The ISIS issue: the inaccurate and irrational response of European politicians



By Jasper Simons

In the wake of the Paris and Brussels terrorist attacks, European citizens and politicians have strongly defied the cowardice of the attacks and expressed their solidarity. However, many Europeans increasingly feel a twofold discomfort when hearing their political leaders react to the attacks. They propagate a discourse of both war and of an ideological or religious clash, claiming we have to militarily defend our free societies that are under assault by ruthless, religious zealots. This kind of political rhetoric is unsettling because it draws upon fear and – deliberately or not – functions as a misrepresentation that obscures the real nature of Jihadist terrorism.

A painfully mistaken message

Belgian author D. van Reybrouck anticipated the use of warlike language. In an open letter to president Francois Hollande he pointed out that his words were identical to G.W. Bush’s discourse of ‘the war against terrorism’. Appallingly, Hollande falls into the same pit that Bush dug for himself in the Middle East; another military response would cause more instability than intended, creating a real risk of backfiring, as was the case after the November 2015 atrocities. This is somewhat like taking a scorched self-baked cake from the oven and telling your guests that the only way of making it edible is by increasing the heat even more.

Unfortunately, president Hollande is not alone in his bellicose talk. Other European leaders expressed the same nonsensical, disturbing and dangerous words. They too seem to have forgotten that the ascendance of ISIS was only practically possible because of the power vacuum that emerged in Iraq after the West toppled Saddam Hussein. Sometimes even concomitantly, we hear public figures like Brussels mayor Yvan Mayeur claiming that the terrorist crimes constitute “an attack on our values and liberties, on our humanism and cosmopolitanism.” I do not doubt the sincerity in Mayeur’s belief that these atrocities were not motivated by, but actually contradictory to, beliefs predominantly held by Muslims. Nevertheless, this conception is a vulgarity, because a resort to a value-clash is the same as believing that we - the West and Europe - are the victims of a radical religious ideology of intolerance and violence, without bearing any responsibility ourselves.  

It is not the old-fashioned Christian guilt card I am playing here. And no, don’t be afraid I am legitimising terrorism by arguing we have called these violent responses upon ourselves. But what needs to be brought forward is that these crimes against innocent citizens cannot be seen separately from our own actions. After the colonisation of the Middle East, which is the prime cause of structural instability, decades of economic exploitation and foreign military presence have destabilised the region even further. The unceasing violence going on there is simply exported to the core of the aggressor: Paris, Brussels, or any other European city for that matter.

Skeletons out of the closet, acknowledge!

A significant part of the European populace buys the rhetoric of war and of democracy versus (radical) Islam. And for good reason: people are justified in their fear, especially considering the frequency of attacks in the past fifteen years, as well as given the substantial likelihood of future ones.  

To a large extent, however, this fear and insecurity is rooted in a lack of understanding of the motives of the gunmen at the Bataclan Theatre, or of the suicide bombers at Zaventem Airport. The narrative of despicable, pious enthusiasts serves many purposes, one of which is providing some sense to all the chaos while simultaneously fostering unity and solidarity in ‘our fight against our attackers’. It is convenient to say that these guys are brainwashed by insidious ideas, because it means we don’t have to dig into the motives and, most importantly, the causes thereof. In order to seriously confront this mess, however, we require sincere and constructive criticism. Sadly, we don’t acknowledge military interventions and failing integration policies as the main causes of our present predicament.

The picture is confusing at best. Structurally one of the causes of terrorism certainly is socioeconomic deprivation, which has grown all over Europe. On the other hand, many of the attackers in Paris and Brussels enjoyed an ordinary education and grew up with decent levels of prosperity. Alternatively, we know that flaws in governance, and not only those limited to language differences, haunt Belgium and, particularly, Brussels. At the same time we know European governments do have the capability to address crises without completely screwing up.

“ISIS terrorism is an expression of subjugation and of the structural injustice inflicted upon the Middle East.”

To me, this whole situation is not principally or even substantially an ideological or religious struggle, but rather one of oppression by foreign powers. Terror is intended to spread fear and many jihadists are guided by the motivation to contribute to the cause of the so-called global Caliphate. But most of all, they are an act of retaliation. ISIS terrorism is an expression of subjugation and of the structural injustice inflicted upon the Middle East. Many citizens in Iraq or Yemen, as well as domestically radicalised Muslims, see only arrogance when the West militarily involves itself in the region’s affairs. This Western attitude sparks a certain sense of being toyed around with, of being denied the basic right to self-determination and, ultimately, self-respect and pride.

