Terror isn’t just ‘mad,’ ‘irrational’ and ‘inhuman’


We can’t justify Brussels and Paris, but we have an obligation to listen to what those attacks say.

Terror and death have struck in Europe once again, this time at the heart of European Union with a doubly strategic message. Brussels is home to the Continent’s core institutions and the attacks at the airport and the subway station neighboring the EU quarter sent a clear message. The target is political, and no one, no matter who they be, or where they are, will ever feel entirely safe again.

Condemnation of the attacks in Brussels, as in Paris, Istanbul, Damascus, Baghdad, Bassam or Ouagadougou, has to be firm, absolute, and without exceptions, half-measures or attempts to distinguish between victims. Clarity is essential here, as it is in the terminology we use and the solutions we propose. But before we can formulate a response, we must face the problem head on and try to understand its origins (this in no way means justifying acts of terrorism, whatever George W. Bush may have said, and what Manuel Valls says today).

It is imperative that we untangle the reasons behind this hard swerve toward violent extremism — because it is not just “mad,” “irrational” and “inhuman.” These words only serve to confuse our vocabulary, and offer no political clarification on the elements of the equation. They add blindness to an emotional reaction already stoked by fear. What we need today is reason and measured conversation — we have to be tough, yes, but above all, reasonable.

* * *

How do we explain this violent extremism? Why today? Why in places of symbolic meaning on every continent?

The first reason is political. We cannot, today, afford to disconnect these events with the violence, terror and death that have long been commonplace in Afghanistan, Iraq, Syria, and Libya, and in Africa and Asia more widely. European and American foreign policy does not happen in a vacuum, as those who target us have repeated in countless videos: You have caused war and death in our countries, now you will suffer the consequences.

Is it right to declare war when our citizens are killed but to consider ourselves at peace when we kill the citizens of others, somewhere over there, far away?

While nothing can justify terrorist attacks, we must hear those who criticize the incoherence of our allegiances and our support of dictatorships. Does the condemnable violence of their reaction mean we can ignore their arguments? Is it right to declare war when our citizens are killed but to consider ourselves at peace when we kill the citizens of countries far away?

The second reason has been half-expressed in various statements put out by the commanders behind these terror operations. It is about provoking fractures in Western societies between Muslims and other citizens in the West. It is about making Muslims feel that they will never be welcome in our societies. Their goal is to use Muslims to feed our fear of Islam; for us to associate them with danger and violence.

To spread insecurity and social instability along religious fault lines at the heart of the West is one of the explicit aims of these kinds of attacks. Commanders prey on frustrated youth (educated or not) and manipulate them psychologically and intellectually (on the Internet or in places often far from the mosque). They sell tales of glory and of vengeance against mankind and the wrongs of history. Religion is evoked to construct, justify and lend legitimacy to violence.

The goal of the violent extremists is to use Muslims to feed our fear of Islam; for us to associate them with danger and violence.

This is not, in fact, a process of “religious radicalization” because the majority of young people who join these networks often only have a few months of experience with religious practice. The shift is sudden, not a progressive evolution from religious belief to violence and terror. Some are still involved in petty crime, alcohol, drugs, and nightlife when they organize attacks.

Jihadi recruiters use religion as a political tool and to defeat them we must respond in kind – with solid and rigorous religious arguments. But we should not mistake our target: Religion is a disguise that hides political aspirations, lust for power and divisions that are cynical, Machiavellian and often inhuman. (Drug use among jihadi militants during attacks is widespread, revealing their somewhat relative adherence to beliefs of how to attain paradise and salvation).

* * *

A woman cries near Le Petit Cambodge restaurant, the day after a deadly attack on November 14, 2015 in Paris, France. A woman cries near Le Petit Cambodge restaurant, the day after a deadly attack on November 14, 2015 in Paris, France.

