The Great Rebellion of our age: thoughts on the Paris terrorist attacks

History repeats itself. As simple as it sounds, it never ceases to surprise me how the exact same thing happens over and over again and we choose not to learn from it.

Around the same time the killings in Paris happened, I read an article about the “Great Rebellion” or “Sepoy Revolt” in India, 1857, when 300 Sepoy—local soldiers recruted by the East India Company—insurged against their British officers, rode to Delhi and massacrated each and every Christian citizen, men, women and children alike. What followed were countless brutal battles and finally the victory of the British troops that invaded Delhi and on their part slaughtered thousands of civilians.

The roots of the revolt lay in the British imperialistic violence and their ruthless invasion of Indian soil since the beginning of the 18th century. Lord Wellesley, a cunning rhetorician, with the help of the conservative media, had managed to portray the Indian Mogul Tipu Sultan as an evil Muslim monster, a raging fanatic, a cruel enemy, to convince the British Parlament of an expensive and controversial crusade, aimed at demonstrating power over all European rivals, as well as striking preemptively against potentially hostile Muslim empires. Thus, British presence in India had developed from an economical partnership to an exploitative occupation, that not only annexed two thirds of the territory, but also portrayed the Christian colonizers as liberators, that were to free the Indians of their dark backwardness and bring them salvation. However, the Indian population’s fear of the missionaries had fueled resentment toward British rule and boosted the rise of Islamist groups eager to end the kāfir (unbeliever) regime on Indian soil. After the rebellion had been put down, the Mogul emperor, who had cooperated with the Sepoy—most of whom were Hindus—, was accused of partaking in an international Muslim conspiracy. Instead of questioning their own foreign policy, the British found the reason for all bloodshed in Islamist fanatism. As always was and until today has remained the case, the Western imperialists refused to understand that forcing a racist and hegemonial regime onto a foreign land must have two effects: to turn the population against the intruder and to offer a breeding ground for any type of extremism.

Without wanting to justify any kind of violence no matter what its history may be, I will link the bloody events of Delhi to those of Paris in two senses: (1) that the violence we have seen in Paris twice this year, in New York’s traumatic 9/11 attacks, and in various other Western cities, rose from the ruins of Western Imperialism; and (2) that the way violence is dealt with in the media and in society in Europe and the USA is something that we as the civil society urgently need to challenge.

Here I would like to quote Marx’s analysis of the medial reaction to the Sepoy Revolt. He criticizes that the atrocities committed by the Sepoy—as cruel as they were—were presented to the public in minute detail, whereas equally horrific doings by the British soldiers were seen as legitimate military missions hardly worth discussing in the public realm and the press.

Of course cutting off noses, breasts, etc., the gruesome mutilations committed by the Sepoy, are more repulsive to the European sentiment than is the Secretary of the Society for Peace, who orders firebombs to be thrown on residential buildings in Guangzhou, or a French marshall roasting Arabs locked into a mountain cave; or when the skin of British soldiers is whipped off with a cat-o’-nine-tails in front of a rapidly assembled war court martial… or when any of the philanthropic tools are applied, such as is custom in British penal colonies. Cruelty, as all other things, has its fashion that changes with time and place.”

(Marx, 1857)

As I have written before in my comment on Charlie Hebdo, feeling sad about the victims of Paris and identifying with them as young people who went to see their favorite band, as I myself have done so many times, does not mean that we must give in to the propaganda that is built around these events and that tries to make us accomplices to a violent dichotomy of us versus them. It is not heartless to wonder why 129 killed in Paris paints Sydney Opera House or the Pyramids with red, white and blue light installments, whereas 147 shot in a Kenyan University hardly makes it into public discourse. It is not insensitive to ask why Facebook activates a safety check function for Paris but not for Beirut, that was subjected to a terrorist attack the day before. Anyway, being bombed is normal for those people, isn’t it?

It is certainly not wrong to criticize a nationalist flag that inevitably carries within it decades of colonialist violence, dehumanization and imperialist vanity being offered by an American social media corporation to its users as a one-click profile picture modification to signal solidarity with our civilized humanity.