The rise of ISIS

Seeing jihadism as a classic case of Rousseau’s distressed amour-propre draws our attention to the true nature of the conflict: as a struggle for sovereignty, and the other’s recognition of one’s equality and dignity. The picture then becomes much less one of radical Shia Muslims teaching infidel Western democratic societies a lesson for not having lived according to the Sharia, as many European politicians have framed the issue. Rather, the picture becomes one in which military invasion and occupation are key. One piece of anecdotal yet important evidence easily substantiates this claim: the main reason why Osama Bin Laden established Al-Qaeda and started his holy war was the American military presence in Saudi Arabia and Somalia, and not the obscenities and blasphemy of Western freedom. Taking this into account, ISIS essentially poses the same kind of foreign policy issue as Al-Qaeda or Al-Nusra. The question then becomes: how on earth did ISIS come so far as to constitute a serious threat?

“When authority disappears and grievances reign, political entrepreneurs try to seize power.”

The complexities of the instability in the Middle East mesmerises one just as much as the question of terrorist motives and causes. Global natural resource rivalries and Western hubris in Iraq and Afghanistan are definite factors, but so is the internal strife within the Muslim community, between religious factions and tribes. The Arab Spring, which opened up the door for a calamitous competition for a new status quo, accelerated the variability of power relations. Add the Israel-Palestine conflict to the mix, and don’t forego the intensified competition for regional hegemony by Turkey, Saudi Arabia and Iran. Combine these factors and you get a recipe for turmoil from which ISIS gratefully benefitted.  

When authority disappears and grievances reign, political entrepreneurs try to seize power. The window of opportunity which the Middle East provides, allows men such as Osama Bin Laden or Bakr Al-Baghdadi to pursue their causes. If we want to find out how exactly the ascendance to power takes place, therefore, their position within the group and its relation to its surrounding ought to be analysed. ISIS is as fascinating as it is terrible, because in only fifteen years it grew from a guerrilla group of the Salafist insurgency coalition to an independent network with rich sources of income and a remarkably sophisticated organisation. The move of Bakr Al-Baghdadi to abandon Al-Qaeda indicates how opportunistic elites eventually can push a country or indeed a region into a different direction.

Unfortunately, very little is known about the life and motives of Al-Baghdadi – who thus rightly earned the title ‘Invisible Sheikh’. However, when applying Schumpeter’s perspective on democratic elites competing for power to this case, we see an Islamic scholar who joined the Iraqi resistance and subsequently climbed the stairs to supremacy with some good old rational power maximisation. Therefore, it does not matter whether this self-proclaimed caliph aims to establish a pure Islamic state or that he merely is an opportunistic warlord. The important thing is that the elite uses religion as an ideological narrative that magnifies the solidarity and hatefulness of its subjects, to secure and expand its control. As a result, religion is blamed for the schisms in the Middle East and for the attacks in Europe.   

My step forward

What is there to take up from all this? In foreign policy terms I am - despite the analysis above - still in favour of disrupting ISIS with targeted bombings. Pacifism sometimes demands combat. Yet we should also pursue a more comprehensive approach of damage control and tackle long-term threats. We, as Europe and Europeans, should at least start with the integration of intelligence services and thorough border securitisation. With Hillary Clinton likely to become president we will see a prolongation of the Obama foreign policy style, which actually seems to be the least bad option. But let’s not fool ourselves: even though ISIS momentarily seems to be losing ground it is probable that the name will remain buzzing around for a while. And most importantly, even if ISIS is defeated and if it lingers as a largely insignificant cult, the stabilisation of the Middle-East remains far away.

We should confront our elites with the fallacy of their words of war and the clash of ideologies or cultures. Citizens are the best candidates to fill this vacancy.

I believe we should look for a solution in European politics and remind ourselves that we possess the mechanisms to hold our elites accountable. Schumpeter’s emphasis on elite power struggle should not shy us away or inflame cynicism. We can address the ridiculousness of Hollande and associates by engaging with politics and offering a counter-narrative of sensibility. We should confront our elites with the fallacy of their words of war and the clash of ideologies or cultures. Citizens are the best candidates to fill this vacancy: for electoral reasons, centrist elites are reticent to call for calm and informed judgement, especially in the current political climate of Wilders, Le Pen and Pegida.

We should step away from the discourse of our authorities, ignore their paranoia amplifying advice to look out for suspicious behaviour, and reflect upon the real causes of our present predicament. We need to take a stance in arguing for the prevention of a second Iraq while choosing wisely when to uphold the UN doctrine of our ‘responsibility to protect’ or not. What we need is a long breath to accomplish our objective. Then, and only then, we might be able to prevent history from repeating itself.

Jasper Simons is a political economy and international relations graduate. He currently works as a research collaborator for an advisory company concerned with public institutions and policy in The Hague, The Netherlands.