Part of the grim reality of the frequency of terrorist attacks in Europe is that now there has become established a predictable pattern of reaction. Shock, then anger, then the recriminations and the political grandstanding. Another stage has now been added: the solidarity sneering.
It started with the Paris attacks and the partly justifiable complaint that deadly bombings in Beirut just days before had not received the same media or political attention or expressions of support. This criticism has now been extended to the expressions of solidarity with Brussels, as a manifestation of the seniority of European lives, reducing the discussion to a battle between “us” and “them”.
“You there, mourner of Brussels, have you heard about the attacks by al-Qaida in Ouagadougou?” (I had actually, mostly on French media outlets.) “Did you see the contrast in the numbers of heads of state at the Paris and Ankara memorial ceremonies?” “Did you know that Tintin, the symbol of the Brussels solidarity, has a racist past?” “Maybe Belgium’s imperialist history in the Congo should give it pause when choosing its symbols?”
All these questions make a valid point, but their premise is flawed. A complicated confused medley of emotions, all possibly justifiable in isolation, together form a knot of resentment that refuses to accept the victimhood of those who have perished – because they are citizens of a powerful country, and victims elsewhere have not been afforded the same ceremony and grief.
It is a bleak tit-for-tat game of dehumanisation – with a flawed logic to make a point about the seniority of white deaths in a world where Islamic State kills far more Arabs every day. And one ends up guilty of the same crime – victimhood denial. The “whatabouter” who asks these questions is a not too distant cousin of the racist and the xenophobe, who sees the slaughter and uses it to make a point about immigration.
It is noble and worthwhile to highlight all the victims of terrorism – and not just at the hands of Isis – all over the world. And there is certainly a disparity of attention to casualties. If there ever was an algorithm to calculate the coverage of a tragedy, the foreigner death count is usually an accurate tool, albeit one that is not easily always boiled down to a callous disregard for non-western lives. But there is something sinister about criticising people who are in shock and a state of mourning.
Yes, in some cases those instant expressions of solidarity become tainted with something darker: assertions of national identity in the face of assault can rarely be cleansed of all traces of jingoism. But people of a loosely knit clan, defined by geographical proximity and cultural affinity and, in the case of Europe, actual political connection instinctively feel more affected and more bound, and that is just fine. Seeking the reassurance of common cause is a normal, natural human impulse that should not be begrudged in the aftermath of disaster.
But it is also understandable that this makes people nervous. To European Muslims in particular, this galvanisation is potentially a troubling harbinger of things to come, a drawing of battle lines between Europe and the enemy within. But to be resigned to this is to accept that terrorists’ exhortation – that European lives are not yours.
There are many ways that Muslims in particular might feel suspected and subordinated – but the victory is in rejecting both this and Isis’s othering. You are Belgian or French or British, even if everyone is trying to tell you that you are not.
The resentment is fundamentally about power – the relative influence, wealth and the perceived supremacy of European values. Every national monument, TV news trail, Facebook profile picture and even Uber icon wrapped in the colours of the Belgian flag amplifies a message of the barbaric assault on a noble victim. This is grating sometimes, as exaggerated expressions of unity can, to some people, only reinforce the preciousness and exceptionalism of the west.
But it is a prerogative that is also available to those nations whose victims the west has ignored. When there is an attack in Pakistan, what is stopping its ally Saudi Arabia from projecting the Pakistani flag on to its Kingdom Tower, as it did with the Belgian flag?
What stops African heads of state from congregating en masse in Ivory Coast to remember al-Qaida’s victims this month? What stops every Arab head of state from mobilising ideologically, politically and militarily to defeat Isis, instead of leaving it to be hammered out in the US Congress and the British parliament and the Russian Duma?
Perhaps this vacuum of solidarity, this lack of pan-regional accord, is the main reason Isis still finds recruits, skilled as it is in presenting an empowering narrative, and unifying lens through which to see the world.
Nesrine Malik is a Sudanese-born writer and commentator who lives in London. She previously worked in the financial sector.