Europe endures a sporadic but constant stream of terrorist attacks in its cities. These are carried out by individuals or small groups. Larger attacks in London, Madrid and Paris involve bombings and mass shootings. Smaller attacks by individuals involve assaults and the running down of civilians.
It is extremely easy to exaggerate these events, to draw them together and in a sense reach upwards for a grand narrative about a new kind of war or a global siege. For racists, there is a fatuous fallacy of composition in which these despicable acts serve as evidence of what Islam is generally. But, the plain fact is that Europe is a large, powerful and resilient region which, in a sober and historicised reckoning, has been troubled by far greater disturbances, most of these emerging from within its own borders throughout its troubled negotiations of difference, sameness, and rivalry. Terrorism challenges our sense of proportion, a balance between a recognition of horrifying acts of violence and a sense that they tell do not come anywhere near to an ‘existential threat’ for European societies which remain resilient, diverse, and socially-energised. Far less do these terrorist acts tell us anything essential about Islam, although it is in a full consideration of modern Islam that one might find a different sense of perspective.
The strength and weakness of European liberal political culture
One salient thread of Europe’s political history is its ability to manage intense, rapid, and violent change through lively, pluralised, and dense public discourse. One repercussion of this – only intensified by social media and blogs – is that relatively small events can trigger large discursive effects, especially in an age when there is less certainty about what Europe is or what Britain is. A single violent event can trigger millions of words of discussion which range across a very broad range of opinions, drawing upon all manner of comparisons, appeals, condemnations, and attacks. This is both an intrinsic property of liberal European societies, part of their political tenacity, and also a source of amplification in which careful and calibrated assessments of violence are easily abandoned.
This combination of reaching upwards for meaning and a prolix public popular media is no more present that when the word ‘Islam’ is interpolated. The purpose of Al Qaeda and Daesh to create the effect of terror is in part enabled through the explosion of often well-meaning and passionate commentary across all media and also within the political class. The reference to Islam transubstantiates a vile assault on civilians into something uniquely vexed, something that leads to sometimes convoluted discussions about ‘good’ and ‘bad’ Islam, about the meaning of prefixes like ‘extreme’, ‘radical’, and ‘fundamentalist’. There are, again quite convoluted, discussions about the meaning and intensity of Islamaphobia. There is an eagerness on the part of the cultural warriors of nationalism to draw historical analogies back to the Ottoman empire or even Crusades.
We do need to recognise and discuss these terrorist acts as part of a single phenomenon, a geopolitical project of insurgency emerging in the late 1990s and the ‘war or terror’ since 2001.
These terrorist acts, claiming a franchise with the global wars prosecuted by Al Qaeda and Daesh, are indeed Islamic. Nevertheless, it is difficult to say so in liberal-left circles. But, to remove the connection to Islam seems like a remarkable categorical act of exclusion when the details of each terrorist act is so suffused in references to religious association, morals and motivations.
There are two very simple and sensible corollaries to this association of Islam and terrorism. Firstly that the evocations of Islam are not definitive. They are not dominant renditions of Islam, and do not connect with the vast majority of Muslims. ‘Islam’ and ‘terrorism’ is one relatively minor association that one might make within the global and modern world of Islamic faith, community, and politics. Both ‘terrorism’ and ‘Islam’ connect with many other political communities and practices.
Secondly, the ‘Islam’ signifier does not automatically mean that we should fall into panicky and epochal world-visions of civilizational difference or conflict. The war on terrorism is forged in this image. This is pure ideology. To take it as a political reality and to proceed to ask questions about how it can we won is already to have lost.
The war against Al Qaeda and Daesh
There are, in fact two very important and largely unnoticed stylized facts about the rise (and fall) of Al Qaeda and the rise of Daesh which adds an extremely important sense of perspective in the spirit I am suggesting here, each of which also puts the meaning and usage of ‘Islam’ into better focus.
One: by far the largest number of Al Qaeda and Daesh’s victims are Muslims. Two: by far the most effective and tenacious battles against these organisations are prosecuted by Muslims.
