World

Let's Not Fall Into the ISIS Trap and Punish Immigrants—A Frenchman's Perspective

ISIS is counting on us to act like idiots and turn our backs on refugees.

Writer Patrick Hilsman in Syria.
Photo Credit: Personal photo

When I was still learning English, my mom taught me that the revolutionary songs of France like "La Marseillaise" and "Chant des Partisans" were full of calls for violence and vitriol while fascist songs were all about beautiful fields and pretty girls. I think this is an important lesson on what it means to be French.

When I was 10 years old, my family decided my brother and I should leave America and get a taste of life back in France. I was enrolled in the south suburb school my mother had attended in the '60s. It was a wonderful place to be a kid. I loved the pastries and the weather and the way everything smelled like nature and food. I loved the freedom to have a real childhood.

I had lived in mixed middle class neighborhoods in America where racial tension was present, but not the main part of the story. I had all kinds of friends as a kid in America and it didn't really register with me that racism existed. My school in France was mixed - Algerian and Roma, but still mostly white. Suddenly I was learning what racism was. I always thought that Arab meant "store owner" because of a tendency for some locals to refer to going to the store as "visiting the Arabs." Teachers would also hit the kids when they saw us as misbehaving, with a particular focus on those of darker complexion.

My best friend was French-Algerian and we would fight frequently, another great French tradition. At one point I sucker punched him and he spat at me. A teacher grabbed him by the ear and shoved him the the closet with a glass jar. "I'm not letting you out until you spit up to this line," he said. "We were just joking around," I pleaded to no avail. At some other point a teacher accused a young Roma girl of stealing from her and stripped her down to her underwear and spanked her in front of the class. I hated the teachers who acted that way back then and I still do but it taught me a crucial lesson: that power can be petty and corrupt and that adults can be very wrong. I have never forgotten it.

All the ugliness and racism aside, kids were kids and we all loved soccer. It felt like a dream for a young boy who had only known the sponsored and painfully organized Little League teams of American suburbia. At 4:30, school was over and with it any semblance of adult supervision. I remember all of my buddies pitching in to buy a cheap soccer ball for 10 francs and then it was off to the park to play. Playing sports for fun was a revelation; in America it seemed like some exercise in shaping a "well rounded student" for college. In France we would hit the park on our own and play soccer until it was dark.

Our school plays were violent and bizarre, much like our history. Once we went on a field trip to Fontainebleau, a forest known for its sandy ground and massive boulders, perfect for rock climbing. Our teacher said, "stay in pairs, don't wander too far, and don't climb higher than you feel comfortable falling from," and she let us go. We climbed all over the rocks jumping from one to the other with reckless abandon.

A year later when I had returned to America there was a solar eclipse coming up. Ever safety obsessed, my American grade school sent out a notice that students would be kept inside due to the risk from "ultraviolet radiation." A young science geek, I confronted my teacher: "You know that all visible light is also radiation, right?" I prodded stubbornly. Luckily my mom caught wind of the conspiracy to keep us indoors and took us home, insisting that school not get in the way of our education. I understood then as I understand now the one thing I miss most about France: the total disregard for our safety as children. It was a gift I can never repay. As my mom helped us build the tools to observe the eclipse without burning our eyeballs, I pictured my fellow students sitting in the dark of their classrooms, missing one of the most spectacular events the cosmos has to offer. Even at such a young age, I felt proud to be French.

Into my adulthood, being French has been a blessing as well as a curse, especially in the three years since I began covering Syria. Traveling in the Middle East was always made easier by having dual nationality. I could avoid anti-Americanism as a Frenchman and avoid the long lines at JFK as an American. I could visit Israel and countries that won't allow you in if you have visited Israel by using two different passports. Syria put an end to this convenience.

My French passport means many things when I am traveling in Syria. When young kids in the IDP camps ask me "Meen When Anta?" I answered "Franca." "Zidane! Zidane!" they usually shout with excitement. In 2012 when people heard that I was French or American, Syrian fighters and activists took me for a brother; France was one of the countries sheltering the opposition and helping activists communicate. I could move around with relative freedom, protected by the population. There was a genuine sense of anti-authoritarian solidarity with the western democracies. Secular rebels and activists would hug me and thank me for going there. They would urge me to remember everything I had seen, and so I did.

In 2013 the AQ affiliate Jabat Nosra started filling the power vacuum that a lack of western support had caused in Aleppo. Around the same time France intervened against Nosra's Islamist allies in Mali. Suddenly the green, black, red and white of the revolutionary flag was being replaced by the black banners of Nosra. Foreign fighters with huge beards, fat bellies and heavy weapons rode convoys through the streets. My French nationality made me a bad risk for the bodyguards I now needed everywhere I went.

Later that year ISIS would sneak in under the wing of Jabat Nosra and become the dominant force in Northern Syria. For over a year it was out of the question to travel to Syria. The number of kidnappings spiked and we knew that a calculated risk had transformed into more of a suicide mission. I watched with horror as ISIS took more and more territory and killed more and more rebels and kidnapped journalists. My Syrian friends would send me desperate messages to see if I could help them escape the menace. I would share whatever emails I had for refugee advocates but there was little I could do. Then on Feb. 2, 2014 when things seemed to be at their very darkest, a friend and rebel fighter posted a message on Facebook: "Dear journalists, something is about to change in Aleppo. Hopefully we will be returning there soon."

