How Should Europe Respond to Jihad?

15. 3. 2017

The European approach to jihadists domestically is totally apolitical, therapeutic in concept, and focused on identifying and dealing with potential time bombs among our youth. Abroad, the approach of America and its European allies is primarily about dropping bombs. There is no long-term political strategy.

The gun attack on French satirical magazine Charlie Hebdo in Paris on January 7, the hostage drama that followed and the attack on a gathering to debate free speech and the subsequent murder at a synagogue in the Danish capital on February 14–15 are hugely symbolic gains for those who would dearly love to see the scenario of a war between Islam and the West become a reality. Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, leader of the so-called Islamic State (IS), has of late undoubtedly high hopes that a chain reaction will be ignited: a substantial growth of Islamophobic politics, fuelled by attacks against European Muslims and their mosques, which would speed up the exodus of European Muslims towards their caliphate. I am sure that (at the minimum) he hopes that more seeds of hate will be sown among young European Muslims who feel marginalized and not accepted in European society. The savagery of IS should not be underestimated as a campaigning tool.

To counter the Muslim/non-Muslim dichotomy, both European Muslim intellectuals and European politicians must recognize their responsibility as bridge builders. They must form a coalition and recognize the transnational framework of the horror jihadism confronting us.

The generation of young Muslim intellectuals must be made aware of the historic role they need to play at this moment. These bridge builders, with their knowledge and insights, must make a plea for European Islam so that the Muslim youth is freed from the oppressive dominant discourse of imported reactionary Salafist Islam. The latter has proved itself an enormous breeding ground for the current horror jihadism attracting the young generation of European Muslims.

In today’s Europe, the idea of Islam as an identity icon is growing among the second- and third-generation children of Muslim immigrants. This large group carries little of the cultural baggage of their country of origin; at the same time, the do not feel at home in the culture and traditions of the country where they are now citizens. These Muslims find their particularity and their identity in faith instead. This is their right. Adopting an Islamic identity is not the same as acting against the core democratic values of Europe. However, in the last two decades, the dry and reactionary Salafist Islam has formed the dominant theological discourse among European Muslims, alienating these young people from most European values. Salafists are not the majority, but their presence is certainly felt; largely thanks to the billions of petrodollars that Saudi Arabia and its fellow Gulf States invest in the propagation, cultivation and rewarding of this puritanical version of Islam.

Formally, this popular and well-financed Dawa-Salafism is against violence and apolitical, but its dogmatic doctrine isolates Muslim immigrants and removes them from the dynamics of a pluralistic society. In particular, it removes from our democracy those young searching Muslims that are still to put down roots here, and it encourages their longing for the utopian Umma. Indeed, Salafism aims to establish a society based on ‘the pure Islam’. Conversion to Salafism can be a crucial step for jihadists inspired to act by the words of Salafist imams who talk of their dream caliphate.

A generation of young Muslim intellectuals is watching this growth of reactionary Islam silently. They often speak about it privately, but never speak out publicly against this phenomenon, despite being the best role models for a European Islam. They are democratic and tolerant in their thoughts and deeds; they can withstand criticism of religion and believe in and enjoy the pluralism of European society. These are exactly the individuals who should be taking the lead and forcing a breakthrough in the Muslim community and they must take on the role of encouraging reconciliation with fellow Europeans.

But there is also a huge responsibility on the shoulders of our politicians today. First and foremost, they must reconsider and shift their framework in terms of how to understand, approach and challenge the contemporary horror jihadism. The current nation-state based framework is inadequate. Politicians must recognize that the situation is transnational in its nature. Secondly, they must change their priorities. Politicians are overly focused on inelegant and repressive measures in tackling potential terrorist individuals in their own countries, and on bombing the Middle East without a long-term strategy. A political analysis of the phenomenon is missing. Ultimately, the war against terrorism is not a classic war of two armies. While there are classic elements and a great deal of reliance of intelligence, it is, for the most part, a war of ideas. For instance, our politicians should recognize the immanent need to make greater efforts to attract the Muslim community in the West and in the Middle East towards the core values of liberal democracy. We in Europe and the US must learn to find, appeal to and attract reliable companions among Muslims in Europe and in the Middle East, in order to win this war of hearts and minds. The current policy discourse and measures are far removed from this essential shift.

Here in the Netherlands, the Dutch king stated that “countering extremism and intolerance is a core function of government,” in his annual speech to the Dutch parliament last September. But the hotchpotch of measures announced against international jihadism shows no understanding of the Dutch role in the fight against IS. In other European countries the situation is no better, maybe even worse.

A transnational framework of thought is urgently required to address the issue of Syria- goers and jihadism at a national level. There is a huge gap in the thinking and the ability of the current crop of European politicians, a generation that grew up after the Cold War. The wisdom of the old elite about the relationship between domestic and foreign policy appears lost on them. The old European politicians knew what it meant to have to compete ideologically, and, when necessary, to advocate their own values and ideals. They were instilled with the notion of entering into alliances with those who pursued the same ideals. They affected the collapse of the ideological, military and economic challenger to the West: the Soviet Union and her allies.

