Women comfort each other during a tribute to the victims of the Brussels terror attacks | Justin Tallis/AFP via Getty
Terror and death have struck in Europe once again, this time at the heart of European Union with a doubly strategic message. Brussels is home to the Continent’s core institutions and the attacks at the airport and the subway station neighboring the EU quarter sent a clear message. The target is political, and no one, no matter who they be, or where they are, will ever feel entirely safe again.
Condemnation of the attacks in Brussels, as in Paris, Istanbul, Damascus, Baghdad, Bassam or Ouagadougou, has to be firm, absolute, and without exceptions, half-measures or attempts to distinguish between victims. Clarity is essential here, as it is in the terminology we use and the solutions we propose. But before we can formulate a response, we must face the problem head on and try to understand its origins (this in no way means justifying acts of terrorism, whatever George W. Bush may have said, and what Manuel Valls says today).
It is imperative that we untangle the reasons behind this hard swerve toward violent extremism — because it is not just “mad,” “irrational” and “inhuman.” These words only serve to confuse our vocabulary, and offer no political clarification on the elements of the equation. They add blindness to an emotional reaction already stoked by fear. What we need today is reason and measured conversation — we have to be tough, yes, but above all, reasonable.
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How do we explain this violent extremism? Why today? Why in places of symbolic meaning on every continent?
The first reason is political. We cannot, today, afford to disconnect these events with the violence, terror and death that have long been commonplace in Afghanistan, Iraq, Syria, and Libya, and in Africa and Asia more widely. European and American foreign policy does not happen in a vacuum, as those who target us have repeated in countless videos: You have caused war and death in our countries, now you will suffer the consequences.
Is it right to declare war when our citizens are killed but to consider ourselves at peace when we kill the citizens of others, somewhere over there, far away?
While nothing can justify terrorist attacks, we must hear those who criticize the incoherence of our allegiances and our support of dictatorships. Does the condemnable violence of their reaction mean we can ignore their arguments? Is it right to declare war when our citizens are killed but to consider ourselves at peace when we kill the citizens of countries far away?
The second reason has been half-expressed in various statements put out by the commanders behind these terror operations. It is about provoking fractures in Western societies between Muslims and other citizens in the West. It is about making Muslims feel that they will never be welcome in our societies. Their goal is to use Muslims to feed our fear of Islam; for us to associate them with danger and violence.
To spread insecurity and social instability along religious fault lines at the heart of the West is one of the explicit aims of these kinds of attacks. Commanders prey on frustrated youth (educated or not) and manipulate them psychologically and intellectually (on the Internet or in places often far from the mosque). They sell tales of glory and of vengeance against mankind and the wrongs of history. Religion is evoked to construct, justify and lend legitimacy to violence.
The goal of the violent extremists is to use Muslims to feed our fear of Islam; for us to associate them with danger and violence.
This is not, in fact, a process of “religious radicalization” because the majority of young people who join these networks often only have a few months of experience with religious practice. The shift is sudden, not a progressive evolution from religious belief to violence and terror. Some are still involved in petty crime, alcohol, drugs, and nightlife when they organize attacks.
Jihadi recruiters use religion as a political tool and to defeat them we must respond in kind – with solid and rigorous religious arguments. But we should not mistake our target: Religion is a disguise that hides political aspirations, lust for power and divisions that are cynical, Machiavellian and often inhuman. (Drug use among jihadi militants during attacks is widespread, revealing their somewhat relative adherence to beliefs of how to attain paradise and salvation).
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How do we respond to a situation that is so complex, whose causes are so diverse, and whose consequence is the spread of a strain of violence that can strike anywhere, in multiple forms? Knowing that groups like Boko Haram, Daesh and ISIL want to instill fear and deepen divisions on an international level, we must guard against trying to outbid them with over-emotional responses and a line of thinking that paints the solution solely as an issue of war and security. Instead of defining an “us” and a “them” that distinguishes between Europeans and Muslims, we have to say “us,” together, and with conviction. I said the same thing 15 years ago, when I launched the “manifesto for a new ‘we.’”
We urgently need to establish partnerships based on respect, trust and critical debate between political institutions, social organizations and citizens (including Muslims and their diversity of religious representatives — not only those arbitrarily chosen to represent Muslims by the political authorities).
To continue to deny that there is no connection between our politics (or our absence of clear politics) in Syria, Libya, Iraq and even in Palestine, and terrorist attacks targeting Europe proves our alarming ignorance.
We must stay humble while remaining determined to combat violent extremism by grappling with its causes as much as with its concrete expression. In Europe, we can start by avoiding criticism of neighboring countries and the failures of their intelligence services — as we heard in Britain regarding France, and in France about Belgium. No one is in a position to impart lessons to others — and besides, it is an attitude that is not conducive to effective cooperation. Nor do alarmist comments that reduce a deeply complex situation to a war of civilizations (“they want to attack our liberties”) or a problem of failed integration (“these young Muslim terrorists haven’t understood or assimilated the principles of democracy”) help in any way. These are false, and dangerous, conclusions to draw.