I read the subtext and knew immediately that the rebels would be launching a counteroffensive to retake Aleppo. Under the new umbrella of the Islamic Front, rebels ejected ISIS from most of Aleppo province. It only took a few weeks because they had the support of the population. That summer I found myself in a Toyota with two anti-ISIS Islamist rebels from the Liwa Al-Tahweed battalion riding back into Aleppo. I saw places in which ISIS flags had been ripped down or painted over. I could walk on the streets and speak to people again. The revolutionary flag was back, and so were the banners of various non-ISIS Islamist groups. When I identified as American there was a new level of indifference; we had abandoned these people after all. When I identified as French, there was a pang of distrust, or a bad association. French nationality was now permanently associated with the foreign fighters who had helped ISIS occupy Aleppo.

I returned to Syria in February 2015. France and America were already striking ISIS targets in Iraq and Syria. All of Azaz and Bab Salama were covered in a thick fog as I tried to arrange transport further into Syria. My fixers seemed nervous, unable to determine the implications of a French citizen in Syria in 2015. My French passport in Syria has defined me in many ways: as an ally, a potential kidnap risk, a potential jihadi, a soccer fan. By 2015 the implications were too complicated and I decided to stay close to the border and not return to Aleppo. Deciding which passport to use has become a difficult choice; my French passport makes me a target for financial reasons because the government has paid ransoms, and my American passport has made me more of a political target because the U.S. does not pay ransoms.

When I heard of last Friday's attacks, my prejudice kicked in. I knew right off the bat that the perpetrators were likely to be European jihadis who had trained inside Syria. This attack was terrorism in its purest form, purposeless slaughter that is the trademark of ISIS. There are many Syrian jihadis, but they mostly would rather die fighting against the regime or against ISIS. The foreign fighters are entirely different, known for their excessive cruelty and pettiness. The attack in France was striking for how similar it was to other ISIS atrocities, not for its uniqueness.

Do you think it is time to go to war with ISIS? Do you think this is a fight we should all be in? If you say yes, then I say good. If you want to fight ISIS you must stand with the people on the front lines against them, and I am not talking about Russia and its phony counterterrorism campaign. I am not referring to cowards like Ted Cruz and Donald Trump who have no ideas and pebbles for balls. If you want to fight against ISIS, you must advocate for their victims and not demonize them. As far as I'm concerned, those who share ISIS' goal of punishing refugees are ISIS collaborators.

The front line of the fight has been and still is the aid workers, activists and refugee advocates who fight for the rights of oppressed people. If you are at war with an enemy, you protect the victims of that enemy: in this case, Syrian refugees. Ted Cruz can cry radical Islam all he wants, but as long as he has no interest in protecting Syrians, he is on the same side as ISIS. If you want to fight ISIS, it is time to take out the trash and call bullshit on opportunists like Rudy Giuliani, who has made tens of millions pushing himself as an expert on security, selling his bad advice.

When I saw Hollande shaking like a frightened rat on TV, my head nearly exploded. I remember being a child and listening to the recordings of de Gaulle giving the liberation sermon at Notre Dame while his bodyguards exchanged fire with snipers who had positioned themselves high inside the cathedral. Hollande is no de Gaulle, and he is not the person to rally around. France's current president has presided over disastrous economic policies, religious discrimination and mass censorship. Sadly, France's leaders do not respect the right to an opinion and rely heavily on the fact that the world doesn't understand how badly the French state uses censorship. Instead of honestly addressing security concerns, France's leaders have acted opportunistically against political opponents. Pro-Palestinian demonstrations and BDS activism have been essentially outlawed under the absurd falsehood that they incite racial hatred.

After the Charlie Hebdo attacks, France adopted its own version of America's Patriot Act, which has served no purpose. Advocates of expanded surveillance should take note that many of the suspects in recent attacks in Europe were already under surveillance. Hollande has said that the tragic events on Friday night signify war, and I agree with him. But didn't he already declare war a year ago? Was he kidding back then or just tricking us?

Associating these attacks with the refugee crisis is an exercise in absurdity. Politicians are already foaming at the mouth to blame the attacks on the refugee crisis. So far we know that most of the attackers who have been identified were European. ISIS knew right-wingers in Europe would react by attacking immigrants, and they have even written documents stating this as their purpose. We can outsmart ISIS by keeping our heads and not inventing a fake culprit when the real one has been identified.

We have seen how deep the desperation to make this about refugees runs in right-wing circles everywhere. Fox News gleefully reported that a Syrian terrorist had been captured and explained he was recruited to pose as a refugee on the way to France from Greece. The story was false, but it's out there now and likely to be taken as fact by eager right-wingers. German politicians are now panicking about their acceptance of refugees when they know this was a homegrown attack.

