After Madrid – avoiding a “clash of civilisations”

DISCLAIMER: All opinions in this column reflect the views of the author(s), not of EURACTIV Media network.

This report argues that Europe must tackle root causes of terrorism actively. It examines the path to ensure the security of the Union against terrorism while guaranteeing the rights and civil liberties of Europe’s law-abiding Muslim population.

After Madrid – avoiding a “clash of civilisations”h

Europe has woken up to the reality of global terrorism. There is no question that better counter-terrorism and security measures to fight this threat are needed. The decision to appoint Gijs de Vries as the new counter-terrorism coordinator is an important step, but whether he will receive the support and trust of the national secret services remains to be seen. Not all Members States have fully implemented the European Arrest Warrant. Border controls and document security as well as measures against the financing of terrorism must be strengthened and Member States must give priority to the practical implementation of the Council Framework Decision on combating terrorism decided after the 9/11 attacks. But if we are speaking about understanding and tackling the root causes of terrorism we must also look beyond security. While no cause justifies terrorism we cannot afford to not deal with the issues that lie behind terrorism. As Javier Solana wrote in the Financial Times on March 25, ‘there is a fanatical fringe who are beyond political discourse. But it is nourished by a pool of disaffection and grievance. Where these grievances are legitimate they must be addressed, not just because this is a matter of justice but also because “draining the swamp” depends on it.’

The Madrid bombings were the first al Qaeda attacks on European soil. We know now that several of the suspects held in connection with the Madrid bombings are legal immigrants with legal papers. They have made use of the freedom to live and travel within the EU with one of the suspects having lived in both Germany and Spain. In Germany, according to the Federal Office for the Protection of the Constitution about 30.600 people are members of Islamist organisations. Many extremists are under observation in their respective host countries but as we know, even this cannot necessarily prevent attacks, especially without proper sharing of intelligence between the Member States. In Germany, this has also intensified the debate on a new law, which would allow authorities to extradite people based on only the suspicion of being involved in terrorist activities. This raises the difficult question about the balance between security and civil liberties.

Enhanced security measures and their impact on integration policies

While governments are working on improving security we must also ask ourselves what are the implications for our integration policies? A number of immigrants in Europe remain on the margins of society without ever being offered a real perspective to become part of society. Many young immigrants are not able to complete high school for a variety of reasons and are left with few perspectives and feel increasingly isolated. How can Europe help immigrants to better integrate into European society and prevent the banlieue’s of Europe turning into recruiting grounds for terrorists? The Madrid bombings proved that Islam is no longer just a foreign policy issue but a domestic one.

Most of the more than 12 million Muslims living in Europe are law-abiding citizens who despise such attacks and are trying to integrate into their host countries’ political and social life. They understand and practice their faith, Islam, for what it is – a religion of peace. Using Islam as a way to justify terrorism is an abuse of their faith. Casablanca, Riad and Istanbul have shown that Muslims are also themselves the victims of Islamists. However, there is a growing distrust between Muslims and other communities and we have witnessed an increasing number of attacks on Muslims or those perceived to be Muslims. Not only the horrendous attacks in Madrid, but also the ongoing violence in Israel/Palestine and the aftermath of 9/11, have created an unfavourable climate for many Muslims in Europe and have led t o misperceptions and stereotyping. The looming threat of future terrorist attacks within Europe is further fuelling this situation. Over the last two years, much has been said about assuring Muslims that the fight against terrorism is not a war on Islam. Regardless, through certain media coverage, Muslims have been inherently linked to fundamentalism and find it almost impossible to free themselves from these preconceived linkages between Islam and radicalism.

Political spillover: the impact of developments in Muslim countries

Political developments in Muslim countries have had an impact on Muslim communities in Europe and have led European governments to consider events within the Muslim world with greater attention. The assassination of Sheik Yassin inflamed an already rapidly deteriorating situation in the Middle East, which is likely to resonate beyond the Arab world as many Muslims see his killing as an attack on Islam. The headscarf debate in France, Germany and now Belgium is fuelling social frustration and intensifies an already existing sense of isolation among Muslim immigrants. A radical group recently sent an open letter to the French Prime Minister denouncing the veil as “ a declaration of war to the Muslim world.” Non-Muslims in western society are often ignorant of the difficulties Muslims experience living as minorities in a dominant culture. They are familiar with the international issues that affect the Arab world, but not with the domestic problems Muslims face.

