ISIS launch a symbolic war on European Culture as more civilians die last night in latest Paris Attacks


Along with everyone else, when I heard last night’s breaking news regarding the terrorist attacks on Paris I felt a mixture of shock, anger and deep sadness, all compounded by the fact that this came so quickly after the Charlie Hebdo incident in January.

Paris is yet again a wounded city, as it counts the victims and struggles to make sense of yet more horrific events. It is however not by coincidence that ISIS have repeatedly targeted a city and a nation which is so representative of liberté, and which has contributed so much to Western thought and values. An attack on Paris is an attack on all of us, and in targeting the city ISIS wage a symbolic war on our European history.

Of course, Paris is geographically close to home. In just over three hours, one can arrive in Paris from central London without even boarding a boat or plane. Many of us have friends or family living there (who could inform of of their safety using the Facebook Safety Check facility). Many of us know the city well from visiting as a tourist.

But we are also connected to Paris in a much more profound sense, and indeed I would argue that the entire freethinking world owes a great deal to the French. Historically, Paris is a city that has always been at the forefront of social progress, and its thinkers have shaped the modern world in which we live. It is difficult to study an area of philosophy, politics or art whose foundations cannot be traced, in some way, back to its rues and boulevards.

Enlightenment thinkers such as Voltaire and Tocqueville have provided the cornerstones for modern political thought. France has given the world the notion of rights, the notion of citizenship, and the notion of democracy. Nowadays, we might take the values of ‘Liberté, égalité, fraternité’ for granted, but it is impossible to overestimate now quite how extraordinary the Declaration of the Rights of Man was back in 1789, at a time when the rest of Europe was lagging far behind intellectually. The French model is one that was very much used by the founding fathers of America, and much of the language we see the American Government use concerning civil liberties originates in the French Revolution. Women too have the French to thank for early-modern feminist thought: Paris was one of the first places in Europe where women could discuss freely their social position, and later on the French Revolution would establish them as citizens in their own right, and not the property of their husband or father.

France is a nation that has always concerned itself with and governed itself on ideals. Perhaps those ideals may not have been fulfilled successfully (for example the French Revolution), but nevertheless, those ideals have provided the basis for the civilised world in which we live, and ultimately they are the reason why France has become such a prominent target for anyone who wishes to attack the West at large.

Of course France has had problems defending itself before. It has witnessed and resisted invasion and occupation. There is of course some good-natured rivalry between the British and the French; the occasional joke, the odd put-down. Deep down however, there is a strong mutual respect between us, and countless times we have stood shoulder to shoulder with the French on battlefields across Europe. Yes, there are of course some subtle cultural differences between us: whereas the French are fiercely secular, we have a tendency more towards diversity and multiculturalism and whereas France is a republic, we still live under a monarchy. Essentially, we are a little more conservative in nature, but nevertheless our ideals are fundamentally the same. Their history is our history, their values are our values, and their fight is our fight.

French philosophers have long grappled with the notion of freedom and what it means. In the aftermath of Nazi occupation, Sartre wrote quite simply that ‘Freedom is what you do with what’s been done to you’. We must stand alongside the French, once again, in order to defend our proud European morals against those of extreme Islamism. In doing so, we simultaneously exercise and protect our freedom. And this is why these terror tactics will never win: reaction is itself freedom. The more we are attacked, the more fervently we exercise our freedom. Freedom is bigger than them, and resistance is shown in every small act of bravery and defiance. It is shown in going about one’s daily life without being deterred by fear. Those who do not know freedom cannot possibly understand this, and therefore those who oppose freedom cannot possibly defeat it.

In the meantime, we offer our support and condolences to the people of France. France has done much to give the world liberté, and now we must use that freedom to stand united with the French in solidarité.

 By Kate Stevenson, @katestevo94

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