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

Incomplete Fragments of an Unfinished Period 3


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.


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