In the Aftermath of the Paris Killings
More than new security measures will be necessary if Western countries are going to have any prospect of reducing the threat of terrorism of the kind on display in Paris.
The mass murders in Paris on 7 January, plus a flood of other similarly inspired actions by jihadists in France and in several other western countries in their aftermath, have been followed by calls for further-reaching measures to monitor potential terrorists and neutralise them before they go into action.
Some of this is surely necessary. But to believe that policies designed to reinforce the capacity of security sector actors will be enough to result in a significant push-back against the kind of attacks witnessed in Paris is akin to believing that it was really the tooth fairy that left the dime under your pillow.
What the western world now needs is serious reflection on the deeper-lying causes propelling young men and women to carry out terrorist actions, and on the countervailing measures that could drain the swamp in which their plots are fertilised.
The drivers of islamo-terrorism are economic, social, political and psychological. Here are just some examples.
In France, unemployment among the country’s youth ranges around 25 percent, a stubborn statistic that has shown little change for several years. As for Moslems, there is no official figure. As a state that prides itself on its laicité, France does not compile statistics on the socio-economic status of its different ethnicities and religious groups. That said, there are analyses that indicate that unemployment among people living in France who do not have French nationality is roughly two and a half times greater than for those who do. It seems fairly safe to assume that youth unemployment among young Muslims in France is well over the national average. French Prime Minister Valls acknowledged as much in a speech made after the Paris attacks in which he acknowledged that there was “apartheid territorial, social, éthnique en France “.
To take another example, in Germany, sixty percent of the country’s enterprises have recently acknowledged that they have never taken on a foreigner in the national apprentice programme, widely praised for keeping German youth unemployment at one of the lowest levels in the European Union. Reportedly, young people with Turkish and Arab names have it hardest.
And what about religion? In Switzerland in 2009, 57 percent of Swiss voting on the question as to whether Moslems could construct mosques with minarets said no. The message thus sent was: yes, you can come and work in the Swiss economy but leave your religion at the border.
And around the EU, from Sweden to Italy, there has recently been a surge in anti-immigrant parties, targeting more or less discretely the Muslim communities in their midst.
On the foreign policy front, the Western track record in the Moslem world is one of serial dysfunctionality.
The jewel in this tainted crown has been unflinching western support for Israel as the Jewish state has expanded its territory at the expense of the Palestinians. A state that was supposed to hold 55% percent of Palestine, while having only a third of the population of the area, by virtue of a 1947 United Nations decision, occupied another 22% as a result of the war with neighbouring Arab states in the following year. In the 1967 war, Israel took control of the remainder of Palestine, relinquishing Gaza only in 2005. Eight wars – four with Arab neighbours of Israel and four intra-Palestinian between Israeli and Arabs have taken place since Israel’s founding. None of them have done absolutely anything to advance the cause of a regional settlement.
This is important: a settlement bringing to an end this saga of conflict which would have Arabs and Jews, however testily, working out how to get along would constitute the single most important contribution to a new era in relations between Muslims and non-Muslims. There are other issues to be sure but this is the central one.
Now, in what has to be one of the most blatant political sell-outs in contemporary history, US House leader Boehner has invited Bibi Netananyu to address Congress in what is designed to serve as a replique to President Obama’s State of the Union address.
Netanyahu was Israel’s Prime Minister from 1996 to 1999 and has been again since 2009. In his decade at the helm of Israeli politics, he has done strictly nothing to advance the cause of a regional peace. Bibi has boosted that he does not need to negotiate with the American government because he controls sufficient votes in Congress. The Boehner invitation is a chilling confirmation of this.
To take another example closer to my Canadian home, Prime Minister Harper, in power now for ten years, has been hardly less accommodating of successive Israeli governments. This is a weakly disguised attempt to raise funds for the Conservative party. There are fewer people of Jewish identity in Canada than there are Muslims, but the former tend to be richer and the richer among them tend to vote for his Conservative Party. The Canadian Prime Minister is on record as being an evangelical Christian, which is of course his good right. But this in no way justifies his fawning support for the Israeli political and militaristic right.
As if this wasn’t enough, western countries have made a hash of their interventions in a range of Moslem countries. The US, supported by several western allies, has fought two largely unnecessary wars in Afghanistan and Iraq. After 13 years in Afghanistan and 10 in Iraq, and tens of thousands of victims, there is little to inspire confidence about these countries’ futures.
Elsewhere in the Middle East and North Africa, the track record has scarcely been more uplifting. In Libya, western countries intervened to take out a dictator without any coherent plan for addressing the power vacuum his removal would entail. In Syria, western countries failed to provide robust support to the anti-Assad movement, when to do so was still an option that could have turned the situation in the country around. In Egypt, several western countries broke their own rules by failing to champion the notion that Morsi, if he had to be removed from power, should have been deposed through an electoral process. In failing to insist on this course, they have set Egypt up as a second Algeria. Here, a failure of western states to press for a democratic process ushered in a decade of civil war, costing over a hundred thousand lives. Holding elections in the Arab space is tough but not impossible. In Tunisia, the birthplace of the Arab spring, democratic elections have recently been held that have set the stage for a secular government.
This is not just about the Middle East and North Africa, of course. There are plenty of places in the world where Muslim minorities feel themselves under duress: India, China, Russia, the Philippines… My point is that western policy towards Moslems at home and abroad has been one-sided, dilettantish and short-breathed.
Against this background, we should not be surprised if a few thousand young men and women have chosen to join ISIS and /or carry out terrorist attacks at home. That there are not many more choosing this path says much about the values that parents have tried to instill in them – and for the most part have succeeded on doing so. Islam, as all those we call the great religions, has had its violent moments but it is also a repository of peace and understanding. That religious and political elites often spin another tale is true but this is but a small part of the story.
That said, we – Moslems and non-Moslems alike- now find ourselves on the precipice’s edge. On the surface, the discussion in the aftermath of the Charlie Hebdo murders has been a tussle between those who defend the freedom to say anything you want and those who decry any initiative that suggests anything less than total respect for a religious icon.
On another level, however, this is about opinions that are considerably more disconcerting. There are people in France and elsewhere whose militarism in defence of free speech is a thin disguise for their antipathy towards Moslems. And there are people whose militant opposition to the Charlie Hebdo cartoons is a thin disguise for their generalised offensive against all that is western.
It is not too late to change these frontlines. It is not too early either.