In both Iraq and Syria, Al Qaeda and Daesh’s main concerns have related to the destruction on Muslims from different religious communities or organisations. This is where most of their firepower has been aimed. Al Qaeda and the host regime that allowed it a place to grow from in Afghanistan fought against Muslims in that country, killing unnumbered non-combatant Muslims. In Iraq Daesh has fought against the Iraqi army and Sunni militias. In Syria, a complex religious factionalism within Muslim communities defines the ongoing insurgency/civil war. Taken together, Afghanistan, Iraq, and Syria are the killing fields of Al Qaeda and Daesh. Once one moves out of the heartlands of these terrorist insurgencies into the broader hot zones of associated organisations, we readily see organisations across North Africa and the Sahel which are also largely terrorising and killing Muslims. Consider Al Shabaab in Somalia, Boko Haraam in northern Nigeria. Consider Al Qaeda In The Islamic Maghreb.
There are no figures – so many deaths are uncounted and unnoticed – for these ordinary people, the diverse devout Muslims who experience this terror. Recognising the facts of this great arc of violence against Muslims makes a palpable idiocy of any civilizational claim that Islam is a threat to the West. A certain kind of Islam – not one supported by a great many people – is in the first instance an overwhelming threat to Muslims.
And, secondly, the fight against these organisations is one most effectively pursued by organisations of Muslims. One can unearth this evidence amidst the complex geopolitics of Syria, albeit not in ways that allow for simplistic ‘good guy’ identification. The work of Alexander Cockburn shows this in striking detail and nuance. Beyond this, Palestinian organisations (including Hamas) have determinedly stymied Daesh’s attempts to spread further into the Levant. In northern Iraq, people rely on the weapons of the weak to avoid, ignore, undermine, or replace the brutalism of Daesh. And various Kurdish organisations in northern Iraq and southern Turkey very directly go into combat with Daesh on a daily basis.
It might be a kind of pleasurable distraction to witness the grandiose ambitions and operations of Western militaries, generating as it does high publicity and the image of a winnable war against terrorism. It might be tempting for some to believe Trump bombastic assurances that he will defeat Daesh. But this Western mission is clearly an ideological project with no clear measure of success and many failures. Furthermore, the strategies pursued – bombing, occupation, and low intensity conflict based in drone warfare – can easily become counter-productive inasmuch as they contribute (not create) to the rise of terrorist organisations. These modes of violence are themselves by any neutral definition include acts of terrorism as well. The best hope of roundly defeating Al Qaeda and Daesh will emerge from the resistances of Muslims in those regions most affect, not the interventions of Western militaries.
Not just about us
So, back to Europe, but now with a more inclusive perspective on what Islamic terrorism is. The atrocities in Europe are a component of a complex battle which is mainly fought out within those regions of the world in which Islam has been historically predominant. To make any claim that Islam is in some sort of civilizational conflict with the West or Europe is just about the daftest conclusion one can draw from this. It sends us back to square one: security panics and fear-mongering which mirrors the terrorists’ intents; all manner of anxiety about Muslims in Europe, the vast majority of whom have nothing to do with international terrorism; and all manner of triggers for racist narratives of civilizational conflict. Racist ideologies aid and abet this stupidity.
Any lasting progress in stamping out Islamic terrorism can only be secured through a winning out of the vast majority of Muslims in the Middle East and Africa who are the main victims and combatants in the war against terrorism. But this is not a statement that has easy political corollaries.
People’s sympathies tend to weaken with socio-cultural distance. There is something almost meaningless in the abstraction that one should care for every human death in exactly the same degree because each life has the same basic worth. This is in one sense perfectly true but also affectively meaningless.
But we do not need to make the obvious point that a society laments the death of those within it in a different way to distant others in order to question European liberal commitments to human rights under pressure from Islamic terrorism. We should also pay more attention to the deaths of distant Muslim others because – even if the connections are tenuous, complex, and ultimately difficult to identify clearly – their suffering, struggle, combat, and action is very much part of our struggle against terrorism in Europe. For as long as commentators get worked up over Islam, panic and speculate about existential threat, and in the process ignore what the war against terrorism really is, even the first step towards its defeat cannot properly be taken.