Paris, Mumbai, and the Terrorist ‘Assault on Freedom’


Garima Raghuvanshy and Jakob De Roover

On 26 November 2008, three days of bloodshed and horror unfolded in Mumbai as a group of terrorists spread across the city, indiscriminately murdering civilians and striking iconic locations. On 13 November 2015, the attacks in Paris caused a similar spate of death and destruction. Both attacks were carried out by Islamic terrorists and both were eerily similar in structure and strategy, so much so that the events in Paris are being described as a ‘Mumbai-style’ assault on European soil. For several Indians, the Paris attacks were a prompt to revisit what happened in Mumbai. To ask: How did we react? What did our leaders say?

Responses to both attacks denounced them as inhumane, cowardly, barbarous acts. Headline after headline from Mumbai has been recreated in the coverage of Paris: India must stop being a soft target, Mumbai’s stoic courage, Terror on our Doorstep … . However, despite all similarities, the Paris attacks took on a dimension that did not and does not exist in reactions to the Mumbai attack. While India and the rest of the world were horrified by the violence and terror caused by these criminals, the self-description of the terrorists – as avengers for the repressed Muslims of India, particularly in Kashmir – was hardly discussed, let alone accepted. There was no talk of a ‘War of Civilizations’, except by the American press. Barring a few exceptions, no columnist or commentator, no eyewitness, Mumbaikar or otherwise, described 26/11 as an attack on something integral and abstract. There are hardly any descriptions to be found of 26/11 as an attack on Indian values, or as an assault on the Indian way of life – not in 2008, and not in the seven years since.

On the other hand, the Paris attack is described as exactly that: an assault on European values, on the ‘universal values’ Europe has given to humankind, on the European way of life, and on the freedom that Europe embodies. Citizens, politicians, and the media may disagree on how to react to this assault, but they stand united in their descriptions of it. In this ‘conversation’, there is another partner – IS. While IS and the West resent each other, they seem to agree on many fronts. IS describes itself as an Islamic State; the West discusses a ‘Clash of Civilizations’. IS fighters describe themselves as religious warriors; the Western media air discussions on the problem of ‘fanaticism’ and ‘radical Islam’. IS describes concertgoers at the Bataclan as “hundreds of pagans gathered for a concert of prostitution and vice”; people in Paris organize a “giant orgy Republic Square”, proclaiming “Yes, we are idolaters and perverts.” IS says the Paris attack is meant to instil fear in the minds of people in Europe; for four days in November, all public events in Brussels were cancelled, shopping malls and streets and schools were shut down, and the city’s metro was closed – measures that caused a growing sense of threat and fear in the minds of adults and children alike.


We think that one avenue into developing a better understanding of recent events is to contrast Europe’s response to Paris with India’s response to Mumbai. These are two similar cases of violence, but they were and are experienced and described in two opposite ways.

Two statements suffice to illustrate the contrast. In 2008, the President of India, Pratibha Patil, said something seemingly obvious and yet profound about the Mumbai attacks: “This mindless attack is the work of those who have no regard for human life, and are pursuing a path of destruction.” In the aftermath of the Paris attacks, these were the words of Angela Merkel: “This attack on freedom is not only aimed at Paris. We are all targets, and it affects all of us … For that reason we will respond together.”

One attack is a “path of destruction” while the other is an “attack on freedom.” Why were these attacks experienced and described so differently in Europe and in India?

One part of the answer is clear – Indians did not accept the self-description of the terrorists. They did not enter into a conversation on the terms set by the terrorists. Instead, they understood the violence in radically different terms, and perhaps in the only terms that can break a vicious cycle whereby violence begets violence. Indians understood the attack in Mumbai as “a path of destruction,” not of values, but of human lives. The terrorists may believe many things about their actions and their role in the world, but Indians saw their actions as purely destructive – of the perpetrators and their victims. No way of life needed to be defended against some competing way of life – precisely because terrorism is seen as a path to destruction, not as representative of a conflict between two ways of life. On the other hand, Europe accepted the self-description of the terrorists, and thus, also the terrorists’ description of the events of 13 November. Why is this difference important?

