Our words are dead until we give them life with our blood. . .. Your democratically elected governments continually perpetrate atrocities against my people all over the world. Your support makes you directly responsible. We are at war and I am a soldier. Now you too will taste the reality of this situation.
We know of New York, we know of Madrid, we know of London and the widespread slaughter of innocent people. There have been streams of tears, rivers of blood, innocent blood. Death in the morning, of people going to find their livelihood, death in the noontime on the highways and skyways, death by faceless people who said they are warriors.
The modern European encounter with Islam is not as ominous as is often alleged, and perceptions of a naked clash of civilizations are wide of the mark. Yet this is slim consolation given the obvious and potent threat from contemporary terrorist movements. Extreme Islamist politics may appeal to only a small minority, and may be just a transient phenomenon; but committed minorities have destroyed nations and societies, and often in a short space of time. To be optimistic about the general prospects for ethnic and religious assimilation does not mean trivializing the real dangers posed by terrorist violence. The threat must always remind governments of the high stakes they are playing with in debates over integration and assimilation.
Especially since September 11, 2001, Europeans have worried about their societies being torn apart by radical violence. Massive bombing attacks in Madrid, London, and elsewhere, together with several thwarted attempts, raise the prospect of one or many European versions of 9/11, mega-terror attacks launched by Islamic extremists. A report from the normally restrained British intelligence services warned of a possible domestic "insurgency," noting that 100,000 British Muslims came from "completely militarized" regions of the world, such as Somalia or Afghanistan. "Every one of them knows how to use an AK-47. About ten per cent can strip and reassemble such a weapon blindfolded, and probably a similar proportion have some knowledge of how to use military explosives." Fears about terrorism found a convenient face in Dhiren Barot, a Qaeda organizer convicted in 2006 of planning a series of terrorist spectaculars in Great Britain. Among other schemes, he wanted to blow up a subway train in a tunnel under the Thames, in order to cause catastrophic flooding; he fantasized about detonating a radioactive dirty bomb; and plotted to explode limousines filled with gas canisters in parking garages under major buildings.1
Though the threat is clear, solutions are by no means obvious. Most important, Europe's problems did not arise simply through weakness or dhimmitude, through a deluded liberal commitment to multi-culturalism, and they will not be solved merely by get-tough crackdowns on activists. This point should be stressed because European states have so often been criticized for tolerating extremist groups on their territory, for permitting some mosques to become centers of blatant propaganda and recruitment. In some cases, such tolerance undoubtedly went too far—witness the spread of extremist propaganda among British Muslims—but the official approach was founded on sensible assumptions, not least that keeping extremists aboveground meant that they were easy to watch and to infiltrate.
Much also depends on our analysis of the danger. If European states face one common revolutionary threat, associated with a formidable organization like al-Qaeda, then it is sensible to move forcefully against it and any of its potential allies. In practice, though, Europe's extensive array of militant groups is kaleidoscopic in its goals and ideologies and in the degree of danger such movements pose to European states themselves, as opposed to regimes elsewhere in the world. Western governments have long found it convenient to tolerate such groups operating on their soil, on the understanding that they respect the security of the host state.
States must judge the relative importance of domestic and external threats. If in fact most of the violence is organized and directed by outside groups, then European nations face a classic anti-terrorist struggle, which might well involve external interventions against the groups or governments giving the orders. If, on the other hand, they are chiefly confronting a domestic counterinsurgency, then the answers will lie chiefly in internal political and economic arrangements, in finding means to reduce the discontent of potential jihadis. And many of the worst recent attacks on European soil probably do fit this profile of the domestic, autonomous upsurge, linked only tenuously to any global structures.
Governments must make a difficult judgment call when dealing with European-based Islamic political parties or religious organizations. Failure to treat a subversive danger with the seriousness it deserves permits the growth of an authentic internal menace; yet at the same time, overreaction runs the risk of inciting just the kind of mass radicalization that governments desperately seek to prevent. If an organization uses hard-core Islamist rhetoric, is it an authentic voice of popular sentiment or a cover for terrorism? Handled properly, an Islamist party might provide an excellent means for drawing disaffected Muslims into the political mainstream, while suppressing the same party would incite violence. If, on the other hand, the party is only a façade for clandestine organization, then permitting it to operate aboveground could be a disastrous mistake. European countries probably have erred too much on the side of tolerance and are now correcting their mistakes, but that does not mean that their strategy was wholly wrong.
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