Today, there is a lack of awareness about the sometimes combustible relationship between foreign policy and domestic challenges. The action plans of the Dutch Ministries of Justice and Social Affairs for fighting jihadism in the Netherlands, not unlike those in other European countries, say it all. Neither department has the necessary expertise, networks or professional experience to tackle the issue. An important perspective is lacking. The Ministry of Foreign Affairs should be involved; after all, we are talking about a transnational political phenomenon that refuses to be bound by official divisions. Crucial integral and cross-departmental work is missing, because the required framework for understanding contemporary international jihadism is not there.

How different was the approach of the Netherlands in the last decades of the Cold War, when many young Westerners fell under the spell of the leftist revolutionary causes of Ho Chi Min, Mao and Che Guevara. Across Europe, the glorification of violence led to the emergence of terrorist organizations. But the incumbent elite instinctively understood how to deal with this. They found ways to pacify the young radicals and wrench them free from their ties with the Soviets and Mao’s China. As long as the radical left held to the democratic rule of law, they were given the space to articulate their views and to participate in the political arena. In this way, the young, radical activists were kept on board. They did not go underground or flee to communist Walhallas, but remained in the sights of the intelligence services.

For instance, here in the Netherlands, Paul de Groot’s Stalinist-led Communist Party of the Netherlands (CPN) was tolerated; indeed, this was the proving ground that allowed the then Maoist Socialist Party (SP) to grow into a mainstream political party. The fact that today we do not know how to deal with the aftershocks of foreign wars domestically betrays the lack of a wider narrative about current Islamist politics and the challenges facing Europe. The political actions of our current leaders have no depth. They appear to underestimate the much bigger and broader source of Islamist radicalization, the global growth of reactionary Salafism, and the dilemmas it raises for the West in approaching its most important Middle Eastern political ally, Saudi Arabia. Furthermore, our politicians miss the link between rivalries—i.e. the generators of many of the “war economies” and proxies in the Middle East—among mighty Middle Eastern nations such as Iran, Saudi Arabia, Qatar and Turkey, and thus they are behind the dynamics of today’s jihadism there as well as here in Europe.

The European approach to jihadists domestically is totally apolitical, therapeutic in concept, and focused on identifying and dealing with potential time bombs among our youth. Abroad, the approach of America and its European allies, which the Netherlands, albeit reluctantly, has recently hitched itself to, is primarily about dropping bombs. There is no long-term political strategy on the table to challenge the growth of chaos and acts of Islamist savagery from Iraq to Libya.

Neither the therapist approach to dealing with homegrown Muslim terrorists, nor bombing swathes of IS territory will bring a lasting victory over international jihadism. The Eastern Bloc was beaten in the arena of ideals by consistently acting on our own democratic principles, expressing them with fervor and recruiting supporters for these values. The Soviet Bloc was defeated because the West remained faithful domestically to its political principles of tolerance and invested in high caliber partners from the opposition in Eastern Europe, such as Václav Havel and Lech Wałęsa.

We received these intellectual exiles with open arms in the West. Milan Kundera was able to write The Unbearable Lightness of Being in the peace and comfort of Paris and hold up the critical humanist mirror of the Prague Spring to a generation of utopian-leftist good-for-nothings in Western Europe. Boris Pasternak’s Doctor Zhivago was, nota bene, published many times in Russian in the Netherlands—so that it could be smuggled to the Soviet Union.

How poignantly different and debatable our current policy on radical Islamism is. Our most important partner in the Middle East is Saudi Arabia, purveyor of the most intolerant version of Islam. This reactionary state is the source of a constant flow of international jihadists and, in particular, the money that fuels their abhorrent behavior. During the Arab Spring, the people of the Middle East showed that there is a huge space for democratic discourse. How long is Europe’s wish list of Middle Eastern progressive intellectuals and civil society advocates whom we want to engage as allies in the fight against extremist Islamism? There is no such list.

We are obsessed with banning “hate Imams” (hate preachers) from the West, while the generation of Muslim youth tempted by extremism should be taught by eloquent and liberal theologians from the Middle East. One of these erudite, moral Islamic leaders, a Syrian world-renowned for his tolerant mindset, told me how condescendingly his veiled wife was received at a Dutch embassy recently. Reason enough for him to break off his links with the Netherlands.

During the Cold War, we consistently adhered to our own liberal ideals and even refused to ban radical communists, provided that they stood up for their own ideas peacefully. In the struggle against Soviet ideology we reached out to supporters in the Eastern Bloc. The left-wing youth of this time did not migrate en masse to the Soviet Union. They did not become extremists. Citizens and intellectuals from the Eastern Bloc embraced our ideals and walked together across the ideological borders, not vice versa. The current politicians urgently need some tuition. Let us not lose the wisdom of their predecessors forever.

Shervin Nekuee

Iranian-Dutch sociologist and Editor in Chief of IranGeo.

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