Many have rushed to blame religious conservatism for a surge in terror attacks, citing Islamist extremism as the root of increased violence. Conflating the issues of terrorism and religious conservatism is not only simplistic, it is also dangerous and short-sighted. It alienates those very same communities who are our best allies in curbing the spreading of home-grown terror. An effective answer to domestic terrorism should focus on socioeconomic issues, not on religious conservatism.
The frequency of Jihadist assaults in European capitals has increased dramatically since the coordinated attacks in Paris in November 2015. Most notably, not one, but two attacks have recently taken place in the United Kingdom in the space of two weeks, in Manchester and London. In both incidents, the perpetrators targeted unknowing civilians who were engaging in leisurely activities. The Islamic State claimed responsibility for the attacks soon after.
As a result of these and other similar episodes in Paris, Brussels and Berlin, the European Citizens’ Initiative “Stop extremism” has been formally registered by the European Commission on 12 June 2017. The Initiative invites the Commission to “propose legislation in order to prevent the adverse consequences of extremism, above all for the Internal Market”.
And yet, a clear pattern has emerged from the official inquiries following the recent terrorist attacks: all perpetrators were already known to the police and had been reported to anti-terror authorities, sometimes repeatedly, by either acquaintances or family members. Salman Abedi, the terrorist behind the Manchester bombing, had even been banned from the Didsbury Mosque because of the radical views he had expressed. No reaction followed these warnings.
A rhetoric strikingly similar to the European Citizens’ Initiative “Stop extremism” came from across the Channel, with Prime Minister Theresa May insisting that “enough is enough” and “things need to change”, placing the blame for the repeated episodes of violence on “segregated, separated communities” and “the single evil ideology of Islamist extremism”.
There is an imperative need to tackle the spreading of terrorism across Europe, but focusing solely on the ideology and beliefs of Muslim communities, inferring that Islamic practices correlate directly with violence, very much misses the heart of the problem.
Indeed, making religious practices (such as praying several times a day, wearing a burka, fasting during Ramadan) synonymous with radical Jihadist terrorism estranges those same people who might hold strong religious beliefs but would never, under any circumstances, engage in acts of terror.
Strict religious practices should not be confused with political violence. Research shows that, when attention is paid to the social context of home-grown terrorists, a pattern of isolation and socioeconomic exclusion emerges, which is usually followed by delinquency, criminal behaviour and domestic abuse.
Members of Muslim communities frequently suffer from harassment and hostility in public spaces as well as discrimination in schools and on the job market. It causes many to turn to religion and to radicalism for refuge, further alimenting a vicious cycle of isolation and lack of opportunity. This fuels criminal behaviour and ultimately terrorism. The French expert on political Islam Olivier Roy calls it the “Islamisation of radicalism and not the radicalisation of Islam”.
Policies that target and stigmatize Muslims, such as anti-veil legislation, increased surveillance and tougher punishments, only exacerbate the issues of isolation and radicalization.
Criminalizing on the grounds of one’s religious practices is not only misleading, but also dangerous. Members of Muslim communities across Europe are a vital resource in the fight against domestic terror. They are best placed to discourage violent demeanour, notify suspect behaviour and report it to the proper authorities.
Instead of scapegoating observant worshippers and placing the focus on “Islamic extremism” as the sole cuprite for terrorist attacks, European authorities should encourage policies of inclusion and cooperation with their national Muslim communities, thus reducing segregation and limiting the influence of Islamic State rhetoric. Widespread unemployment in these communities (especially of young Muslim men) ought to be tackled with ad hoc measures that promote job opportunities not at odds with Muslim beliefs and traditions.
At the same time, more attention should be paid to warnings coming from Muslim communities in regards to individuals at risk of becoming radicalised and those vulnerable to terrorist recruitment. Their wisdom and recommendations should be welcomed and operationalized, and not be met with weariness and suspect, or worse, indifference.
In the fight against domestic terror, Europe cannot afford the narrow-minded and short-sighted view that willingly confuses terrorism with religious conservatism. This attitude depicts “radical Islam” as the enemy of “European values” and directly plays in the hands of the Islamic State. Change is necessary, but it should come in the form of reasonable measures focused at overcoming socioeconomic issues. European institutions ought to discard a public discourse full of alarmism and fear, and choose instead to embrace Muslim Europeans.