On the other extreme, there are a few radicals who support the terrorist’s ideology and aims. Radical extremist groups such as Hizb ut-Tahir and the British based Islamic al-Muhajiroun group try to define the political agenda and argue that if you are a real Muslim, you should be engaged in the global jihad. Although they are a minority, these groups project a negative image of Islam and have caused great damage to Muslim communities. What is even more alarming, however, is that in the UK, according to an ICM poll published in March 2004, 13 % of British Muslims surveyed would “regard further attacks by Al Qaeda, or similar organisations on the US as justified. The same poll also found that 33 % had experienced hostility from non-Muslims because of their religion and 55% believed that relations between Muslims and non-Muslims in Britain had worsened since the start of the Iraq war in March 2003.

The danger of radicalisation

Overall a re-polarization in terms of ‘Islam versus the West’ and a stronger emphasis on religious identity has been noted over the last couple of years. The Salafist movement, which advocates a rigorous doctrine, has seen its influence grow among Muslim communities in Europe. According to Olivier Roy, research director at the Centre National de la Recherche Scientifique in Paris, the radicalisation of mosques is a result of the growing Salafism movement, which addresses young people who feel rejected by western society. There also appears to be a strong effort by sympathisers of the Muslim Brotherhood to dominate European Islam. Alarming is the Saudi effort to spread Wahhabi extremist ideology throughout Europe’s Muslim communities. Bernard Lewis has written on the role of the Saudi state and Wahhabism in fostering Islamic extremism around the world. He stated that “the oil money has enabled them to spread this fanatical, destructive form of Islam all over the Muslim world and among Muslims in the west. Without oil and the creation of the Saudi Kingdom, Wahhabism would have remained a lunatic fringe in a marginal country.” A further concern is that the countries of origin still seek to exert control over the major Muslim institutions in Europe, through e.g. the financing of major mosques. Countries like Saudi Arabia and Egypt regularly send delegations of Muslims scholars to Europe, which often practice a very traditional teaching that does not necessarily reflect the realities of life in European countries.

Many Muslims see their mosque not only as a place of worship but also as a place to meet and discuss political issues. There is great concern as to what messages religious leaders convey in European mosques, especially since 9/11 when certain mosques were suspected of plotting terrorist activities. This is, however, the exception and there is a danger that these incidents lead to the equating of a militant minority with that of the entire community. At the same time, the number of radical mosques in France has increased by 10 in the last year, according to a study by undercover police forces, which was reported in Le Monde. As a result of this there is pressure on European mosques to stop financial and other support to immigrants. This will mostly affect innocent immigrants who depend on the help of their local community.

Europe’s mission: combating root causes

What Europe needs, aside from enhanced coordination in security, is a long-term strategy to tackle the root causes of terrorism. This necessitates an improved European strategy towards the Middle East in general and most importantly a renewed effort to find a way out of the desperate situation in Israel/Palestine. The EU must press the US to reengage in the peace process. No matter how damaged the process is, there is simply no realistic alternative to a negotiated settlement. But we also need improved integration policies at home and an understanding of the difficulties many immigrants face. Muslim leaders in Europe also need to send a strong and visible message against terrorism and clearly set Islam apart from any extremist movements. The Muslim Council of Britain recently wrote to more than 1,000 mosques across the country asking Muslims to “give any information on possible wrongdoing or criminal activity to the police” and “to recognise the common threat of terrorism.” Already, much work has been done within the mosques following the Madrid attacks, but the voices of the many moderate Muslims have not echoed loudly enough in Europe. Therefore, Muslims and Non-Muslims need to work together to prevent the perceived ‘clash of civilisations’ from becoming a reality. If this does not happen and more bombs hit European capitals, we might quickly come to realize that the tolerance of our society is built on very thin ice.

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