Darkness in the city of light

Published: November 14, 2015
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The writer is a PhD candidate at the Department of War Studies, King’s College London

The writer is a PhD candidate at the Department of War Studies, King’s College London

All President Francois Hollande and 80,000 other spectators and football fans at Stade de France would have wanted on Friday night was for France to claim victory over Germany. Out in the streets, Parisians had just begun their weekend at the Bataclan concert hall, Le Petit Cambodge restaurant and at neighbouring bars, all at a walking distance from Notre-Dame Cathedral and Place de la Republique. But a state of emergency (the first since the Second World War) was soon to be declared after what are being considered the deadliest attacks in Europe since the Madrid bombings of 2004.

We are informed that at least three explosions, prolonged gunfire and a hostage-like situation were witnessed across six key locations in the city. The attacks carried some of the trademarks of urban warfare that we are all too familiar with now — including the use of Kalashnikovs — and were yet another method of creating fear and mayhem in a city that sits at the heart of Europe and draws over 32 million tourists per year. Eight individuals were allegedly involved in coordinated attacks that have so far left at least 128 dead. The Islamic State (IS) has claimed responsibility for the attacks although it is possible that these were efforts of an independent franchise trying to win the acceptance of the IS by presenting a theatrical display of the extent of its brutal capabilities in order to be formally accepted by al Baghdadi’s command centre.

In light of the attacks, three key subjects must feature in our debates pertaining to the future of Europe that also have implications for the rest of the world: urban security, inclusion and exclusion, and resilience. In the immediate analysis following the attacks, it is claimed that Paris (and indeed Europe) may see ‘draconian security measures’ being planned and implemented. France has said it will be ruthless in its response. Cover pages of magazines are claiming: “this time it’s war”. It is common practice for cities to beef up security as a precaution with new and improved surveillance technologies and laws being introduced, borders being secured, heavy police deployments being coupled with paramilitary operations, and barbed wires and blast walls sketched into urban designs. Pakistanis are well aware of how securitisation policies have turned their cities into battlefields. But our observations are part of bigger, global trends.

City planning has not been devoid in military thinking. It is a lesser known fact that when Georges-Eugene Haussmann was instructed by Napoleon to redesign Paris and transform the city into what it is today, the boulevards were broadened keeping in mind the need for quick manoeuvring of troops and squares were designed to be “exactly two cannon shots apart”. More recently, in London, we have learnt of a surveillance bill presented to the UK parliament. It calls for the expansion of the government’s reach into the online activities of its residents and the broadening of Britain’s mass surveillance efforts. The French parliament has also approved similar sweeping powers for its agencies earlier this year following the attack on the Charlie Hebdo office. More recently, there has been talk about the British police, traditionally unarmed, considering the devising of new security policies that could scale up the presence of armed police units in London if deemed necessary.

This is correlated to the second topic of debate: urban inclusion and exclusion, which are subjects of critical importance given the number of asylum requests from Syrians and other Muslim countries that are flooding into Europe. While the number of such requests is low in France (6,700, compared with 18,000 in Hungary), President Hollande has announced that France may take in an additional 24,000 refugees over the next two years. The dilemma is that not all of them will be easily integrated into society; in mega cities the melting pot is almost always more like a salad bowl. As is common following waves of migration, those of particular communities seek out familiar identities; for ease of cultural and linguistic similarities, they tend to live in pockets in specific urban neighbourhoods. We have seen this in London, New York, even in Karachi. During the year I spent in Lyon, I resided in an arrondissement (district) primarily inhabited by Moroccans, Algerians and other North Africans. While I settled right in with this community and was not victim to any discrimination (perhaps because of my ‘non-local’, Muslim, or brown appearances), my local (‘white’) friends were not as easily appreciated in this area. It goes without saying, in Lyon this particular arrondissement was not the preferred choice for locals to frequent. Urban exclusion is a double-edged sword, which is further aggravated by political and economic grievances resulting from questionable state narratives and policies. Let’s consider some contemporary ones that have polarised France’s heterogeneous society: the 2013 military intervention in Mali  and continued support for Malian troops; far-right conservative (and anti-immigrant) narratives conveyed through leaders like Marine le Pen who in 2010 compared Muslims praying outdoors to a “Nazi-like occupation”; the banning of the hijab; the lack of economic incentives for migrants, and not to forget the attacks on Charlie Hebdo. Such grievances are important for France to consider now that it has a growing Muslim population currently estimated at five million.

Regardless, urban Europeans can be conscious of their sense of urban resilience, which is the capacity of societies, infrastructure, institutions and systems to keep moving forward after acute shocks, such as a terrorist attack, or chronic stresses, such as endemic violence, have been experienced. If planned strategically, urban resilience policies complement urban security measures. In terms of societies, we have seen the will of European civilians demonstrating resilience. Thousands have expressed solidarity with Muslims suffering from terrorism globally, most recently demonstrated through the ‘Refugees Welcome’ campaign and 10,000 Icelanders announcing their intentions to open their homes to those suffering at the hands of the IS.

Nevertheless, Europe is changing and the conduct of contemporary warfare is evolving. And European security policies for non-European countries will evolve accordingly. Much of these will be specifically designed keeping cities in mind, and for this, states will work towards strengthening infrastructure, legal frameworks and civilian institutions. In Pakistan, our escalating military operations are complemented by the militarising of infrastructure, but not with the development of civilian institutions or legal frameworks. Karachi desperately needs a strategy for urban resilience too. With at least 80 police officials killed in the city this year alone, we must think about how this operation will be sustained in the absence of the capacity of civilian institutions (like the police) to plan ahead.

Published in The Express Tribune, November 15th, 2015.

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Reader Comments (1)

  • Nadeem
    Nov 15, 2015 - 8:46PM

    Pakistanis are the most resilient society as we are facing the Paris kind of terrorism since last 12-15 years.Some kind of introspection has to be done by Europeans Govt. particularly the France, Germany , U.K countries where quite a number of nationals are radicalized to such extent that they are moving to Syria or Afghanistan for jihadi training.Recommend

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