Is Europe falling into the ISIS playbook?

Expressions of unity, strength and support followed the atrocious attack against the French satirical paper Charlie Hebdo. Europe’s political leaders marched together, millions of people demonstrated solidarity declaring Je suis Charlie. Instead of bringing France to her knees as the terrorists had hoped, they had brought France to her feet. Citizens all across Europe, particularly in France, rose to the occasion countering hatred with hope and confidence. But this is changing and our communication strategies and narrative to counter ISIS are partly to blame.

From Paris and Brussels to Nice and Würzburg, that hope and confidence is fading. The frequency and horror of these terrorist attacks has continuously hammered away at society. When one person can do so much damage at such public places, everybody feels affected and threatened. Hate is starting to gain on hope. A spectre of hate crime and counter-attacks against Muslim communities is emerging. A European Kristallnacht against Muslims is no longer an unthinkable scenario.

In France, Muslims have been harassed at the Nice commemoration and some citizens have vented their anger by spitting and throwing trash on the spot where the lone-wolf terrorist, Mohamed Lahouaiej-Bouhlel, had been shot. Patrick Calvar, France’s domestic intelligence chief, has recently told a closed-door parliamentary hearing that there will soon be “a confrontation between the extreme right and the Muslim world…one or two more attacks, and it will happen”. In Germany, the country that proudly stood for welcoming refugees, more than 200 refugee homes have been burned or otherwise attacked over the last year. In the United Kingdom, there had been more than 3.000 allegations of hate crime in the weeks of its Brexit referendum as populists, such as Nigel Farage, blamed foreigners for Britain’s woes.

A latest Pew survey of ten EU Member States published a few days prior to the attack in Nice, substantiates this worrying trend. Six in ten EU Member States have an unfavourable view of Muslims. In eight out of ten more than half of the respondents believe refugees increase the probability of a terrorist attack. And in seven out of ten EU Member States, views towards Muslims have become more unfavourable compared to last year. A median of only 18 per cent believe that ethnic, cultural and ethnic diversity is a benefit to their country. Each new attack is likely to add to these developments.

Our politics are failing. Each new attack questions the ability of the political establishment to deal with terrorism, in turn strengthening far-right political parties such as the Front National or the Alternative für Deutschland. EU Member States have been unable to agree to a permanent effort-sharing system for dealing with the refugee influx, again sending a certain message of helplessness.

Communication strategies are particularly using a war rhetoric, which tends to feed fear and feelings of insecurity, worsening the situation. President Hollande has called the November 2015 attack an “act of war” and after Nice France’s Minister of the Interior, Bernard Cazeneuve, called on all “patriotic citizens” to join the reserve police force. Asking citizens to fill the ranks of the police, does not exactly inspire confidence.

All of this, however, can tear at the very social fabric of society. It plays directly into the strategy of Islamic State. Europe and especially France are in danger of falling into the ISIS game plan. By following a rhetoric that emphasises a war with Islamic State and allows a picture of France under siege and the enemy at the European gates to arise, feelings of insecurity persist and contempt towards Muslim communities increases. It is that very contempt that feeds the ISIS narrative. This downward spiral, where only Islamic State can benefit, must be broken.

European governments shouldn’t allow each successful lone-wolf terrorist attack to be claimed as an ISIS victory. A pattern is emerging that many of these lone-wolf perpetrators were emotionally unstable, disconnected from society, extremely narcissistic and looking for a greater purpose in their life. As asserted by Professor Olivier Roy, a leading expert on political Islam, many of these lone-wolf perpetrators were petty criminals that didn’t undergo a radicalisation of Islam but rather an Islamisation of radicality. They are already drawn to radicalism and Islamic State offers them a heroic narrative and purpose to go with it. In the words of Robert Pape, founding director of the Chicago Project on Security and Terrorism, ISIS makes “an appeal to the individual’s sense of self” and “let’s angry men with oversize egos identify with the group…and eventually use the tool kit of Islamic State to carry out their own violent agendas”. With this interpretation in mind, the lone-wolf acts of terror shouldn’t be seen as part of a war with ISIS nor primarily focus on Islam. Mr Pape, for example, notes how a US campaign to paint Islamic State as un-Islamic was particularly unsuccessful. Instead, it must perforate the “hero’s image” and make it unattractive by showing that these lone-wolf perpetrators are nothing more but unhinged petty criminals that won’t be remembered in posterity. Such a narrative would have a dual benefit of deterring future potential lone-wolf terrorists while simultaneously not putting religion front and centre thereby not increasing fears in society about Muslim communities.

Europe is walking down a slippery slope of populism and increasing xenophobia. The focus on fighting Islamic State and using war-like rhetoric is feeding this trend. Of course ISIS must be fought but we shouldn’t allow each terrorist attack to be claimed by ISIS or frame it into the narrative of ISIS – it makes this wretched organisation bigger than it is. A new narrative should emerge. Nice shouldn’t be a reminder of Islamic State. It should be a reminder of why Bastille Day is celebrated – because it represents the spirit of unity, the rights of man and woman, of liberté, egalité, fraternité.

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