By striking random individuals in the heart of cities – or coastal resorts as we saw recently in Ivory Coast – terrorists seek not only to inspire fear in the minds of people but also to get their governments to react. Confronted with the necessity of responding to attacks, governments often develop an aggressive rhetoric and introduce policy changes that reinforce the process of othering and social polarization that organizations such as Daesh seek to encourage in Europe and on other continents.
Such rhetoric has certainly been on display over the recent attacks in Belgium – though not so much from Belgians themselves.
After the Brussels’ blasts, European leaders were quick to reiterate that Europe would fight Daesh until the bitter end, in contradiction with the EU’s reluctance to actually engage them on their own terrain, beyond France’s air strikes after the Paris bombings.
Expressions of solidarity
Initial reactions to terrorist attacks are usually healthy expressions of solidarity, national pride and even defiance against the blind brutality of blasts. In France, the January 2015 Charlie Hebdo attacks were followed by the largest demonstrations for peace, liberty and free speech the country has witnessed since the liberation of Paris in 1945.
In Belgium, beyond the mix of incredulity, sadness and anger that usually follows such acts of violence, reactions to the twin blasts of last Tuesday have had a similar although peculiar character, well in-tune with the tradition of humor and irreverence Belgians like to take pride in. Among the symbols used to counter fear were a pack of fries showing the middle finger, pictures of Tintin and Snowy crying, a Captain Haddock hurling a torrent of insults to terrorists, and the iconic Manneken Pis – symbol of Brussels – pissing on a Kalashnikov.
Beyond these images, a video gone viral portrays a goofy student explaining to his mother in a thick Brussels accent why he will attend class the next day and refuses to be scared. What if you meet a terrorist, his mother asks? “I’ll throw my books at their face” replies the student, adding that “a little bit of culture cannot harm them”.
These reactions are meant to show the attackers that people are not afraid and are not ready to compromise on the values they hold dear at gunpoint. But such reactions also contrast with governments’ warmongering postures, and with their disposition to make such compromises in the name of safety, notably through policy changes.
Reactions by governments have had so far three main side effects: the amplification of the threat, the denial of responsibility of European societies in nurturing this situation of conflict, and the stigmatization of their Muslim minorities.
Terrorist organizations want to be recognized as combatants and not as criminals, to be considered on an equal footing despite the asymmetric character of the conflict. Calls for war on terror have the effect of granting the enemy the status and impact that they seek in the first place.
Similarly, constantly warning citizens of the imminence of the next attack has the effect of perpetuating the fear that terrorists want to instigate. Political leaders could instead concentrate on detailing how European nations should protect civil rights and liberties, protect their minorities and not alter their laws because a bunch of criminal loonies want European societies to rip themselves apart.
Revising the French constitution
Speaking of amending laws, France perhaps had the most puzzling reaction to attacks against its citizens. 48 hours after the deadly Paris attacks last November, President Hollande announced that in the midst of the shock and uncertainty about what had just happened that the need of the hour was to revise the Constitution, by incorporating existing Emergency provisions and by introducing a new amendment on the revocation of nationality for French holding dual citizenship convicted for terrorism.
Beyond the utter uselessness of the latter provision in deterring acts of terrorism, the French government’s decision sent out the message that those committing acts of terrorism could not possibly be members of the national community, thus absolving the very same community from the responsibility of having produced these terrorists in the first place.
This measure also de facto creates a different category of citizens, equated in popular imagination and by Europe’s rising far right with its large Muslim minority (most of whom incidentally hold only one European passport).
France’s government insists that the measure of revocation of citizenship is a symbol, that people taking up arms against their own country do not deserve to remain members of that community. But this amounts to exporting the problem to others. Former Minister of Justice Christiane Taubira, who resigned from the cabinet last January on this issue, declared that a country ought to be able to deal with its nationals, that it should not dump them into some landfill territory while sending the message to all dual citizenship holders that they are lesser citizens.
There are whole segments of European leaders and commentators who cannot come to terms with the fact that Daesh is fighting Europe with European nationals. The Al-Bakraoui brothers who exploded themselves in Brussels were Belgians. Salah Abdeslam, one of the perpetrators of the November 13 Paris attacks is a French citizen, who grew up in Belgium. The perpetrators of the Charlie Hebdo attacks, the Kouachi brothers and Amedy Coulibaly, were French citizens. Not all of them even went to Syria or were trained abroad. They were recruited locally, in disaffected suburbs or neighborhoods where they lived as petty criminals, marginal figures within even their own communities. This isn’t to say that the very real failures of integration and the process of urban ghettoization in Europe have created these European terrorists, but they have certainly created the pools propitious for their recruitment by Daesh’s agents.
Responses to terrorist attacks in Europe have focused on the modalities of actions of terrorist organizations and not on the purpose that lies behind them. The ultimate aim of Daesh is to make the demonstration that Muslims and non-Muslims cannot and should not live together. That is why they have been exterminating every minority community in Iraq and Syria – the Yazidis and the Syriac Christians among others – and have been fighting every Muslim who does not abide by their version of Islamic faith in the territories that they control. That is also why they have been waging attacks outside their territory, not with the purpose of conquest – their attacks, however deadly, represent no immediate threats to state structures and societies in Europe – but with the aim to alienate European populations from their minorities and to make Muslims objects of suspicion and fear.
It is worth remembering that a significant part of victims of terrorism in Europe are Muslims – to say nothing about attacks outside Europe where they are the majority. Imad Ibn-Ziaten, a French paratrooper, was killed by Mohammed Merah in Toulouse in 2012; Ahmed Merabet, a police officer guarding the Charlie Hebdo office was killed by the Kouachi brothers; So was Mustapha Ourrad, copy editor at the same Charlie Hebdo. There are many other examples.
We need to fight clichés and prejudices, acknowledge that Muslims are both direct and collateral victims of this violence, that the vast majority of Muslims in Europe are part of this space of confluence defined by diversity and by its intent to accommodate differences. The very idea of a Muslim community in Europe is a myth, given its heterogeneity, a myth propagated by the right and other identity-obsessed xenophobic forces.
The cohesion of European societies depends on their capacity to embrace diversity and the challenges that come with it, instead of cowering down within national boundaries, a common ancestry or a common religion. Above all, we must dissociate religion from the criminals who abuse its name.
Facts are helpful. French scholar Olivier Roy underlines that there are far more Muslims working in the French police, as firefighters or as first aid attendants than individuals recruited by terrorist organizations. Why not start from there rather than falling into the Daesh’s trap every time they strike?
Reactions in the street show that many Belgians are ready to make that effort, even if ordinary racism is on the rise and the rift with those rejecting diversity wider.
Be it in Brussels, Paris, Ankara, Abidjan or Ouagadougou, the assassins who indiscriminately strike people follow the same aim: to have people and governments react irrationally, to bring them to build instead of them the society based on fear and hatred they fundamentally aspire to. We should not hand it to them on a platter.
Gilles Verniers is Assistant Professor of Political Science, Ashoka University.