Malta as a voice of reason

IS’s declaration of ‘war’ is in reality a euphemism for a campaign of terrorism and murder, making it a criminal organisation, entirely undeserving of the status of Statehood that it craves

This week, six old school socialists, including former Prime Minister Karmenu Mifsud Bonnici and the outspoken Fr Mark Montebello, OP, wrote a letter to the Prime Minister in which they said that for the first time since independence, Malta “is officially at war.”

This statement is questionable on many levels; but on one thing the signatories do have a point. There is a war going on – officially declared by the terrorist organisation Islamic State (IS), but in which various European countries are now embroiled. It is a war that does not acknowledge national boundaries, and is not fought with conventional weapons or traditional military tactics.

The claim that Malta is officially involved in this war, however, is both untrue, as well as needlessly alarmist. IS may have declared war on Europe, and there may even be reason to be vigilant against terrorist attacks. But it is a grave mistake to play into the hands of this criminal organisation, by according it the dignity and recognition of a State.

IS’s declaration of ‘war’ is in reality a euphemism for a campaign of terrorism and murder. This makes it a criminal organisation, entirely undeserving of the status of Statehood that it craves.

The six authors of that letter are unwise to describe this ‘war’ as one between sovereign nations on an equal footing. Their concerns that Malta’s Constitutional neutrality might be compromised stems from this same misconception.

Neutrality and non-alignment are concepts that only apply to sovereign states that are governed by the same international treaties and laws. IS falls entirely outside this paradigm, and as such has to be treated as any other criminal organisation.

Having said this, many of the other concerns expressed in that letter are valid.

“The war on IS will not achieve the aim for which it was declared, but is a war which will kill innocent life and cause more extremism,” they wrote. 

This is entirely true, on much the same reason as the other claim was false. 

Malta may not be directly involved in military campaigns against IS. But other European counties – for example, France and the UK – are. There is an overwhelming sense of futility surrounding this joint military operation. Faced with a phenomenon that has spread across the Middle East and most of North Africa – penetrating even into the heart of Europe – the idea that bombing IS camps in Syria might solve the problem is clearly absurd and self-defeating.

As with invoking the Constitution, declaring war on ISIS not only legitimises their barbarity by elevating the terror group to the level of a country; but it can only perpetuate the endless cycle of anger, resentment and violence.

It is also precisely the reaction IS evidently hoped for after the Paris attacks. IS wants to pit their brand of insane Islam against the West; and by declaring war we are only giving them what they want.

Nor is it clear what this war hopes to achieve. Destroying the Islamic State’s operational capability is theoretically possible, but not very likely unless air strikes are supported by boots on the ground. But eradicating extremism by dropping bombs is impossible.

It is also debatable whether destroying IS would solve the problem. IS itself is a spin-off of Al-Qaeda, which was deemed too moderate by today’s extremists. Will the destruction or weakening of ISIS give birth to something more sinister?

What is needed to counter IS is stability, and this clearly cannot be achieved through war either. IS took strength from the dashed hopes of the Arab Spring, and it’s the West’s duty to ensure that countries like Tunisia do not succumb to the extremists’ attempts to bring it to its knees.

Likewise countries like Libya – where ISIS is getting stronger – are also in dire need not of military intervention, but stability to stave off the extremist danger.

The real war is to win over the hearts and minds of people who today view extremism as the only answer to the social and economic inequalities they suffer in the Middle East and in the suburbs of our capitals in Europe.

On the ground the West must support local forces which are successfully confronting ISIS in extraordinarily difficult circumstances – most importantly, Kurdish movements who simultaneously face the Turkish government’s repression.

At the same time, the West must support courageous social and political movements in Iraq, Syria, Lebanon, Egypt, and elsewhere, to continue to defy the logic of sectarianism and demonstrate that the struggle for a progressive alternative remains alive.

Turkey – a key EU partner and NATO member – must stop harbouring ISIS before it gets any further assistance. The same goes for Saudi Arabia, which is the spiritual and ideological inspiration of IS. The only difference between Saudi repression and brutality and that perpetrated by the Islamist group is that one is condoned by the international community and the other is not.

On one other issue the letter is also correct. While Malta has an obligation to actively work in the struggle against terrorism and extremism, it could also be a voice of reason amid the madness which followed the Paris attacks.

That, ultimately, is what is really needed to combat extremism.

More in Editorial