Writing for The Conversation, Mark Beeson weighs the corrosive effects of repeated incidents across France:
France occupies a unique place in the history of Western civilisation in particular and “civilised” values more generally. There’s a lot to be said for secular states, as recent events remind us. Putting the priests and the mullahs in their place and throwing off the yoke of inherited ideology and ignorance has been one of the West’s great achievements.
It is not too fanciful to suggest that much of this is now in danger. The levels of surveillance and security will no doubt be increased, with no guarantee of any greater effect. If social profiling is not already happening, it’s fair to assume that it will and should. It seems difficult to argue that whatever can be done to stop such outrages and threats to social cohesion happening should be done.
But the day-to-day tedium of increased security pales into significance to the longer-term consequences of such acts. Governments flounder in the face of such events, or they do in liberal democracies, at least. Personal and political liberties are the very stuff of Western civilisation and it is precisely those that are under attack. Paradoxically, if they are to be preserved they may have to be suspended.
The very ideas of progress, emancipation and improvement are no longer part of the political discourse. It is hardly surprising. Insecurity and uncertainty are becoming endemic, even if the chances of actually being directly affected by such events remains vanishingly small.
Anthony Morris of the University of Technology in Sydney explores the French attacks through the prism of the nation's literature:
Yet the spirit of critique lives on in their literature, most famously for Anglophone audiences in the form of novelist Michel Houellebecq’s mordant satires on French society. In a spirit arguably less nuanced than his canonical predecessors like Balzac and Zola, Houellebecq’s critiques are idiosyncratic and goading, testament as much to his dsyfunctional personality as they are to a desire to reveal potent ironies that speak to the times.
Nowhere is this sensiblity clearer than in his most recent novel, Submission, where irony of premise is well to the foreground. In the France of 2022, an Islamic party has taken power via the ballot box, and France finds itself on the path to Islamisation. Our hero is the Parisian academic François, a scholar of the great 19th century author of decadence, Huysmans.
Confronted with the new status quo, and disaffected with the hollow freedoms of Western culture, François finds himself lured by a world that reestablishes a clear-cut moral order and that, best of all, allows him to have multiple wives.
In an occurrence that could only be described as a freak accident of timing, Submission was published on the same day as the Charlie Hebdo attack, with that magazine’s current issue sporting Michel Houellebecq on the cover. The novel went on to become a bestseller in Europe and the English speaking world. Once again the spirit of French critique – this time a darker, more troubled one – found itself connecting with a national, and global, audience.
Across the border in Germany, three violent events in seven days shook the country, especially in a week which also featured the unconnected Munich shooting rampage. Holger Nehring of The University of Stirling believes that sustained peace (at home) has left Germany unable to cope with violence:
What is really at stake here goes much deeper. Western European societies, spoilt by virtually more than six decades of peace, have unlearned how to cope with violence.
This is especially the case for Germany. Security has been one of its guiding values. It emerged over the course of the 1950s, 1960s, 1970s and 1980s as a response to the experience of mass violence after two world wars. And despite their reputation, Germans have a libertarian streak, evidenced by their suspicion towards surveillance. Security has therefore also meant security from the state.
This security arrangement now appears under existential threat as a result of these violent attacks. And it is symbolic that the attacks have occurred in the areas of southern Germany that have a reputation as the most affluent, secure and pristine incarnations of that German post-war dream of peace after mass violence.
But German security has always been more a dream than a reality. It explained violence away by asking for its causes rather than accepting that all human beings are capable of violence. The strength of the West German state in producing economic and social security has allowed Germans to forget the safe conditions that made this development possible.
What, then, is to be done? Dennis Shen, writing for the LSE's EUROPP blog, suggests that what Europe has tried so far hasn't worked well, and calls for a new approach:
One fact is clear. Terrorist networks like IS and Al Qaeda base their recruitment strategy on the notion that a war is currently being waged against Islam. If the West defeats IS, depending on how any such ‘victory’ takes place and the actions surrounding it, another manifestation of the terrorist group or a new network altogether will likely take its place. As such, the traditional methods of warfare being used in the Middle East are outdated, with the war now being staged inside our own borders, and organisations like IS thriving in the political vacuum created by conflicts in the Middle East and elsewhere.
In a recent article, Jeffrey Sachs of Columbia University traced the roots of Islamic terrorist organisations back decades, identifying them as a form of ‘blowback terrorism’, rooted in US and European military actions in the Muslim world aimed at overthrowing governments and installing regimes compliant with western interests. He notes that ‘painful as it is, the West, especially the United States, bears significant responsibility for creating the conditions in which ISIS has flourished’ and that ‘only a change in US and European foreign policy vis-à-vis the Middle East can reduce the risk of further terrorism’.
In Syria itself, though, the majority of young men are not signing up to fight for ISIS, and it might be worth pausing to consider why. Lana Khattab of International Alert explains in OpenDemocracy that gender, and a sense of despair, is driving men to take up weapons:
In times of chaos, being part of an armed group provides a degree of control and agency, instead of feeling at the mercy of circumstances. And as more extreme groups tend to be better funded, disciplined and equipped, they represent a more appealing option than more moderate groups.
