Let’s rewrite this divisive narrative

With Islamic terrorism now striking at the heart of Europe, questions are being asked as to what impact fundamentalism is having on Europeans and what different measures should be taken to integrate Islamic communities. A first step, argues Humphrey Hawksley, would be to tone down the rhetoric. 


After attacks in Brussels and Paris, the spectre of more Islamic terror strikes in Europe has begun to drive policy that could change the modern face of the continent. Security powers are being increased, open borders are being closed and political leaders are gaining popularity by calling for an end to immigration from Muslim countries.

The violence has been linked to the flow of migrants into Europe from the Middle East and North Africa, conjuring up for many nightmare fears of a Trojan horse of Islamic terror spilling out onto every street.

What is rarely spoken about is that the level of terrorist violence in Europe is at its lowest level for some fifty years.

While 147 died last year in the Paris shootings, many more were killed in the 1970s and 80s. More than 400 died each year in 1972, 1974 and 1980, peaking with the Lockerbie plane bombing in 1988. Between 1971 and 1992 more than a hundred a year were killed.

Most of the bloodshed was in Britain, Italy and Spain and none was caused by Islamic fundamentalism. Libya’s Gaddafi, blamed for Lockerbie, was a secularist dictator. Britain’s Northern Ireland insurgency was a Christian versus Christian conflict. The other attacks were mainly the work of separatists like Spain’s Basque group, Euskadi Ta Askatasuna (ETA) and neo-fascist movements such as Italy’s Nuclei Armati Rivoluzionari which murdered 85 people with a bomb at Bologna railway station in 1980.

Indeed, before the Paris killings last year, Europe’s most recent massacre was in 2011 in Norway when 77, many of them children, were shot by a lone gunman. Anders Breivik has been categorised as a white supremacist or Christian extremist.

Breivik was treated as a criminal with deep psychological problems. So why, many ask, are not the young men and women killing in the name of Islam handled in a similar way? It is as if murder by a fanatic who is Europe’s own is more acceptable than by one who is not from a white, Christian culture.

However unpalatable the answer, it is a question that needs to be addressed before the fear of Islamic fundamentalism embeds itself too deeply into Europe’s political psyche.

Already, terrorism and immigration are driving right-wing, authoritarian agendas, particularly in Hungary and Poland, whose governments have introduced policies that pit themselves directly against the European Union’s commitment to democratic values. Immigration is a pivotal issue in Britain’s June referendum on whether it should actually leave the EU, and the possibility of Turkey joining it continues to fire the debate of whether Europe is a Christian or secular society.

The genesis of this argument goes back centuries to Islamic-Christian rivalry with the Crusades and Muslim Ottoman conquests of European territory. This history becomes a polarising narrative when told against the backdrop of Muslim communities doing little to integrate and accept the European way of life.

The main policy of the past thirty years has been one known as multiculturalism, whereby different cultures are promoted within a single society and individuals define themselves through their culture, often at the expense of their nationality.

CATALYST: Terrorism and immigration are driving right-wing, authoritarian agendas in certain European countries
CATALYST: Terrorism and immigration
are driving right-wing,
authoritarian agendas in certain
European countries

Political leaders throughout Europe are now conceding that this hasn’t worked.

A recent survey by the polling company ICM, commissioned by Britain’s Channel Four, found that Muslim views are a long way out of step with Britain’s mainstream thinking.

Fifty-two per cent of Muslims thought homosexuality should be made illegal, 39 per cent believed that a woman should always obey her husband, one third supported the stoning of women for adultery and almost a quarter wanted Sharia to replace British law in communities with a majority Muslim population. Most alarmingly, only 34 per cent would contact the police if someone close to them supported Islamic violence and four per cent, or about 100,000, sympathise with those who carry out acts of terror.

Trevor Phillips, the former head of Britain’s Human Rights Commission and veteran of racial issues, describes this as an ‘unacknowledged creation of a nation within the nation, with its own geography, its own values and its own very separate future’.

‘I thought Europe’s Muslims would gradually blend into the landscape,” he said. ‘I should have known better.’

European leaders have also failed to promote clearly and show the benefits of Western democratic values when set against the political backdrop of the long-running War on Terror.

Some 6,000 fighters, mostly from Britain, France and Germany, have left Europe to fight with Islamic State, which is evidence enough of the alienation of this new generation. About two thirds of the 30,000 foreign fighters come from the Middle East and North Africa, but, tellingly, the figure for India, with double Europe’s population and a large Muslim minority with much to complain about, is less than fifty, raising questions about what Europe could  learn from India on cultural integration.

A 20-year-old suicide bomber raised in a European Muslim neighbourhood would have been just five years old when Osama Bin Laden carried out the 9/11 attacks in 2001 and seven when the United States invaded Iraq. Much of his upbringing will have been defined in an atmosphere of Islamic-related violence and how the West and his own family dealt with it.

He would be torn between his own bloodlines and cultural heritage and Europe’s free-wheeling world of Twitter, dating and fun.  If he dug deeper, he would be faced with multiple contradictions that risked him concluding that the West had no idea what its values were or what its mission statement should be.

Why, he might ask, if the Iraq invasion failed with so much bloodshed, did his government go on to rid Libya of its leader too? Why, if the West advocated political freedom, did it support a military dictatorship in overthrowing Egypt’s first democratically-elected president?  And why, when people are killed by Islamic terrorists in Europe, are buildings lit up in mourning, yet when people die in Muslim countries, the buildings stay dark?

With his questions unanswered or ignored, he sets off from Europe to join Islamic State, where he feels valued and is given a clear goal—a brief act of killing lasting a few minutes that will change policy and whip up fear of trained suicide bombers smuggling themselves in among the flood of refugees.

Britain says it has stopped at least seven Islamic terror plots in the past two years. France and Germany speak of thwarting dozens. And each time a threat emerges, European rhetoric moves closer towards a new and uncomfortable set of political values.

In the short term, much could be done to criminalise, as opposed to politicise, acts of terror. It needs to be made clear that Europe is safer and more secure now than it was a generation ago and that most of the perpetrators in the past half century have not been Muslims.

The European Union needs to be more agile in its refugee and immigration policies as well as nipping in the bud the continent’s tendency towards authoritarianism and ethnic divisions such as have recently percolated in Hungary and Poland.

But at its heart, young Muslims need to be better mentored within European society. This is a challenge not just about material and cultural needs. It is about what serves human dignity, so that an adolescent Muslim raised in Europe feels he can fulfil a role that does not involve killing innocent people and destroying ancient monuments in Syria.


Humphrey Hawksley has reported extensively from the Middle East and the developing world.  He is the author of Democracy Kills—What’s So Good About Having The Vote?  (Macmillan), an examination of terrorism, development and democracy.


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