First of all, the European reaction has led to the escalation of violence. In the name of freedom, a way of life, and the French nation, François Hollande declared war almost immediately after the attack. The UN Security Council unanimously passed a resolution urging all member states to fight IS in all ways necessary. Hollande’s promise of a firm and determined France is similar to some Indian reactions after 26/11. When the Indian government did not declare full-scale war on Pakistan, many of us felt a sense of shame and weakness. We thought back to 9/11 and America’s ‘War on Terror’, and to the subsequent absence of terrorist attacks on American soil. It had seemed that the USA was strong and capable of extracting justice, while we Indians were shamefully weak.

Seven years after 26/11, the disaster that was averted due to that ‘weakness’ is amply clear. Indians generally did not begin to see terrorism as acts in a war between two parties. In contrast, copying the American response after 9/11, Europe stated that the terrorists are waging a war and that we have to fight back by entering into this war. More and more countries now feel compelled to join this war. In the weeks following the Paris attack, France has bombed Syria, the United Kingdom and Germany have decided to aid French military strikes, and Turkey shot down a Russian jet over violation of airspace.

Second, we need to raise the question as to why this description of the terrorist attacks as an assault on freedom appears so obvious. Look at the plethora of other terrorist attacks in different parts of the world. Take the attacks in Mali, Iraq, or Boko Haram’s ‘scorched-earth’ campaign in Nigeria and Niger. Many of these are of a scale that Europe has not yet seen. For instance, Boko Haram’s campaign in Nigeria has killed at least 17,000 people and made more than 2.6 million others homeless in a period of just six years. Yet, these attacks are not characterized as some massive assault on a way of life and its values. Have the victim societies of these attacks described them in such a manner? If not, why is the notion of 13/11 as an ‘attack on freedom’ so self-evident to Europeans, and perhaps to the rest of the world? Clearly, this is only one way of understanding these acts of violence. Hence, it is an important question to ask if it is the best possible way.

Third, given the fact that Europe experiences the Paris attacks as a huge threat to the values of freedom and democracy, how strong can these values be in Europe itself? If the attacks acquire this status, it seems these values and the related way of life must be very vulnerable. This must be how Europeans experience the current state of their own way of life. Otherwise, how could 130 deaths in Paris herald the end of European freedom?

In the weeks following the Paris attacks, it seems the right answer to these questions is: “Yes, European values are indeed exceedingly vulnerable today.” But this vulnerability stems in large part from within Europe itself. Over the last weeks, European countries have taken extraordinary measures in the name of the threat to European values such as freedom and democracy, even while these measures undermine the very values that they aim to defend. The three-month emergency in France which threatens civil rights is just one example of this subverting of values. In Belgium, the head of the parliamentary commission on terror, a Flemish nationalist MP, made statements like the following: “I am not a jurist but more of a pragmatic. The jurists might disagree with me, but I think we have gone beyond the time of thinking ‘Can we do this or may we do that?’ We need to move towards a cult of security …” This is a perversion of values of freedom: denying them in the name of safeguarding them.

As S.N. Balagangadhara argues, this is precisely what terrorism does. The terrorists share the same moral intuitions and ideals that most of us share; they are part of a moral community. They also think it is deeply immoral when their child is maimed by a drone attack or when their father is beheaded by the Saudi regime. Yet, at the same time, they draw on the moral foundations of a community in order to transform their own crimes (maiming children and beheading aid workers) into exceptionally ethical acts. In other words, terrorism calls upon the shared ethics of a moral community in order not simply to justify crimes but to first convert them into praiseworthy heroic acts. This is the ultimate subversion of the foundations of a moral community.

