Europe should stop treating Islamist terrorism as some deep-rooted, imported and irreversible trend and begin addressing it as a domestic societal phenomenon, argues Solon Ardittis.
Solon Ardittis is managing director of Eurasylum and a research fellow at the Institute for the Study of Labour (IZA) and at the Global Labour Organization (GLO). He is also co-editor of Migration Policy Practice, a bimonthly journal published jointly with the International Organisation for Migration (IOM).
Over the past couple of years, Islamist terror activity in Europe has been generating an almost unlimited amount of theories from an ever expanding range of experts, as well as numerous legal and strategic responses from government and law enforcement authorities. To date, however, none of these appears to have demonstrated much potential to prevent the growth of terror activity in the heart of European cities, as witnessed in Manchester last week, and in London and Paris this week. Within the scope of existing approaches and responses to terrorism in Europe, it is likely that largely spontaneous, uncoordinated and low cost individual terror acts will only maintain momentum and possibly expand over the coming days and weeks.
While reasons for this abound, they all relate, largely, to a possible misunderstanding or misinterpretation of the current dynamics of terrorism in Europe.
The first confusion continues to be the assumption that Islamist threats in the heart of European cities are mostly imported from outside the EU and that more emphasis should therefore be placed on increased immigration and border controls. Terror attacks since 2015, however, have demonstrated that such an assertion was patently false and that, in their very vast majority, terrorists operating in Europe were nationals of the countries targeted, or otherwise holders of other European nationalities.
The second misconception has been to assume that actual and potential terrorists in Europe were genuinely inspired by Islamist ideology and that their motives were profoundly and fundamentally religious. Again, evidence collected over the past couple of years largely undermines such a theory. Empirical data suggests on the contrary that in their vast majority, terrorists operating in Europe were typically unfamiliar with much of the Quran, had not had any religious upbringing and had only been radicalised a few months before engaging in a terrorist act.
Thirdly, what is still commonly overlooked by most commentators is the fact that violent attacks have always occurred in Europe under varying motives and labels. For example, between 2009 and 2014, on average some 300,000 violent acts (arson, bomb attacks against public and private goods and infrastructure, and other types of degradation), not attributed to Islamist ideology, but generating an equal if not greater number of casualties, were committed each year in France according to the official statistics of the French National Crime Observatory.
What all of this suggests, then, is that Islamist fundamentalism in Europe need not be seen as a deep-rooted, intrinsic and irreversible trend. Instead, it should be apprehended and treated in large measure as the result of particular segments of European society feeling increasingly disenfranchised and therefore becoming increasingly responsive to any easily accessible proposition offering status, inclusion and some degree of aura. To a striking extent, the emergence of Islamist radicalisation in Europe in the 2010s is largely reminiscent of the deadly extreme-leftist movements in Italy (Red Brigades), Germany (Baader-Meinhof Group) and France (Action directe) in the 1970s. While the displayed motivations might have been different, much of the dynamics behind violent radicalism expressed then and now is generally comparable. And as crucially, each and every violent movement in the 1970s has been eradicated within less than ten years.
Based on the above postulates, shifting the focus of existing measures against Islamist terror in Europe now seems imperative. Drawing on the assumption that Islamist radicalisation among European youth is largely driven by the image and status which such a movement confers, then the focus should no doubt be on disrupting the image itself, and possibly the means and channels that relay it.
In addition to a more strong-willed set of measures to filter the contents of social media and encrypted communication devices that today represent the most prominent if not exclusive vehicle through which particular segments of the European population both become radicalised and are enrolled by Islamist networks, an active policy of ‘rebranding’ and ‘demarketing’ fundamentalism in Europe might now offer a yet unexplored and potentially auspicious angle through which to approach the rise of terrorism in Europe. The idea would be to use existing marketing techniques implemented by all major corporations in order to ‘rebrand’ the current image of Islamist fundamentalism in Europe and disrupt its appeal among particular segments of European society. As is today widely acknowledged, marketing and branding techniques can prove a very powerful means of remodelling not only consumer habits but also commonly accepted postulates and preconceptions, if not ways of life more widely.
In 2005, at a United Nations press conference, Dr Deepak Chopra promoted the concept of “branding, marketing and selling peace”, whereby the same marketing techniques used by large corporations such as Starbucks and Coca-Cola, coupled with inputs from opinion formers such as the media and entertainment industry, would be espoused to foster peace around the world. This is no doubt an avenue that might now be explored in the context of Islamist radicalisation in Europe, jointly with legitimate Muslim organisations in key European cities and making full use of key policy lessons drawn from the regular surveys of both Islamophobia and Muslim’s perception of European society conducted by major polling companies.