Comment on the EU strategy against Da'esh

The home grown dimension should not be ignored

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A year after the Brussels attacks, the European Union’s External Action Service published a fact sheet documenting the Union’s efforts against terrorism.1 For the most part, these involve targeted funding to third countries that seem to have a higher likelihood of fostering Jihad-inspired terrorist activity. As per the fact sheet:

The total amount of EU funding for projects aimed at Preventing/Countering Violent Extremism (P/CVE) today is €300M. The focus of such projects is primarily on the Middle East and North Africa, but the Western Balkans, Turkey, Central Asia and Pakistan also fall within the geographical scope.

What stands as a glaring omission in this context is the Union’s strategy against home grown terrorist cells. For instance, recent news items highlighted that in a single neighbourhood of Molenbeek there were 51 active terrorist organisations,2 while the Mayor of Brussels claimed that all mosques are controlled by Salafists.3 The problem is not the Belgian capital per se. Home grown terrorism seems to exist in a number of EU countries. Those news do, nonetheless, remind us of the fact that in a largely borderless Europe, locality is less important and that concerted action at the EU level is very much a necessity.

Salafism is a fundamentalist variant of Sunni Islam which preaches the application of the sharia. It is the kind of approach found in Saudi Arabia. This world view differs fundamentally from secularism, understood as the rule of law of a sovereign, democratic state that promotes and safeguards fundamental rights. The work of Salafists or similarly-minded groups within Europe can contribute to at least the following inter-linked phenomena:

  • Alienation. Parallel societies are allowed to develop their own structures and effectively sever their ties with the domestic body politic. By having no real interaction with their home country, by not being adequately represented in its politics or not partaking in its quotidian life, the members of such parallel societies internalise, cause, or exacerbate their alienation and consequent ghettoisation. In short, this constitutes a major failure of a certain [largely pretentious] approach to multi-culturalism that only limits itself to the mere presence of diversity rather than its synthesis into a greater, albeit heterogeneous, whole.
  • Radicalisation. Life in a ghetto is most likely than not to develop into a vicious cycle of social exclusion and criminality, which then feeds into radicalised reaction with a potential for violence. Jihad can easily become the pretext, the overarching rationalisation as it were, of the push back against a domestic life of stigmatisation. Members of parallel societies are treated as citizens manqué, be it because of their socially-imposed constraints (the stigma), or their own drift away from the domestic normative values or, most probably, by a combination of the two.

For all the efforts of the EU, there is one major research question that is not addressed by European politicians: how come there are citizens of EU states—French, Belgians, Germans, etc.—that are so dissatisfied with their country to the point where they are willing to sacrifice their life in order to bring about its destruction? It is too simplistic, or rather unscientific, to think of home grown terrorists are purely evil; as individuals who are merely exercising their free will in such a malicious way. Social phenomena are complex and multi-faceted. They demand inquiry into the political, societal, cultural, and economic factors involved.

The EU tends to follow a policy that is detached from—or that does not attach great value to—the anthropology of the matter. Terrorism does not just happen. This is not a random state of affairs that has no particular underlying causes. If it were, one would expect home grown terrorist cells to be distributed more or less evenly across the EU, which is clearly not the case. Furthermore, it would be premature to conclude that Salafism and the like are a form of external invasion spearheaded by culture yet driven by funding, such as from Saudi Arabia. Even if such a strategy were in place, it would still be predicated on the presence of marginalised groups in the EU willing to follow along. In other words, external propaganda has to find fertile ground, and that is probably due to internal reasons.

In conclusion, it is rather odd that the fact sheet focuses on Da’esh. The so-called Islamic State is indeed a major force to be reckoned with, but it clearly is not the only one. More specifically, the source of Jihadism seems to be in the fundamentalist interpretation of Islamic teachings. The penchant for violence appears as the next logical step. Da’esh did not invent Jihad in its modern incarnation. It is yet another instance of a wider, more global phenomenon, which itself calls for a refined, multi-dimensional strategy at the international level. At any rate, it is counter-productive to limit the issue to any one organisation or terrorist group. Even worse is to treat Jihad-inspired terrorism as a purely exogenous phenomenon and to thus frame it in terms of the EU/West versus the Broader Middle East.

Despite litanies to the contrary, it is evident that there are internal policy failures, weaknesses in integrating certain communities into the body politic, or an overall inability to provide for decent living conditions for all citizens regardless of their background. And this implies the broadening of the strategy against terrorism, so that it is no longer a mere security issue, but a social-economic one as well. Investigating the drivers of radicalisation and terrorism, especially with regard to its home grown manifestation, is not tantamount to the justification of extremism and wanton destruction. It is about improving upon existing policies while paving the way for new ones. The sooner the humanities are involved in this, the better off everyone will be, including the groups most prone to radicalisation.

  1. European Union External Action fact sheet: EU actions to counter Da’esh. Published March 22, 2017. [^]

  2. Politico Europe news story: Belgium’s Molenbeek home to 51 groups with terror links: report. Published March 20, 2017. [^]

  3. Politico Europe news story: Brussels mayor: All our mosques are controlled by Salafists. Published March 22, 2017. [^]