As it became clear that responsibility for the horrific massacres in Paris lay with so-called Islamic State, prominent figures sought to place the events in context. Jeb Bush, the Republican presidential hopeful, called it part of “an organised effort to destroy western civilisation”. Rupert Murdoch tweeted: “Paris outrage not an attack on all humanity, but an attack on us, ie, western civilisation”. The commentator Iain Martin put it like this: “Western civilisation – democracy, free speech, free association, the rule of law, prosperity – is under attack by barbarians.”
The terrorists certainly had civilisation in their crosshairs. They spread chaos and killing through a city famous for its culture, its intermingling of influences, its freedom of expression. In as much as they targeted one of Europe’s great capitals, it was an assault on European values – the way our citizens choose to live and behave. However, it is wrong to frame the atrocities as attacks on “western civilisation” alone.
Etymology can often mislead. In this case, however, I think it is instructive. The word civilisation has its origins in the Latin civis, a citizen, itself derived from an earlier form meaning “to settle”. The corresponding Arabic word is madaniya, its root maddana, “to build cities”. We talk of “returning to civilisation” when we come back to town from the countryside. Civilisation is about living together, people pooling their resources, sharing the same space. Cities work best when people are free to move about unmolested, to work and play, to learn and to be entertained.
Isis represents the opposite. In its centres of power, normal life is suspended: there is only one correct way of doing things. Religious minorities are killed or forcibly converted. There is fear everywhere and no pleasure. These are military cantonments, not cities in the usual sense.
This situation is a travesty of Middle Eastern as much as western civilisation. Istanbul, Cairo, Alexandria, Beirut, Baghdad and Jerusalem are historic archetypes of free cities – places where races, cultures and religions mingled for centuries. In some of them, despite the many brutalisations of the 20th century, that character endures. It would be very wrong to assume that Middle Eastern culture – and Islam – are inimical to urban life at its best.
All this is particularly important given that how we understand the Paris attacks will influence our response. And there are real problems with seeing Isis primarily as an enemy of western civilisation.
First of all, it downplays the suffering of Middle Easterners at the hands of Isis. On Thursday, for example, 43 people in a mainly Shia part of Beirut were murdered by Isis suicide bombers. Although that city is far more used to violence than Paris, it still represented an assault on normal, civilised life. The most immediate opponents of the violent jihadists are the people they live among – the Muslims, Christians, Alawites and Yazidis of Iraq and Syria. They may have been deprived of many of the benefits of civilisation – security, freedom of association and worship – for years under dictatorship, under occupation, under civil war, under Isis. But it is still a life with those benefits that they desire.
Secondly, it distorts our ability to recognise who our proper allies are. There is a broad risk of tarring the whole Middle East with the brush of extremism – as though the violent ideology of Isis is typical of the entire region, and life across it carries on in an utterly different mode to our own. Here in the west, that can mean those of Arab or Muslim heritage being blamed and abused.
More specifically, if we see civilisation as a shared, global value, one that has arisen independently in many different places, we can also be clearer about what stymies it. Isis does, and so, to different degrees, does Saudi Arabia’s state puritanism, Assad’s brutality in Syria, Sisi’s authoritarianism in Egypt and Iran’s limits on personal freedom. But is there some vaguely uncivilisable aspect of the Middle Eastern mind? No.
There will be fierce debates about how to respond to all these challenges. Some well-meaning actions will undoubtedly make things worse. But let’s be clear about one thing: Isis hates civilisation wherever it sees it, not just in the west.