AS THE full horror of events in Paris became apparent I was boarding a flight to Belfast, whose people still live with the trauma and legacy of daily violence.

The city is still deeply segregated, separated by 99 incongruously named Peace Walls – 40 feet high corrugated iron fences topped with barbed wire. Twenty-five years after the tearing down of the Berlin Wall, the Belfast Walls remain.

Young people growing up in dire poverty are still vulnerable to being sucked in by paramilitary gangs who offer drugs and a sense of belonging and purpose.

Yet for most of my lifetime, things were worse. Thousands were killed in the city and its suburbs. Public buildings were bombed to smithereens. People were plucked off the streets and tortured to death.

For decades, the name Belfast was associated in the minds of most people on this side of the Irish Sea with extreme violence. Through the 1970s and 1980s, armed soldiers paraded the streets with the familiarity of traffic wardens. Belfast city centre was surrounded by a ring of steel, so a simple shopping trip was like going through an airport security check.

Today, Belfast looks like any other vibrant city. It teems with shoppers and people relaxing with friends. It has an award-winning indoor market and cultural space, St George’s Market, bursting with artisans.

It is sometimes an uneasy peace, but Belfast is a city that has endured and shown incredible resilience.

The Troubles were portrayed by most British commentators as a religious war. Richard Dawkins, in his best-selling the God Delusion blamed it all on religion. It was a war between Catholics and Protestants, he said, and had its roots in segregated schools.

It was a simplistic, superficial judgment, which ignored centuries of political history, from Tudor England’s attempts to colonise Ireland through to the crushing of the Civil Rights movement in the 1960s by armed state forces.

It ignored the poverty that afflicted both communities in Northern Ireland, and overlooked the fact that the worst of the conflict was concentrated in the ghettoes of west, north and east Belfast, while middle-class south Belfast went about its everyday business. And it failed to recognise that, far from being devout church-goers, many of the paramilitary leaders were no more than nominal members of their respective denominations.

Friday night’s massacre was carried out by a vile, fascistic, sectarian organisation. But as the Twitter hashtag that emerged in response to the atrocity stated: #TerrorismHasNoReligion.

During the years of the Troubles, when the Catholic and Protestant communities of Northern Ireland were despised in Britain as two hate-infused tribes, the Muslim population of the UK was hailed as a model community: peaceful, respectable, hard-working, disciplined and law-abiding.

Muslims were few and far between in the prison system. And when riots erupted across England’s inner cities during the Thatcher era, there were plenty of Afro-Caribbean and white youth on the streets, but few from the Pakistani or Bengali Muslim communities.

There has never been anything inherently violent about Islam. Daesh no more represents Islam than Adolf Hitler represented Christianity, or Josef Stalin represented atheism.

Let me be clear at this point – there is no justification for indiscriminate killing of innocent people. I cannot understand how anyone could look upon youthful faces enjoying themselves and blast them to pieces.

What sort of world do we live in where young men come to believe their only purpose is to pull a wire that sends themselves and hundreds of others to oblivion? The perverse ideology that drives them has done nothing but damage to the religion for which they claim to act. It has broken the hearts of a billion Muslims worldwide.

But their guilt can never exonerate those in power whose decisions created the conditions that gave birth to Daesh.

To end violence, we need to understand its origins and address the root causes. The response of many of our politicians and commentators leaves me in despair and deeply pessimistic. Bombastic demands for more violence flies in the face of everything we should have learned over these past 15 years.

AFTER 9/11, the politicians pledged to fight fire with fire. But if you fight fire with fire you cause a conflagration.

Talk of war by president Hollande and other politicians reveals many of our leaders don’t understand why we are where we are, and are ill-equipped to extricate the West from the tangled jungle of its disastrous foreign policy decisions.

The human battery farms of the Gaza Strip, the bombed-out mountain villages of Afghanistan, the mass graves of Iraq, and the torture chambers of Guantanamo Bay are the soils where the zealots grow their murderous disciples. And they were ploughed by the West.

What do we do about Daesh? I don’t know. What I do know is that the Western leaders created the nightmare that is global politics in 2015 and they only seem capable of compounding the problems. I fear it may take generations to unravel and repair the damage they have done.

The idea you can fight against terror was preposterous. Terrorists don’t line up waiting for the other side to charge. Martyrs are not deterred by the certainty of martyrdom. Suicide bombers will never be deterred by nuclear weapons.

If Western leaders had any real political nous, they’d retrace their steps back to square one. They’d own up to their disastrous litany of blunders and seek to win over the hearts and minds of the masses of the Middle East over the heads of the tyrannical terrorists.

But even then, they’d have a problem. To win hearts and minds they’d need to offer ideals that can fire people’s imaginations. But right now, Western civilisation can only offer glorification of the rich and contempt for the poor, grotesque inequality, rampant consumerism and macho militarism.

The sad truth is that few of our politicians are capable of inspiring their own grannies, never mind winning over the resentful masses of Baghdad, Karachi and Kabul.

If there is any light at the end of the tunnel, it’s in the attitude of some of the young people congregating in France in solidarity with those who died. Those I saw on TV were not blaming Islam for the atrocity and nor did they see vengeful violence as a solution. Their calm wisdom stood in stark contrast to some of the bile already spewing out of the mouths of some TV studio rent-a-mouths.

Those young people of Paris, standing in the midst of the horror, were sure that the greatest weapon against terror was ever more liberté, égalité and fraternité. Let’s hope their voices are heard.

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