And it is here that Europe seems to be disquietingly vulnerable. In response to terrorism, it begins to make very similar moves: it accepts that the terrorist attacks are not crimes but exceptional attacks on a way of life and its values, which require equally exceptional measures in response. Shockingly, these measures take the same form: they subvert the values and ideals of a community in the name of those values and ideals. We think this accounts at least partially for the experience that Europe has of the terrorist attacks as an assault on freedom and its way of life. It is Europe itself that transforms the attacks in this way (and thus indirectly joins forces with the terrorists). In this sense, terrorism indeed poses a tremendous threat to the European way of life, not simply because of the weakness of the ideals of freedom and democracy in today’s Europe, but because European societies are strikingly susceptible to the phenomenon that terrorism is.

The fact that Indian society did not respond to the Mumbai attacks in the same way shows that there is nothing inevitable about this susceptibility to terrorism. In order to find a new framework of description and a superior way of coping with terrorist attacks, we have to ask ourselves – why did Indians and Europeans experience and describe similar acts of violence in such dissimilar ways? This is a question that we have to answer together. Today, we can only state that India reacted differently, and that this reaction averted more suffering, more violence. We do not yet have scientific hypotheses to account for these two different reactions to terrorism. We need such hypotheses urgently, if our respective reactions are to be intelligible to each other. Only then can we compare competing ways of understanding and responding to such violence and assess these as alternatives to each other.

Nonetheless, we have some parts of the answer, incomplete fragments to take heed from. When we reflect on different reactions to terrorism in the world and on the different outcomes resulting from these reactions, we realize that seeing terrorism as an “assault on freedom” is a misdiagnosis bound to have disastrous results.

The Pestilence of Rabid Nationalism


Jakob De Roover and Sarika Rao

Nationalism is the ultimate pestilence that has destroyed the flower of our European culture. Thus wrote the Austrian-Jewish author Stefan Zweig in his 1942 memoirs. Zweig sent the manuscript to the publisher the day before he and his wife committed suicide. They simply could not live with what was happening to Europe.

It would take years before the European nation-states saw that Zweig was right. After 1945, many opened their eyes to the ravages of nationalism. This should never happen again, they felt. Some of the nation-states embarked on an exciting experiment: the unification of Europe, in which they surrendered part of their sovereignty without any violence and gradually entwined their economies, even though the same nations had tried to destroy each other some years before. While the world wars had created gaping holes in Europe’s cultural consciousness, she could still dream of a world that would finally realize her ideals. All men would one day become brothers under the sway of the wings of joy, the European anthem suggested.

The national interest

Meanwhile, someting very different was happening across the Atlantic. After 1945, the Cold War began. Together with its military technology, the United States of America developed a most potent poison: rabid nationalism. Typical of this form of nationalism is its foreign policy. While critics accused the US of imperialism, they were wrong. In the era of the colonial empires, some European leaders always stood up to argue that the general interest of the Empire should override the particular interests of their own countries. Rabid nationalism, in contrast, subordinates everything to ‘the national interest’ and ‘national security’. Because of this tendency, it acquires several very harmful properties.

Even when a people initially fights for important ideals, it begins to betray these once it gets caught in the claws of rabid nationalism. After the experience of the Second World War and the crucial victory over Nazism, the US wanted to safeguard the freedom of other nations by protecting them against ‘totalitarianism’. Because of the absolute priority given to the national interest, however, this ideal soon lost its force and its credibility. More and more, it served as a mask for subordinating the entire world to the alleged interest of the American nation.

For a nation-state suffering from rabid nationalism, everything seems allowed to advance its interest. This was also the case in the US: it destabilized democratically elected governments through infiltration and violence. It organized coups and brought dictators to power. Whenever this was considered opportune, the American government provided weapons to guerrilla movements or gave support to regimes sponsoring terrorism. Its spies were often given a blank cheque. In other words, the foreign policy of rabid nationalism involves systematic violations of international law and elementary ethics.

This type of foreign politics shows similarities with another phenomenon: that of terrorism. In what sense? As our research group has been arguing, the core of terrorism lies in the fact that it transforms crime into supererogation (the realm of actions that go above and beyond the call of duty). Crimes become heroic acts. Terrorists kill but they experience their actions as expressions of an extraordinary morality that goes far beyond ordinary obligations. Basically, they equate the act of a man who saves a drowning child and dies while doing so (because he could not swim) to the acts of men who walk into a school and randomly shoot children. In their eyes, these are exemplary actions of the type that only the saints and heroes of this world are able to perform.

