The Nice attacker was radicalized only recently, if at all.

Photographer: Patrick Aventurier/Getty Images

What Kind of "War" Are We In?

Pankaj Mishra is a Bloomberg View columnist. His books include “From the Ruins of Empire: The Intellectuals Who Remade Asia,” “Temptations of the West: How to Be Modern in India, Pakistan, Tibet and Beyond” and “An End to Suffering: The Buddha in the World.”
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Last week, another deranged young man went on a rampage, killing 84 people in the French city of Nice. A French lawyer who had earlier defended Mohamed Lahouaiej Bouhlel in an assault case described his wife-beating, French-Tunisian client as "a classic delinquent." Intelligence officials say that if Bouhlel was radicalized by Islamist propaganda, the process took place only very recently and very rapidly.

QuickTake Fighting Islamic State

Nevertheless, the leader of the far-right National Front Marine Le Pen quickly called for a war against Islamic fundamentalism. Former French president Nicolas Sarkozy asserted that "nothing can be as it was" in the war against "Islamist terrorism." The French president Francois Hollande, who has already declared a "pitiless war," declared that France would "reinforce our action in Syria and Iraq." The French Prime Minister Manuel Valls claimed that the killer was “a terrorist probably linked to radical Islam one way or another.”  

In recent years, all too many psychotic delinquents around the world have been linked to radical Islam "one way or another." But should such tenuous connections determine something as grave and unpredictable as war? 

It may be that Valls and Hollande, hoping to avoid being politically outflanked by demagogues, have to do what it takes to look tough, including bombing Syria and Iraq a bit more and imposing additional repressive measures at home. Certainly, this cynical interpretation is not as disquieting as the possibility that the leaders of a major NATO country believe their own belligerent rhetoric.

Events over the last decade have conclusively disproved the notion that "if we fight them abroad we won’t have to fight them at home." Al-Qaeda sprung up in places where it had never existed and morphed into Islamic State. Western cities, relatively untouched by terrorism for decades, have come under unprecedented assault, often by people who had previously shown no interest in either politics or religion.

It's not surprising that President Barack Obama keeps a fastidious distance from cliches such as "Islamic terrorism," for these have not only boosted the appeal of murderous outfits like Islamic State. They've resulted in military campaigns which lack precise objectives and strategy because their targets are abstract concepts like "Islamic fundamentalism" and "radical Islam."

Since "Islam" itself is a concept, a shorthand for a great diversity of practices and beliefs, these poorly focused wars, consisting of shock-and-awe bombing abroad and wide restrictions on civil liberties at home, have been counter-productive: They've caused, among other damage, the stigmatizing of 1.6 billion Muslims.

Moreover, the obsession with a 7th century specter has missed the genuinely revolutionary forces transforming the modern world. It's not Islam, for instance, but the migratory, technological and economic flows of globalization that have dissolved the distinctions today's toxic nationalists are promising to rebuild -- between home and abroad, here and there, us and them. It's also not Islam, moderate or extreme, that has weakened the state’s fundamental promise to provide equal opportunities if not social welfare for its citizens.

Islamic State has grasped the radical potential of globalization better than most Western politicians. Born in the ruins of two nation-states, the group is actually the product of a process in which governments, unable to protect their citizens from foreign invaders or economic turbulence, have lost their moral and ideological legitimacy, thus creating a space for such non-state actors as private gangs, pirates, mafia and warlords.

Naturally adapted to the horizontal networks of globalization, Islamic State can attract recruits to traditional battlefields in Iraq and Syria. It can also incite at least some of the many disenfranchised and angry individuals in Europe and America into acts of vengeful violence.

The ranks of the militantly disaffected extend, in this age of continuous crisis and acute alienation, far beyond the Middle East. Islamic State tries hard to be always there, in Dhaka as well as in San Bernardino, to inspire atrocious acts or to nimbly claim credit for them.  

Leaders of France, the world’s oldest nation-state, look flat-footed in comparison with their 18th century slogans of fraternity and liberty, matched with Napoleon-lite bellicosity. Obama, stubbornly resisting calls to military interventions, seems to be the only major Western politician to have grasped that more war today will bring not peace, but the destruction of the basic distinction between war and peace that underpins all political order.

French politicians, on the other hand, seem to scorn the "reality-based community," to use an immortal phrase from the Bush administration, as they identify, even against contrary evidence, a suitably malign external enemy they can combat in a grand war. The real "enemy" today is within, in Baton Rouge as well as in Nice -- and most menacingly in one’s own obsolete assumptions about an utterly altered world.

This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of the editorial board or Bloomberg LP and its owners.

To contact the author of this story:
Pankaj Mishra at pmishra24@bloomberg.net

To contact the editor responsible for this story:
Nisid Hajari at nhajari@bloomberg.net