate mass media, continues to arise. The answer stares us in the face yet those who continue war and militarism, under the false covers of “democracy,” “justice” and humanitarianism,” do not want it discussed because if it is discussed the finger points at their actions for the reason for terrorism.  Instead, more war and violence is called for and the cycle of killing continues.  The security state militarism makes all of us less secure.

Asghar Bukhari

Bukhari concludes where I will — the endless war on terror is itself terrorism, it “hardens the views on both sides” creating “extremists by the bucket-load.” Rather than admit the true cause of non-state violence the politicians and the corporate media blames the violence on Islamists, hate preachers and Muslim extremists — rather than colonialism and war being the drivers of violence it is the Muslim faith. A false conclusion based on lies that will continue the cycle of violence.