A Postcard From Paris: Rejecting the Idea of “Civilizational Crisis” after the Attacks of November 13

This year history professor Caroline Campbell has been in Paris doing archival research, and she has written this essay in response to last weeks terrorist attacks.  

The horrific killings that happened in Paris last Friday night have devastated a city that many people love. The first time I went to Paris was in the summer of 2004. I was a graduate student conducting preliminary research for my dissertation, and because I wanted to work on my language skills, I lived with a French family. To welcome me, they kindly provided an elaborate and delicious traditional French meal. In addition to experiencing this warm hospitality, I fell in love with the cosmopolitan culture of Paris – cafés where I could eat without being rushed, excellent food from all over the world, streets filled with people late into the night, and intriguing neighborhoods that reflected the city’s long, beautiful, and complex history.

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I have since become a professor of French history and have been extremely fortunate to return on many occasions to a place that I find endlessly fascinating. While the generous welcome that I experienced my first night in Paris is typical in France, as it is in much of the world, the city itself is unlike anyplace else. That is why the shocking attacks of November 13 left so many people reeling. The fact that many were on edge was quite clear to me when I went for a walk in my neighborhood the following day. It was a Saturday afternoon when Paris is usually alive and vibrant, but nobody was out. The streets were empty and quiet. I felt like I was in a different place. Moreover, the effects of the attacks are lingering. There have been multiple reports of people who were dining at cafes or mourning at memorials who heard firecrackers (or some other loud sound) and fled in fear. Several history conferences have been cancelled this week (organizers explain that cancellations are due to “events that everyone knows about”). On Tuesday there was a shootout in Saint Denis, which has closed the Archives nationales, a place that I go often. All of this makes the attacks and killings deeply personal and difficult to intellectualize.

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Nevertheless, much has been written about November 13 and its aftermath. As a historian of the far right, I have been following how media outlets, politicians, and individuals have chosen to use the very same extremist rhetoric that Daesh (ISIL/ISIS) itself uses – that we are in a civilizational war. Forging different human communities into monolithic “civilizations” can be overly simplistic and is a tactic that is often used by radical right groups. For example, while France has the largest Muslim population in Western Europe, it is exceedingly diverse, and includes people from North and sub-Saharan Africa. Many of them are devout and practicing, while others see themselves as more secular. Some women want to wear the headscarf, believing that it is an expression of their faith, while others choose not to. Some have been in France for generations, while others have moved here more recently for the reasons that all people migrate: employment obligations or opportunities, educational opportunities, a longing to join family members, or the desire to live in a progressive and cosmopolitan culture. Since Daesh/ISIS claims there are two civilizations – the West and the Islamic – to which civilization do these groups of people belong?


While public discourse has focused on questions surrounding Islam, there is evidence that the killers used religion as a convenient excuse more than a singular motivation. Information that is emerging about the November 13 attackers suggests that the mastermind was more of a thug as a teenager, interested in drugs and petty crime. We know more about the brothers who carried out the Charlie Hebdo attacks last January. They exhibited a similar aimlessness and disinterest in religion before finding an apparent sense of fellowship in Daesh/ISIS. This is not to say that religion played no role in the attacks, but that the type of religion that Daesh/ISIS espouses is highly specific, historically contextual, and at odds with the more mainstream interpretations of Islam.

These divisions hardly constitute a monolithic “civilization.” Yet when the attackers claim to represent the purist form of an Islamic civilization, too many commentators ape the Daesh language of civilization and barbarism, which has the effect of dragging the majority of Muslims (who are appalled by Daesh) into the same conceptual frame. Muslims in France already grapple with a powerful social stigma. The attacks last week only make it worse. Despite numerous attempts by Muslims to speak out against the killings and compelling interpretations that show the ways in which Islam abhors violence, fear of Muslims is not confined to France.


Alarmingly, the radical right in Western democracies – France, the Netherlands, Germany, Britain, the United States – has coalesced around the idea of a civilizational war. This line of thinking reduces individuals and groups to one identity (one is either Muslim or Western), asserts that such an identity constitutes a civilization, and proclaims that the two civilizations clash with one another. The powerful French far right leader, Marine Le Pen, has often argued that France is at war with a civilization that rejects the Western values of human rights and freedoms. Marco Rubio, a prominent Republican presidential candidate said this after the Paris attacks: “They literally want to overthrow our society and replace it with their radical, Sunni Islamic view of the future. This is not a grievance-based conflict. This is a clash of civilizations.”

These fears are not only nonsensical but bolster the legitimacy that terrorists crave by ascribing more power to them than they actually have in practice. If a country as powerful and wealthy as the United States could not overthrow regimes in Afghanistan and Iraq and replace them with functioning and stable democracies, it is difficult to imagine how a small group of disaffected men, and to a lesser extent women, could summon the resources to overthrow the governments of the United States, France, Great Britain, and others, and replace those democracies with a theocracy. Moreover, claims about a clash of civilizations overlook the fact that Daesh militants hate Muslims who reject their fundamentalism. Journalist David Shariatmadari explains it this way: “Istanbul, Cairo, Alexandria, Beirut, Baghdad and Jerusalem are historic archetypes of free cities – places where races, cultures and religions mingled for centuries.” All have had to grapple with attacks by Daesh. Thus, a bizarre (and unintended) allegiance is emerging. Le Pen, Rubio, and other proponents of the clash of civilizations idea are doing exactly what Daesh wants: to convince increasing numbers of people that the world is divided into two groups and everyone must choose a side.

Most immediately, the killings in Paris have had a heartbreaking effect on the city and its people. For many, life will not be the same for a long time, if ever. A long-term question facing both France and the U.S. is whether the radical belief in a civilizational clash becomes mainstream. I hope that things return to normal in Paris – that the streets fill with people again, that crowds can gather and not flee in panic because a firecracker went off, and that people feel safe on the metro – but I worry that it won’t. In France and the U.S., it will be up to leaders and individuals to reject far right claims about a civilizational crisis. But individuals cannot do it alone. It will depend upon institutions to act responsibly and avoid perpetuating the divisions, stereotyping, and essentializing of complex individuality that legitimize the wrong-headed belief that we are facing a clash of civilizations.

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Caroline Campbell is an associate professor in the Department of History at the University of North Dakota. Her book Political Belief in France, 1927-1945: Gender, Empire, and Fascism in the Croix de Feu/Parti Social Français will appear in December 2015 from LSU press.

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