BPR Interviews: Sarah Tobin

Dr. Sarah Tobin is an anthropologist at The Watson Institute for International and Public Affairs at Brown University, with expertise in Islam. Her work explores transformations in religious and economic life, Islamic authority, and normative Islam, public ethics, and Islamic authenticity.


BPR: What would you say to nationalists in Europe and elsewhere who may make anti-Islamic arguments to explain the Paris attacks?

Sarah Tobin: Islamic beliefs and norms do not explain this. In fact, across the Muslim world we see that Muslims are the most numerous and most frequent victims of terror. Syrians, Iraqis, Kurds, and Lebanese – a largely Muslim demographic – were all victims of ISIS in the last week prior to yesterday’s attacks in Paris. Claims that this is “Islam” are overstated and a distortion. In Islamic Law, terrorism (in Arabic: hirabah) is explicitly forbidden. To commit acts that strike fear in the hearts of people on the streets or in the market is equivalent to waging war against Allah himself, and to murder one person is as though all of humankind has been murdered (Quran 5:32). Islamic law also indicates that civilian targets are explicitly forbidden. 

Let’s assume that this is considered a military endeavor by ISIS for a moment and we accept that this is an “act of war.” In terms of military targets in warfare, the Quran also explicitly says that when the enemy is inclined towards peace, one must back off and incline also towards peace (Quran 8:61), and surprise attacks are explicitly forbidden (Quran 9:5). It is also worth noting that the gunman cries of “This is for Syria” were reportedly made in French. The gunmen were talking amongst themselves in French. While “Allahu Akbar” has emerged in the Western media as a battle cry seemingly intended to strike fear in the hearts of non-Arabic speakers, it is vital to keep in mind that religious language infuses everyday life for people in the Middle East. Phrases that translate to “God willing,” “God protect you,” or “Our Lord be with you” are part of rote greetings and salutations in everyday life. Does this make Arabic speakers more “Islamic?” Not at all.


BPR: What do you think is the dominant motive behind this attack? 

ST: ISIS has control of a landmass larger than the size of the UK. Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi is the self-proclaimed Caliphate, or leader of the Muslim world tapping into the history of Islamic leadership that occurred after the death of the Prophet Mohammed in 632.

While France had been bombing ISIS targets in Iraq for more than a year, France only began bombing ISIS targets in Syria at the end of September, 2015. At that time, it was reported that France led six aircraft to destroy an ISIS training camp in Syria that was viewed as a “threat to France.” The camp was destroyed. Was it comprised of the estimated 1,450 French citizens that have joined ISIS? It seems a plausible explanation. 

On the same day as the Paris attacks occurred, John Kerry met with leaders from 19 countries in Vienna to discuss the Syrian civil war, a ceasefire, and political transitions. This is at the end of a week in which new Kurdish pushes against ISIS occurred that took back from ISIS the city of Sinjar, which is a major stop on an ISIS trade route between Iraq- and Syria-controlled areas. It seems that the motive for this attack is a retaliation against France for the bombing of the training camp and the loss of ISIS territorial gains, serving as a prominent distraction for the world leaders otherwise seeking to move forward with a global response to the Syrian civil war. Add to this that some reports indicate that French citizenry support for ISIS is around 16% and spiking to 27% for youth ages 18-24. With this confluence of events, France is a primary target.


BPR: What should we anticipate to happen in Syria after this? How might ISIS cope?

ST: Rather than focusing on the impacts of these events in Syria, the more pressing questions are related to how domestic policy and sentiment will change in France. France has a long and complicated relationship with both Muslim citizenry and immigrant or migrant populations. Approximately 8% of French citizens are Muslim, and domestic policies forbid visible displays of religion in the public schools, including the headscarf, and ban the face veil in government offices. After the Charlie Hebdo attacks the public organized many mass demonstrations pushing for peace and tolerance, and shortly thereafter the government launched a wide-reaching surveillance program that some have likened to the much-criticized NSA surveillance program in the United States. Surveilling and tracking suspected terrorists has been part of French domestic security since the 1950’s, particularly Algerians. It seems that yesterday’s attacks will likely only grow policies that discriminate against Muslims in governmental spaces, expand the security and surveillance program, and intensify a public that envisions a different solution that includes tolerance and inclusion.


BPR: Should the world be prepared for more terror attacks in near future?

ST: If one includes the Russian plane and the attacks in Paris and if the reports by ISIS are to be believed, they have killed 400 people on 3 continents in the last week. This secures ISIS as a global terrorist organization. More attacks like this should be expected, unfortunately.


BPR: Is there an existing belief that terrorism happens mostly in the Middle East? Will the outbreak of terrorism in supposedly peaceful Paris change that?

ST: I haven’t seen any indication that the existing normative belief is that terrorism is middle-east centered. I think that if that were true, the recent events in Lebanon and Iraqi, and more importantly the Syrian civil war that has been going on for years, would have attracted much more attention in west. Middle Eastern Muslim lives long terrorized by ISIS and others often matter little to the U.S. public.

The ideologies of terrorism and the Middle East most frequently render Arab and Muslim women and young girls as “victims” and men and young boys “latent threats.” We must keep in mind first and foremost that men and young boys are also victims. And Syrians of all these demographics have been long fleeing the violence and terror that was perpetrated in Paris last night.