In other words, terrorism makes the criminal into the praiseworthy. And this is just what rabid nationalism also does. In the name of the national interest, it does not simply approve of illegal and immoral acts, but also transforms these into extraordinary moral achievements. Thus, the US kept miraculously converting its disastrous foreign policy into the generous gifting of freedom and security to a world living under threat.

Symbiosis with terrorism

Given this fundamental similarity between the two phenomena, rabid nationalism feeds terrorism in the countries upon which it lets loose its foreign policy. Among local movements and regimes, it encourages a tendency that is often already present: transforming their own misdeeds into heroic acts committed in the name of some cause or the other. In the Middle East, Afghanistan and Pakistan, these movements began to call upon Islam to justify this move. Their self-image told them that they were the representatives of the Muslim nation fighting a war against the enemies of God and the forces of evil.

Terrorism and rabid nationalism may seem to be antithetical forces, but in fact they live in symbiosis.

Just as one feeds on the other, the reverse is also the case. For instance, it was not a coincidence that – in the aftermath of 9/11 – the American president and his advisors accepted the self-image of the terrorists. They joined the latter in an alleged war, thinking that it would be a piece of cake to win it. When Bush said “you’re either with us or against us in the fight against terror,” Osama Bin Laden agreed, simply adding that the terrorists were the Western crusaders. In response to the threats of terrorism, leaders like Bush and Blair once again sold immorality as exceptional morality. They systematically lied to their own population, allegedly to protect the world order. In the meantime, we have learnt how their disastrous interventions in Iraq helped destroy that order.

And thus we come to the world of today. The ISIS terrorists also see themselves as heroes that fight valiantly and not as criminals that murder. They claim to represent the caliphate, the nation of all true Muslims which they aim to realize here on earth. They think they are extraordinary ‘radical’ fighters, capable of unseen courage and sacrifice, who seem to be mad in the eyes of ordinary people. And the West has not only embraced this story, but also shouts it from the rooftops: they are ‘radicalized Muslims’, ‘psychopaths’, ‘madmen’, ‘fanatics’ …

What we are witness to in Paris is not just the attempt of the terrorists to extend the battlefield of their so-called war, but their growing success in executing their agenda. “France is in a state of war,” the French government proclaims and public opinion confirms. In the name of the nation and her values, François Hollande plans to restrict constitutional rights for which the French people fought for centuries. In the meantime, he is proudly sending off jetfighters to bomb cities in Syria, closing the borders with other Schengen-countries, declaring a months-long state of emergency, and investing heavily into the intelligence services. Now, such measures are explicitly described as the goals of the terrorists in their handbooks and propaganda videos; they are manifestations of the symbiosis between terrorism and rabid nationalism.

The ideologues

It is difficult to miss the fact that rabid nationalism has now infected Europe. Calling upon the values of freedom and the rule of law, we are busy violating those values – all of this for ‘national security’ and ‘the national interest’. Yet, decades of experience of the US have shown that these notions are not only incoherent but also tremendously harmful: almost everything the Americans did in name of their nationalist interest has turned against them and made the world unsafer than before. How could so many of us remain blind to this, all this time? Why do our politicians and intellectuals lack the integrity to fight this massive deception?

To understand, we need to introduce another dimension of rabid nationalism: it destroys the search for knowledge about human beings and replaces it by ideology. The US did this during the Cold War. The government pumped huge amounts of money into the universities in order to produce academics ready to sell the American ideology of ‘freedom’. Thousands of academics were on the CIA’s payroll. In all kinds of disciplines, they launched projects abhorrent to any human being with a minimal moral consciousness. Psychologists, for instance, used psychiatric patients as guinea pigs in experiments that aimed to create methods for manipulating the human mind; they also helped to develop torture techniques. Until very recently, the American Psychological Association (APA) actively endorsed and contributed to such work, as a damning report recently showed. The secret services infiltrated research institutions and student associations across the globe. And dramatically: critical academics also substituted ideology for knowledge, simply preferring the ideology of ‘political correctness’.