How do we respond to a situation that is so complex, whose causes are so diverse, and whose consequence is the spread of a strain of violence that can strike anywhere, in multiple forms? Knowing that groups like Boko Haram, Daesh and ISIL want to instill fear and deepen divisions on an international level, we must guard against trying to outbid them with over-emotional responses and a line of thinking that paints the solution solely as an issue of war and security. Instead of defining an “us” and a “them” that distinguishes between Europeans and Muslims, we have to say “us,” together, and with conviction. I said the same thing 15 years ago, when I launched the “manifesto for a new ‘we.’”

We urgently need to establish partnerships based on respect, trust and critical debate between political institutions, social organizations and citizens (including Muslims and their diversity of religious representatives — not only those arbitrarily chosen to represent Muslims by the political authorities).

To continue to deny that there is no connection between our politics (or our absence of clear politics) in Syria, Libya, Iraq and even in Palestine, and terrorist attacks targeting Europe proves our alarming ignorance.

We must stay humble while remaining determined to combat violent extremism by grappling with its causes as much as with its concrete expression. In Europe, we can start by avoiding criticism of neighboring countries and the failures of their intelligence services — as we heard in Britain regarding France, and in France about Belgium. No one is in a position to impart lessons to others — and besides, it is an attitude that is not conducive to effective cooperation. Nor do alarmist comments that reduce a deeply complex situation to a war of civilizations (“they want to attack our liberties”) or a problem of failed integration (“these young Muslim terrorists haven’t understood or assimilated the principles of democracy”) help in any way. These are false, and dangerous, conclusions to draw.

We need a concerted security policy across Europe with the dual understanding that, first, such a policy will only be valuable as part of a more global and multidimensional strategy and, second, that it cannot be used to justify the stigmatization of certain citizens, or the failure to uphold human rights (including those of migrants) and the equal dignity of people. Higher up the ladder, states have to ensure the coherence of their foreign policies in the Middle East and Africa.

To continue to deny that there is a connection between our politics (or our absence of clear politics) in Syria, Libya, Iraq and even in Palestine, and terrorist attacks in Europe proves our alarming blindness or ignorance. We cannot support dictatorships, be political and economic partners with states who export literalist Salafi doctrine, be silent when civilians are massacred south of our borders and hope that we will not receive a response to the injustice and humiliation we have provoked.

There is no failure of religious and cultural integration in Europe, but there is a disastrous deficit of effective policies related to education, housing and employment.

Our foreign policies must be clarified and fall in line with our fundamental principles. If we are driven solely by geostrategic and economic interests, we risk continuing to pay a heavy human price. In the same way, we urgently need to completely rethink, revolutionize even, the tone of our political debate and the policies of our own countries. Muslim citizens must participate in civil debates to help build the social policies of the future, not to justify themselves or to condemn others in the wake of every attack or controversy. We must have the courage to set in motion policies based on trust that include diversified partnerships with different strains of Muslim thought. We cannot only listen to those who tell us what we want to hear and make the mistake of confusing for open dialogue the kind of interactive monologue in which people who think alike will engage.

Western Muslims, for their part, cannot only raise their voices when we talk about Islam. They should, in fact, spend less time talking about Islam and take a greater interest in the larger problems their society faces — education, employment, health, the environment — to avoid the temptation of branding themselves as victims. I have repeated this over the past 25 years: There is no failure of religious and cultural integration in Europe, but there is a disastrous deficit of effective policies related to social justice,  education, housing and employment.

We all know that we need to clarify the terms of our current debate. We need to grasp the full complexity of the phenomenon and take a holistic approach by proposing a variety of complimentary responses. To become obsessed with the religious question, to refuse to see the political aspects and hope that tough security and war-like measures can protect us will only lure us toward dangerous consequences. The time for new partnerships has come — between European states, and between states, civil society and citizens of all confessions or none. It is on us now, each one of us in our own way, to assume responsibility and stop hiding behind the so-called “madness and hatred” of the “other.” Because if we try “explain” away the state of the world this way, we won’t get anywhere.

Tariq Ramadan is professor of contemporary Islamic studies at Oxford University and president of the think tank European Muslim Network (EMN). He is the author, inter alia, of “Islam and the Arab Awakening” (Oxford University Press, 2012)…πηγη

This text was translated from the French by Esther King. Read the original version here.


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