In the midst of a culture war in France, in which the fate of the country’s beloved laïcité [constitutional secularism] and their concept of freedom of expression is at stake, France is now battling more damning news.
During a military operation in central Mali on January 3 of this year, a French airstrike allegedly claimed the lives of 19 civilians. France denies this, saying it targeted and killed around 30 people they deemed to be Muslim terrorists, but villagers maintain that the strike bombed a wedding. Medecins sans Frontiers [Doctors without Borders] reports that most of the people they treated as a result of the attack were elderly men.
Until an investigation is conducted, we will likely not know the full story. This story was in large part buried under the news of the “storming” of the US Capitol. While the “bastions of freedom and democracy” are under attack, so are Muslim civilians around the world, often dying for the sake of upholding that democracy that the West speaks of with such reverence in smooth, emotive prose.
Who is expendable?
Civilians dying in warfare is nothing new. What is garnering more attention, however, is the decisions regarding the grounds by which civilian lives are expendable, grounds that are at times far looser than most civilians would be comfortable with. Furthermore, the sheer number of civilian lives—most of whom are Muslims—being lost in the War on Terror is staggering. An example, according to Brown University’s Cost of War project:
“The United States military in 2017 chose to relax its rules of engagement for airstrikes in Afghanistan, which resulted in a massive increase in civilian casualties. From the last year of the Obama administration to the last full year of recorded data during the Trump administration, the number of civilians killed by U.S.-led airstrikes in Afghanistan increased by 330 percent.
…Afghan civilians have paid for all parties’ escalation of violence in their attempts to gain leverage in talks between the United States and the Taliban. The data demonstrates that, compared to the previous 10 years, there was a 95 percent increase in civilians killed by U.S. and allied forces’ airstrikes between 2017 and 2019. Further, during the period of intra-Afghan talks, the Afghan Air Force has killed more civilians than at any point in its history. In 2018 alone, 3,800 Afghan civilians were killed by airstrikes.”
We can compare these strikes to two different types that took place during WWII. In his article “America’s War on Syrian Civilians,” Anand Gopal points out that, 1942, the British bombed working-class areas of German cities “’for the sake of increasing terror,’ as Churchill later put it.” Conversely, Gopal notes that when the Allied French attacked the Axis-aligned Vichy French, they flew low, making sure to not destroy entire towns and the civilians in it. These were, after all, their countrymen, and that was still France.
With such national attachments like the ones Allied France had to Vichy France removed, these governments hide behind their weapons, often ensuring minimal damage to themselves but maximal to their opponent and others who may be in the way. They lose their humanity, the very humanity they claim to hold dear, the very humanity they say qualifies them to be the holders of nuclear weapons, the referees of the world. For Muslims, attachments to other Muslims should go beyond any sense of national identity they may have; the bond is something greater than a piece of land or even some shared cultural practices. It’s instead the shared values, bond of faith, and deep reverence for the Creator. This is why the constant harm done to Muslim civilians is so particularly painful for all Muslim around the world.
In his book Asymmetrical Killing: Risk Avoidance, Just War, and the Warrior Ethos, Neil Renic carefully points out:
“What is lawful on the battlefield [is not always] what is moral.” [Renic, 2020, p. 195]
This conflict between the laws of war versus morality will always arise under secular systems of governance. After all, robust morality could only stem from adherence to faith, and faith is precisely what secularism disregards.
France’s policies towards Muslims in their country along with these legal but immoral practices of war demonstrate the failures of democracies to ensure the freedoms they claim to provide and represent. France’s newly proposed anti-separatism law—a draft of which has just been approved by the lower house of the country’s National Assembly—demonstrates this well. The same laïcité that was established to somehow provide ‘neutral’ ground for people of various religions to coexist has evolved into a sort of religion of its own, in which adherents dictate the degree to which people are allowed to practice their religion.
Questions we should be asking
Such disrespect for faith causes one to then ponder France’s policies and relationships with former colonies, many of whom have governments still loyal to France. How would a loyalist government abroad treat Muslim citizens then? To what extent are they expendable when France and the local government decide to undertake military operations against militant groups operating within the country? Perhaps the answer to that is “quite.”
Just this past Tuesday, February 16, France announced that it had no plans to leave the Sahel region soon, citing national interests. What does this mean for local Muslims?
This is not to deny that these countries suffer from local violence and that they must address those problems. Rather, it is to add that military intervention from countries eager to ensure that their interests and ‘democratic values’ are present often contributes to humanitarian crises taking place around the Muslim world.