No ordinary war

There is a paradox, no doubt well known to terrorists, whereby the only way to respond to attacks on Western liberal democracy is to limit and curtail individual freedom: which is the very thing we are ultimately trying to protect.

Yesterday’s terrorist attacks in Brussels seem to confirm French President Francois Hollande’s comments in the wake of the Paris attacks last November. Echoing that reaction, he said yesterday that: “We are at war. Europe has been at war for months.”

Hollande is right, but it is important to specify that this is a war unlike the conventional ones currently raging in several parts of the world.

As many as 30 people are thought to have died, and many dozens injured, in explosions at Zaventem airport and Maelbeek metro station in Brussels.

Though the Islamic State’s claim of responsibility is yet to be confirmed, indications bear the hallmarks of Islamic jihadism.

The explosions come in the wake of the arrest in Brussels of Salah Abdeslam, whom authorities allege to have been centrally involved in the Paris terrorist attacks last year.

The Belgian government has put the country on the highest alert: Brussels is on lockdown, with museums reported to have been shut and the European Commission ordering all workers to stay indoors.

This in turn points towards the motivation of such attacks. The intention of terrorists is to clearly (and up to a point, successfully) shut down our society: to banish stability and peace of mind, and to thus erode the principles of liberal democracy, upon which so much of Western society, that is ‘despicable’ – in the eyes of homicidal extremists – has been built.

This means it is also waged against ordinary people going about their ordinary lives. It is a cultural war, in which ‘normality’ – arguably the one thing that people in the West enjoy more than most – is the sworn enemy.

As such, it is also an unwinnable war in the conventional sense. There is a paradox, no doubt well known to terrorists, whereby the only way to respond to attacks on Western liberal democracy is to limit and curtail individual freedom: which is the very thing we are ultimately trying to protect.

Pleasure or the joie de vivre are the target of the fanatic, so if we let go of those things, we are already admitting defeat.

Moreover, the situation is more complex than the simple us-and-them’ scenario so often portrayed in the media. 

Despite the global vision of the extremist ideologues and the portrayal of groups such as Islamic State and al-Qaida as ‘international’, acts of terrorism in Europe (London, Madrid, Paris etc) are planned and executed in Europe.

Over the last decades, almost all attacks in Europe have involved local people attacking local targets with locally sourced materials and weapons.

Unquestionably, Islamic extremists identify with marginalised Muslims in conflict zones and oppose the military presence of the West in predominantly Islamic countries. Events such as September 11 and the war on Iraq have polarized mutual views of Muslims and the West, creating tensions that fuel Islamic extremism.

But, the source of trouble is also closer to home than we might think. It is also about the social and economic inequalities in Europe. It is also about the marginalisation of whole segments of society where educational levels are low and unemployment is high. It is about segregation of communities which tend to retain strong and insular civil society networks based on religious identity. It is also because of imperfect integration policies.

The elephant in the room – the root causes, not just the effects of Islamic radicalisation – should be addressed and can no longer be ignored.

For this reason, Europe must give weighty thought to how to respond to the threat.

The British far-right party UKIP has already blamed the attacks on the EU’s freedom of movement. It would be a grave error if we succumb to such knee-jerk reactions as it would only play into the hands of those who want to replace unity and diversity with fear and hate.

Instead of waging war on terror outside Europe, European leaders should give more attention to the creation of opportunities for socioeconomic advancement in their own countries.

Europe should also look to fostering healthy dialogue and debate on the issue. Politicians should show more responsibility, instead of taking the easier road of populism for electoral gain.

Europe’s Muslim communities play a very important role in this process and should be considered as vital partners: especially Muslim youth, who become easy prey for radicalisation, unless engaged with other parties in a debate about radicalism. 

Europe must also enhance education about Islam and invest in local Muslim communities, to make them feel that they are part of the society in which they live.

Europe’s Muslims – the vast majority of whom will have been appalled by the attacks – also have a responsibility to provide a voice for the non-extremist majority. Imams have a duty to protect Muslim youth from radicalisation, as they are a more reliable source of knowledge about Islam than radicalised clerics. 

Although increasing radicalisation of Muslim youth in Europe appears daunting, it is not insurmountable. It only becomes insurmountable if we lose sight of the bigger picture.

Europe’s response to the tragedy in Brussels must therefore take into account that this war cannot be won through conventional military strategies. But which could easily be lost by taking the path of populism and autocracy.

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