In Judith Butler’s words, we might ask: “Who counts as human? Whose lives count as lives? And, finally, What makes for a grievable life?“ When reading Judith Butler, I wondered, whether maybe certain deaths are not grieved, because in our minds—the Western minds—those that died where never really alive in the first place. They were humans not regarded as humans, Butler claims, arguing that those victims are violated in two ways: there is the violence committed against them in bombing, torture, terrorist attacks… but before that, violence is committed against them in the way that they are dehumanized, bereaved of their status as a completely equal person, not one that needs help, guidance, domination or enlightenment by the self-proclaimed civilized part of the world.

If you have read Frantz Fanon, one of the most prominent anti-colonial writers in Algeria, the topic of objectification might sound familiar to you, and you might then know that in his analysis the only way to turn back into a subject is by using violence. In Fanon’s theory, violence in the colonial context is systematic: „The purpose of the physical, psychological and structural forms of violence is to debase, dehumanize, depersonalize and reify the colonized.“ This colonial violence committed against the colonized remains within them until the day of revolt, when it is externalized and in turn directed against the colonizer. Violence is then seen as a cleansing force that erases the categories of an oppressive past and allows the colonized to reclaim their status as autonomous beings with the capacity to act.

With the help of these theories, let us look at how they could explain what we have all been talking and reading about since Friday, the 13th of November 2015.

For the last centuries, European rulers and later the United States, have held all sorts of peoples across the world hostage, and systematically run down, exploited and violated their homelands for economical profit and political power. They have provoked civil wars by supporting rebel groups to remove inconvenient regimes. They have ignored devastating human rights records and even financed the responsible governments for economical benefit. They have forced never-ending debt on countries that had no chance to develop, and have flooded their markets with cheap, subsidized Western trash. And after all this, they have proceeded to discriminate against all the non-White people in Europe and the U.S. that they themselves forced into exile—or that simply made use of their freedom to live wherever they choose, just like we do.

Still not trying to excuse the resulting violence, however, I must say that I would be surprised if there had been any outcome other than violence. We are made to believe that our modern nations are nonviolent. But violence takes many forms other than shooting or blowing oneself up. Violence by civilized nations against the „barbarians“ is called sanction, intervention, mission, structural adjustment program, etc. Such violence is often needed to reach political supremacy and economical profit. So it is no wonder that our governments constantly need to convince us that those people whom they drop bombs on, whose homes they destroy anonymously, whom they leave to drown in the Mediterrenean, that those people are not really people. Because if every death caused as much outrage as the deaths in Paris, these governments would lose their legitimacy in a second. Bombing Syria one day after the attacks in Paris seems a good solution then. Last Thursday’s decision of the German government to join in the war seems justifiable now that we have to fear for our lives, doesn’t it?

We need to be very careful that we don’t let ourselves be mobilized for a war that serves no civilian’s interest; that we don’t allow the media to pretend that these attacks have any remote thing to do with refugees or Muslims or anything foreign to us; that we don’t let these attacks serve as a pretense to take away our freedom through a state of emergency or exaggerated security measures. We need to grieve the victims of Paris, the victims of Kenya, those of Syria, Iraq, Palestine, those of the Holocaust, of Vietnam and of Beirut—we need to grieve all the victims of an unjust system and use this grief to identify with suffering itself, as Judith Butler writes:

Is there something to be gained from grieving (…) and not endeavoring to seek a resolution for grief through violence? Is there something to be gained in the political domain by maintaining grief as part of the framework within which we think our international ties? If we stay with the sense of loss, are we left feeling only passive and powerless, as some might fear? Or are we, rather, returned to a sense of human vulnerability, to our collective responsibility for the physical lives of one another?

(Butler, 2004)


Butler, Judith: Precarious Life. The Power of Mourning and Violence. Verso, 2004.
Dalrymple, William: Delhi 1857. In: Auf den Ruinen der Imperien. Edition Le Monde Diplomatique. No. 18. 2016.
Karl Marx’ comment on the Sepoy Revolt in New-York Daily Tribune Nr. 5056, 15.07.1857. Taken from Edition Le Monde Diplomatique. No. 18. 2016. My own translation.
Ouaissa, Rachid: On The Trail of Frantz Fanon. In: Pannewick, Friederike / Khalil, George [eds.]: Commitment and Beyond. Reflections on/of the Political in Arabic Literature since the 1940s. Reichert Verlag. Wiesbaden. 2015.



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