In the most extravagant irony imaginable, nearly all the anti-immigrant parties in Europe are deeply pro-Assad and send delegations to pay tribute to the worst mass murderer of the new century. Consequently, European nativists are active participants in the violence that drives people to Europe. The overwhelming majority of Syrian refugees say it was Assad who drove them out. In the wake of the terrorist attacks that killed 129 of my countrymen, Donald Trump tweeted that people laughed at him when he said to bomb the ISIS oil fields, but now they are not laughing. I assure the Donald that we are still laughing at him, and that Paris says, "Je t'emmerde."

I appreciate the fact that everyone has been changing their Facebook profile pictures to the French flag. It is a meaningful act of solidarity that has brought me to the verge of tears many times in the past few days. But at the same time I am forced to think that all the other victims are being forgotten. I would be wrong if I felt that the bomb that killed dozens in the Shia suburbs of Beirut was in any way different than the Paris attacks. Right-wing commentators in America have tried to minimize these terrorist attacks on civilians by describing them as an attack on a "Hizbollah stronghold." Lee Smith tweeted that the liberal media was foolish for equating the attacks in Beirut with the attacks in Paris because, as he put it, "What I object to is likening Parisians to a community actively involved in Syrian war."

Hizbollah is a despicable organization, but Shia civilians are completely innocent victims of the same terror that struck Paris. I have lived in Lebanese Shia neighborhoods and they are warm, wonderful people. Indeed, ISIS sees them as guilty and so do many western commentators; just one more item on a long list of things these different kinds of blockheads agree on. Kurdish refugees who drown escaping Kobane are also victims of the same terrorism.

When you go to war with an enemy, you have an obligation to protect the victims of that enemy. If you are Ted Cruz or Donald Trump, beating the war drums against ISIS while treating their main victims as menaces, you are on the same side as ISIS. I personally do not want anyone's expressions of solidarity for Paris if they have nothing to say about the bombs in Beirut or dead children in Gaza. If you are against protecting refugees, take your expressions of solidarity elsewhere.

Imagine if Churchill had advocated for fighting Hitler but turning away all his victims. He would have been one of history's losers; he would have been Donald Trump. France exists today because the UK took in French exiles and refugees even at the risk of them being Vichy spies. Both my grandparents were displaced by war and my great grandmother, who helped hide weapons for the resistance, was displaced and nearly executed. We are a nation that was sent into exile and came home. If we value our own culture and history then we are inherently in solidarity with refugees.

Do you think it's high time we went to war with ISIS? Do you feel revenge is in order? Good! Then support the people who are on the front line against ISIS. If you wish you could have been in Paris to save people from ISIS, let me tell you that you can save someone from ISIS today. If you want to show solidarity across the globe for the victims of this group, then you have a moral obligation to protect refugees. There is a new Facebook safety update feature that told me my relatives and friends in Paris were safe. This should be a permanent and daily feature across all of Syria, Iraq, Gaza, Yemen, the CAR, Eritrea, and Sudan. We have been here before. The fear and paranoia of the 9/11 decade are fresh in my mind and I am unwilling to walk that path again as a French person. It led America nowhere good.

Increasingly in western Europe, the choice for Syria is being presented as ISIS or Assad. This is totally bogus. Many of these people became refugees because they reject both. They will not allow themselves to be conscripted to fight for Assad, but they also reject ISIS, and since no one is helping normal Syrians in their struggle, they have crossed the sea.

So much of what we are is borne of immigration. Zidane, Gainsbourg, Charles Aznavour—everything we are is from freedom of expression and unacceptable opinions. Jean Paul Sartre, de Gaulle and Emile Zola were all censored by the French state at one point or another and they are the luminaries of our history. Multiculturalism comes with its own problems, but if multicultural France is symbolized by any one thing, it is our soccer team. This is why ISIS attacked our national stadium; because like the far right, they hate that it represents a diverse and vibrant nation.

In the wake of the terrorist attack that killed nine worshipers in Charleston, southern black churches refused to abandon the open door policy of letting anyone into services. Church leaders did this even though it was through this openness that Dylan Roof was able to infiltrate the congregation before opening fire. The message from that bold decision is clear. "You can kill us but you can't scare us or change who we are." Nothing could be a more fitting tribute. As I write this French jets are pounding the ISIS capital of Raqqa and have apparently cut the city off from water and electricity, potentially hurting a population that is renowned for its activists who resist ISIS. I keep hearing calls in the media to strike Raqqa harder but this seems completely crazy given how much internal opposition to ISIS there is. 

Without that French bloodlust for reckless freedom, we have nothing and we are nothing. Without a passion for mixing cultures and ideas, we would all be quite boring. Without the protection that other countries have offered refugees, we would not even be a country. In a sense, we are privileged that ISIS stated so clearly that its goal was to divide us and turn us against refugees, because now we know exactly how we can fight back. I recently saw a YouTube clip featuring of a mob of French mourners chasing away a group of anti immigrant protestors. It's incredible and everybody needs to watch this. The crowd starts booing the racists, and hurling insults howling and hissing at the assholes before breaking into a pretty fucking impressive chant of fascists out. Very French, Very Badass!

Mort aux cons. Vive la France.

Patrick Hilsman is an associate editor of The Influence. You can follow him on Twitter: @PatrickHilsman.

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