The role of the ideologues is as clear in rabid nationalism as it is in terrorism: they must try and transform the factual world into an imaginary world. Once the universities had produced enough of them, they could spread into society. In politics, they became ‘spin doctors’; in the academic world, ‘professors’; in the media, ‘top journalists’; in the world of business, ‘advertising experts’. All of them share the same property: they are not interested in what things are really like, but in how things are seen. Politicians should be seen as ‘firm and strong leaders’ and as ‘good administrators’ by the voters; universities are companies that require ‘branding’; the media is interested only in ratings. Advertising experts are at least honest: they admit that they are willing to tell any story to sell their products.


Today, Europe is importing the symbiosis between rabid nationalism and terrorism at an accelerated pace. In France, we see how Hollande’s advisors whisper into his ear that he should come across as ‘firm’, ‘strong’, ‘efficient’, and ‘unafraid’ in the eyes of the French people. In Belgium, we are imitating in silly ways what the rest of the Western world teaches us. We have our own ‘strong’ and ‘firm’ politicians who want to go to war with ‘Muslim extremism’. In the words of our Minister of Home Affairs, they are going to ‘clean up’ entire neighbourhoods by checking each house for potential radicals and terrorists. The leader of the Flemish nationalists, the largest party in Belgium, is now demanding a kind of patriot act for the country. These politicians say that everyday life should continue and that we should not allow the terrorists to sow fear, while they take measures that do this more successfully than any terrorist could dream of.


The success of rabid nationalism becomes clear when we consider the fact that the worst cases are not even found in nationalist circles. Our own paragon is a socialist named Hans Bonte, the mayor of the commune of Vilvoorde near Brussels. He endlessly repeats the same prattling about ‘radicalization’. Without any advice from the qualified institutions, he unilaterally raises the threat level of his town to four (the highest level, comparable to a state of emergency) and shuts down the schools. He is a good student of the Americans, whose workshops trained him well in the art of parroting: he pleads for a ‘war on weapons’ in Brussels – undoubtedly as intelligent as Reagan’s ‘war on drugs’ and Bush’s ‘war on terror’, two of the great political failures of recent times. But then, as the spin doctors say: you should appear in the media as frequently as possible to get votes.

Europe is also increasingly busy creating its own collection of ideologues. University professors are always prepared to come and sell clichés about ‘radicalization’ and ‘the war against terrorism and extremism’ in television studios. What the media love perhaps most of all is to produce academics with names that suggest a Muslim origin, who should then represent a ‘moderate’ standpoint. Such ‘radicalization experts’ have sprung up like mushrooms in the past year or so.

However, by seeing ‘radicalization’ as the challenge we are facing, a most insidious danger creeps in: we are accepting the self-image of the terrorists, namely their claim that they are the radical representatives of true Islam. In this way, rabid nationalism will find its opponent in another nation: ‘the true Muslim nation of the caliphate’. This is the model that ISIS wants to impose on the world; it is also the model that European nationalists and racists will endorse in the coming years; together they will actualize it.

The flower of our culture

‘A world of terror demands strong measures’, people love to say today, ‘and what is your alternative?’ Well, what we are doing now is to add the pestilence of rabid nationalism to the poison of terrorism. We are happily feeding the symbiosis between these two that has caused so much harm to the world. The alternative for swallowing poison is clear: stop doing so; find out which poison it is and how it works; then find an antidote and take that in the right quantities.

The question that stares us Europeans in the face must be clear: Will we let rabid nationalism poison the flower of our culture, this time for good? Shall we leave to our children a Europe that is the battlefield of an alleged war between ‘the worldwide Muslim nation’ and our own ‘democratic nations’? Or will we do honour to the statesmen and -women who strove towards the unification of Europe after the ravages of nationalism, to the achievements of our ancestors, to the ideals of freedom for which they fought, to the magnificent beauty of our own culture?