NO EASY ANSWERS
There is no magic bullet to end the threat from fundamentalist Islamic terrorism. There seems no shortage of impressionable individuals sufficiently duped into being willing to murder other human beings, killing themselves or being killed in the process, on the promise of some form of paradise in the next life. There have always been those with no moral compass, who have seen nothing wrong with murder, but usually society – every society – has coped with the threat they represented. On occasion this has taken time, particularly where a madman has succeeded in gaining political or military power, requiring considerable effort and bloodshed to bring him down. But grafting religion onto regular fanaticism produces a formidable combination indeed, ruthlessness allied with zealotry and bolstered by self -righteousness.
Lest we forget, killing people of a different religion was once common in Europe. The century and a half following the Reformation (the Quincentenary of which falls this year) was replete with wars of religion as Protestants and Catholics fought for superiority and hegemony, conflicts exacerbated by the simultaneous separate evolution of the nation state.
Eventually the religious factor waned in lethality, though not necessarily in importance. With a few exceptions Europeans ceased to murder or make war on their neighbours just because their religion was different. You might not like them, you might find clever ways of discriminating against them but you didn’t kill them. There were plenty of wars but not over religion, though religion remained a convenient label for identifying or defining enemies.
The second half of the Twentieth Century has seen a further evolution in Western society. Post -1945, with the ignoble exception of the Jugoslav Wars and several small internal conflicts, Europe has been at peace. And, over this period, European and Western Society generally – loosely defined as the countries of the First World – has become, for want of a better word, secular. This is not to deny that there are many millions of Western Europeans who hold firm and sincere religious views. But in the main our societies are defined, not by adherence to any particular religion, but by being democratic, tolerant of other opinions, espousing freedom of speech and expression and having regard for the prevailing system of laws. We live in effect in a post-religious society.
While this last assertion might be disputed, the point I wish to register is that there is a near consensus in our societies, embracing alike Christians, Jews, Muslims, Buddhists, Atheists, Agnostics and whatever. That consensus puts religion – and for that matter political ideology or other belief – firmly in a place circumscribed by obligation to and tolerance for other viewpoints. There are, of course (always) mavericks who do not subscribe to this – Neo Nazi groups on the right, extremist groups on the left – but they are normally inconsequential or easily dealt with ( witness for example the Baader-Meinhof group in Germany in the seventies).
ISIS and its acolytes are the latest mavericks but with distinctive features which render combatting them difficult. Let me state the obvious. ISIS is not mainstream Islam. The overwhelming majority of Muslims, in every country, are totally opposed to the acts of murder and terror carried out by fanatics, whether it be the recent mass murders in Barcelona, Manchester, and London or the mass murder of Coptic Christians (28 shot and murdered) in Egypt three days after Manchester. They are equally totally opposed to the terror attacks perpetrated on other Muslims which happen almost daily in the Middle East. Indeed though we tend to focus on attacks in the West, the scale of murders of Muslims by other Muslims in sectarian terror attacks dwarfs by far what has occurred in Europe.
ISIS and its associated jihadi groups, like Boko Haram in Nigeria -which has killed 20,000 (!) people in its eight year campaign to turn Nigeria into an Islamic state – have their roots in the Salafi or Wahhabi branch of Sunni Islam. These groups comprise a small minority of Salafis (most Salafis shun politics) and follow an extremist interpretation of Islam, which promotes religious violence and regards other Muslims as apostates or infidels and just as fair game for attack as non-Muslims. Hence the atrocities against other Muslims. The Jihadis are a lethal offshoot from the Sunni side of the great divide in Islam between Sunni and Shia. Currently this divide is to be seen in the struggle for domination in the region between the Sunnis (championed by Saudi Arabia) and the Shias (represented by Iran) with political, religious, social and civil conflict, and proxy wars in several countries. Shades of the Christian Wars of Religion of 400 years ago.
Inevitably, given their ideology, ISIS and the other fundamentalists have focussed sharply on the West, re-igniting the ancient embers of conflict between Christians and Muslims. Hence Nine Eleven. Hence the terror campaign in Europe. If not a popular cause it’s one that appeals to some. It is after all not hard to find reasons why the West should be resented in the Middle East. The Western powers picked over the remnants of the Ottoman Empire and, since the Crusades, the West has intervened militarily when its interests were at stake. Then it was religion. Now it is oil and economic imperialism. The West’s dramatic economic growth and prosperity since 1945 is seen as underpinned in part by the exploitation of the one major natural resource the region has – Oil.
Most of the oil wealth has accrued to feudal and despotic ruling elites, shored up by the West, with very little trickling down to the impoverished majority populations. The invasion of Iraq, the intervention in Libya are seen as the most recent examples of the West’s continuing interference. All this has been compounded by Western support for Israel while the plight of the Palestinians is ignored. Some of the resulting brew of humiliation, resentment, and frustration has been imported directly into Europe by large scale immigration from North Africa over the last half century. Here it festered among some, providing fertile ground for jihadist recruiters. The mix of ample funding, religious zealotry, articulate radical preachers, modern communications and a simple clear message and cause on top of patriotic and social frustration and alienation has produced results – and recruits.
ISIS operatives have proved flexible and innovative, switching tactics, using a combination of “Lone Wolfs” and organised terrorist cells. Whatever weapons are to hand have been employed, guns and explosives when available, anything else otherwise, including knives and, ominously, ordinary everyday trucks and cars, driven at speed indiscriminately in crowded areas with horrendous results. There appears no adequate defence against attacks of this sort by people prepared to die in the attempt.
There’s no easy answer. The first priorities have to be containment and prevention, all great in theory but difficult to achieve total success. The check list of preventive measures is easy to compile and more and better of the same can be calculated to make life and operations more difficult for the extremists. But it won’t win over any hearts and minds. That will take time. And, rest assured, ISIS will continue to improvise and hone their methods. We are in for a long haul.