A teacher we spoke to said: “I asked some students why they were fighting with Al Nusra rather than anyone else. They said, ‘because they’re winning. Who wants to join a group that is losing?’”. And while the more ‘moderate’ Free Syrian Army fighters are only paid around $100 a month, fighters in Al Nusra are paid three or four times that.
However, masculine roles can also lead young men to avoid violence:
Once again, the reasons for not fighting are influenced be tradition. The majority of male respondents interviewed in Turkey and Lebanon left Syria to flee the violence. A sixteen-year old Syrian boy in Beirut said that “it is impossible to stay in Syria because young men are being called up to fight in the army or to join one or the other opposition factions. We as young Syrians know that Lebanon is only a momentary phase for us”.
Syrian men’s duties to financially support and ensure the protection of their families led many not to engage in fighting and flee Syria in the first place. One young Syrian man in Ketermaya camp in south Lebanon told us: “If I didn’t have a child and a family, I would have gone back to Syria to fight with the fighters [of the FSA], but I cannot leave my family behind”. In fact, the majority of Syrian men Alert spoke to in Turkey and Lebanon agreed that having to provide for and support a wife and children was the main reason why they stopped fighting or did not engage in it in the first place.
What of young men in Europe? There are calls for increased efforts to counter the effects of "self-radicalisation". Griffith University's Keiran Hardy points out that the UK's Prevent program hasn't been a total success:
Community-based work under Prevent began in 2007. The strategy has since come under continual criticism for aggravating perceptions of surveillance and discrimination in Britain’s Muslim communities.
Recurring concerns with Prevent relate to the strategy’s disproportionate focus on Muslim communities, the heavy role police play in overseeing the strategy’s delivery, and its close association with coercive approaches to counter-terrorism.
A police-led intervention program, Channel, is a major driver of these concerns. Under the program, police collect information and conduct risk assessments to determine whether individuals should be referred to a multi-agency support panel. Teachers, health workers and community members are encouraged to identify individuals who might be at risk of radicalisation and refer them to the program.
More recently, significant concern has been expressed about Prevent’s impact on free speech and academic freedom. Teachers in British schools and universities now receive training to help identify signs of radicalisation in their students. Similar debates are playing out in Australia.
The Cameron government identified and sought to remedy many of these issues in a 2011 review of Prevent. However, significant concerns remain.
Recently, the UK’s Independent Reviewer of Terrorism Legislation called for an independent review of Prevent because it “has become a more significant source of grievance in affected communities” than the UK’s counter-terrorism laws.
The role of mental illness in radicalisation and terror is an area of dispute - the shifting of focus from professed religious affiliations to possible mental health problems can sometimes just replace Islamaphobia with ableism. France24 spoke with Dr. Samuel Leistedt, a psychiatrist and professor at the Free University of Brussels who specialises in terrorism:
FRANCE 24: According to initial reports, [Nice attacker Mohamed Lahouaiej] Bouhlel appeared to be extremely psychologically unstable…
Dr. Samuel Leistedt: It’s an exception. Generally terrorists don’t have this type of profile. Depression, ill-being are not the rule. Very few display traits of psychiatric disorders. This man was presented in some media as a psychopath. It was a false analysis. For the moment, that’s not what is emerging. Psychopathy has a very precise definition. A psychopath would not have reacted at all like the killer in Nice: a psychopath doesn’t take, doesn’t kill, doesn’t explode.
FRANCE 24: The Syrian refugee who blew himself up on Sunday in Ansbach, Germany had spent time in a psychiatric hospital. Are people who are mentally vulnerable a target for Islamic State group recruiters?
Dr. Samuel Leistedt: In Europe, Daesh [an alternative name for the Islamic Sate group] recruits from a fertile ground of people who are disenfranchised professionally, socially and who also have family issues – a situation that is particularly common among migrants. They are targeted by Daesh, who seek to use these individuals as moving bombs.
The Economist's Erasmus column looks backwards for causes of the current situation. Quite a way back:
One of America's leading authorities on European Islam has made a rather nuanced and unusual contribution to this conversation. Writing in the Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung in response to a column asserting that "terrorism has a lot to do with Islam", Jonathan Laurence argues (link to English translation) that the present-day pathologies of European Islam are a kind of aftershock from a century-old mistake. Or rather, of a short-sighted policy that went into higher gear almost exactly 100 years ago. In the summer of 1916, the British government and its war allies began fomenting an Arab revolt against the political and above all, spiritual authority of the Ottomans. This brought about the British-led capture of Jerusalem and the collapse of Ottoman dominion over Islam's holiest places, whether in the Levant or Arabia. As an alternative to Ottoman rule over the Arabs, the British initially backed the Hashemite dynasty which still reigns over Jordan; but the ultimate beneficiary was the royal house of Saud which took over Mecca and Medina in 1924.
In the view of Mr Laurence, a professor at Boston College, this brought to an end a period of several decades in which the caliphate (a spiritual role which the Ottomans combined, until 1922, with the worldly rank of sultan) had a generally benign effect on global Islam. Not only within the Ottoman realm but far beyond it, the caliphate formed the apex of a international network of teachers, preachers and judges.