Paris Exposed to Historic Violence: another War of Religion is nigh

In August 1572 the French Wars of Religion ignited once more as a Catholic mob stormed through Paris indiscriminately murdering Protestant Huguenots, a slaughter sanctioned by King Charles IX. Subsequently known as the St Bartholomew’s Day Massacre, the violence would eventually spread across France, leading to the deaths of between 5,000 and 30,000 people.

The St Bartholomew's Day Massacre was notable for its mob savagery
The St Bartholomew’s Day Massacre was notable for its mob savagery

Religious distrust and hatred erupted in a furious spasm that would haunt France for decades to come, the clash of conflicting belief systems threatening to tear the country apart from the inside.

Today, French President Francois Hollande vowed to ‘destroy’ the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL), whose coordinated terrorist attacks in Paris on Friday resulted in the deaths of at least 129 civilians. These two events – separated by almost 450 years – have important differences and similarities that testify to the new war of religion now being fought in the streets of Western Europe.

Firstly, the logistical origins of the two massacres bear no hallmarks to one another. The St Bartholomew’s Day Massacre was initiated by a vengeful monarch and his controlling mother (Catherine de’ Medici) intent on destroying the Huguenot political hierarchy, in particular their military leader Admiral Gaspard de Coligny. The mob violence that developed was an unintended – if not wholly unsatisfying as far as the Catholics were concerned – consequence of the Crown’s directives.

The Paris attacks on Friday were coordinated between a terrorist cell affiliated with ISIL, although the full operational details are still not completely known. This was an atrocity perpetrated by a minority of radicalised individuals sponsored by an overseas terrorist organisation, rather than a state-sanctioned bloodbath supported by the majority of the country’s citizens.

The Paris attacks appear to have been well-coordinated, with clearly delineated targets selected Source: BBC
The Paris attacks appear to have been well-coordinated, with clearly delineated targets selected
Source: BBC

The second key difference – linked to the first – is that the carefully-constructed and targeted execution of the Paris attacks was in stark contrast to the haphazard and sprawling nature of the St Bartholomew’s Day Massacre. Again, this reflects the ‘minority’ nature of the Paris attacks when compared to the ‘majority’ support for the Catholic mob violence in the 16th century.

A striking similarity between the two events, however, is that neither was surprising. Just as the French were fully aware that they were immersed in a civil religious war in 1572, so too do the French people of today know that a sharp religious divide has opened up within their cities. A minority divide it may be but its strain of virulent hatred has for some time been obvious with other, smaller-scale terrorist attacks having been enacted by Muslim fanatics throughout the course of 2015 (see the Charlie Hebdo shooting for instance).

8% of the current French population is Muslim, a proportion that increases significantly in the larger cities. The majority of these people are second or third generation North Africans who arrived in France during the period of de-colonisation. It is amongst the younger generation – those born in France – where rates of radicalisation are higher. The masochistic appeal of ISIL has turned a small but significant number of young French Muslims into potential homegrown terrorists, a phenomenon likely to be repeated across other countries with similar religious minorities.

The porous EU borders have allowed Middle Eastern extremists to cross into Western Europe with alarming ease, giving hardline ISIL supporters access to disillusioned young Muslims. Some of the perpetrators of the Paris attacks are thought to have been French-born, whilst others appear to have travelled overland from Syria and other warzones where the ISIL flag is flying high.

Like the St Bartholomew’s Day Massacre, the Paris attacks immediately affected Frenchmen but the long-term repercussions are international. Western Europe is at war; it may not have committed ‘boots on the ground’ in Syria or Iraq but desperate violence has come to our doorsteps. As with its 16th century equivalent, the battle is going to take decades of strain, violence and compromise to finally bring it to a satisfactory end.

The extremism of a minority of Muslims will face a fierce backlash in Western Europe, precipitating further bloodshed. Source: Tundra Tabloids
The extremism of a minority of Muslims will face a fierce backlash in Western Europe, precipitating further bloodshed.
Source: Tundra Tabloids
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Foreign Fighters in a Foreign War: ISIL and the Threat to Global Security

The United States has promised ‘intense’ support for the Iraqi government as it tries to halt the formidable advance of Islamist militants from the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL). At the same time, major concerns have been raised in Britain about the increasing frequency with which Muslims are travelling from the UK to fight for ‘jihadist’ causes and the potential ramifications their unmonitored return might have for national security.

Nasser Muthana (r), from Cardiff, has appeared in ISIL recruitment videos
Nasser Muthana (r), from Cardiff, has appeared in ISIL recruitment videos

British Muslims have trained, fought and been killed in a number of countries over the past few years, particularly Syria, Iraq, Somalia and Yemen. Radicalised by hate-spewing preachers at home, they travel abroad for terrorist training camps before either fighting the enemies of radical Islam or returning to the UK with destructive intent.

There is an historical precedent for men, and to a lesser extent women, travelling abroad to fight for a political or religious cause. One need only look at the medieval Crusades to see that this is not a modern phenomenon. Perhaps a more comparable and recent example, however, is the Spanish Civil War.

Between 1936 and 1939, some 35,000 volunteers from across Europe, including many British, fought beside forces of the Second Spanish Republic as part of International Brigades opposed to General Franco’s Nationalist troops.

British International Brigade battalions were made-up of left-wing sympathisers
British International Brigade battalions were made-up of left-wing sympathisers

 

These men were not forced to fight abroad but felt a compulsion, driven by political and ideological reasons, to risk their lives in a foreign conflict. The atrocities committed by ISIL in their march through Iraq, including acts perpetrated by foreign fighters, has shocked many. Yet the Spanish Civil War was no less brutal with torture, rape and mass executions an horrific commonality. Although it has been argued that the majority of these atrocities were committed by Franco’s men, the Republicans too enacted their own barbarities such was the hatred between the two sides. (see Preston P, The Spanish Holocaust, 2012).

Whilst there are some similarities, therefore, between the nature of foreign fighters in the Spanish Civil War and the Middle East today there is also one major difference. The men that returned from Spain were not intent on destroying the existing political, religious and social fabric of their country, as the jihadists are now.

Fighters from the International Brigades may have returned to their countries intent on challenging the existing ruling order but not using the same terror tactics advocated by the Islamic extremists.

The International Brigades fought to uphold a democratically-elected government. Though it may be too far to label their cause ‘just’, it certainly had more legitimacy than that of the Islamic extremists (or even the Crusaders) who seek to destabilize the status quo.

Michael Adebolajo, who murdered soldier Lee Rigby in daylight on the streets of Woolwich, had previously been arrested in Kenya seeking to join up with Al-Shabaab terrorists
Michael Adebolajo, who murdered soldier Lee Rigby in daylight on the streets of Woolwich, had previously been arrested in Kenya seeking to join up with Al-Shabaab terrorists

More worryingly, the ability of these fighters to return to their host countries, filled with the desire to replicate the bloodshed seen daily across the Middle East, is alarming. Such a reality dents the notions that the troubles of the Middle East are none of the West’s concern. Such a lackadaisical attitude could prove fatal.