“France is at war. But we are not engaged in a war of civilisations, because these assassins do not represent any”.
President François Hollande
Brussels, Belgium. 20 November. One purpose of strategy is to resist reflex. Over the past week I have witnessed the struggle between considered response and vengeful reflex in the wake of the Paris attacks. By way of response France has rightly called for changes to the Schengen Border Code and the need to check every EU citizen against the Schengen Information System database. By way of ill-considered reaction European Commissioner Dimitris Avramopoulos said, “Schengen is not the problem. We are not intent to open a debate on Schengen’s future. Schengen is the greatest achievement of European integration”. Abdelhamid Abaaoud, the leader of the terrorist cell which attacked Paris, boasted of being a beneficiary of free movement as he travelled unchecked between Syria and France. Indeed, the Avramopoulos reaction begs a question; how many Europeans must die for the Commission’s beloved ‘European Project’ before common sense replaces ‘theological’ dogma? Equally, there is another vital question that we Europeans need to address. How do we overcome prejudice and rebuild a sense of community which ultimately will be Europe’s strongest defence? The European state needs a new social contract.
European leaders are failing the test of leadership. There can be no question that IS has successfully exploited and is exploiting the failure of European leaders such as Avramopoulos to exert some control over the huge flows of migrants now headed into Europe, and to distinguish between legitimate asylum seeker, economic migrant, and militant. With trust in Europe’s leaders virtually destroyed there is now the very real danger anti-Muslim bigotry could be unleashed across much of Europe. That is precisely why IS attacked, and it is precisely Europe’s vulnerability which makes this attack different to previous terror outrages.
Nor should the power of prejudice be under-estimated. Indeed, such prejudice still runs deep in the European psyche, as evinced by the utterances of some of Eastern Europe’s leaders of late. For example, IS often refer to Europeans as ‘crusaders’. This refers to Europe’s brutal invasions of the Levant between 1099 and 1272 in the name of Christianity. So brutal were the crusades they were seared into the Muslim consciousness. Deep down within us all – Muslim and non-Muslim alike – there is still a ghost of the crusades that all-too-easily acts as a reflex at times of crisis, such as today.
Are there too many members of our ethnic minorities who reject European values? Yes. There are clearly members of Europe’s Muslim communities who reject European values, and too many of whom offer tacit support to extremism. Are there those who feel utterly alienated from the society of which they are a part? Yes. It is estimated some 10,000 European citizens have undertaken Jihad. However, there is no point in nostalgia for a society that is long gone and will never return.
The plain truth is that the majority of citizens are going to have to accept that we live in complex, multiple identity societies in which the task of both governments and citizens will be to re-forge the loyalty of all to the state. Such a goal should not be impossible. For example, a recent poll of British Muslims found the majority to be patriotic Britons who are more optimistic about Britain’s future than many of their fellow citizens.
The new social contract between Europe’s leaders and citizens will demand renewed responsibility on the part of leaders and citizen alike. Europe’s leaders, and most urgently the European Commission, must wake up to the new reality Europeans face before they become a danger to the very people they are meant to serve. Improved border controls and enhanced security checks are the very minimum response to keep Europeans safe from the very real threat Europe now faces.
However, but there are no silver bullets in this fight and it is thus time citizens also escape from the almost child-like state into which they have been lulled by leaders these twenty-five years past and take their own security responsibilities. Critically, we must all work with fellow citizens to root out and then steadily emasculate extremism and terrorism by recreating the mutual respect and tolerance essential to the survival of all liberal democraties. That means all of us not just actively resisting past ghosts, but even our own anxieties.
Here at Brussels Central station as I write I can smell the odour of mistrust. Feelings are running high. Nerves are taut. Glances are exchanged in implicit, but acknowledged mutual fear. That is exactly what IS wants. As is the appalling anti-Islam nonsense that has sprouted up on Twitter and elsewhere on the Internet as bigotry believes prejudice now legitimised by the acts of a few fanatics. Apprehension in the wake of the appalling events in Paris is entirely natural, anger entirely understandable, prejudice is completely unacceptable.
The goal of IS is to drive a wedge within and between the many identities that exist in the modern European state. Sound strategy and considered response must first of all be built on balance, and balance means looking at what works, not just at what does not. Europe’s greatest weapon will be the strength and indeed the resilience of all its citizens who must together be the power which ultimately defeats the likes of IS.