The rise of militancy in Europe

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Jawad Falak |

The attacks in Brussels, Belgium have shaken the entire globe. These militant attacks follow a car bomb blast in Berlin that killed a single person and the devastating attacks in Paris France that caused the deaths of 130 people in November 2015 as well as the earlier Charlie Hebdo attacks and a siege in a Parisian kosher market. Nearly all of these attacks can be traced either to the so-called “Islamic State” or Daesh and Al Qaeda.

The attacks have unleashed many aftereffects. The main is the refugee crisis swamping the European nations as thousands of desperate people flee a savage war in their home nations which involves many European armies. Rightwing forces in Europe that have used xenophobic rhetoric to gain power since the time of the Nazis and even before, are now painting these people fleeing death and destruction as a “demographic invasion” and calling for their expulsion. While the merits of their argument are yet to be judged, it is apparent that the rightwing parties are trying to increase their vote bank using hate and fear.

Another debate is the position of Muslims in European society. While forces of bigotry are trying desperately to paint Islam as an engine of terrorism in the Western world, reports by research institutes such as the Europol have ascertained that “Islamists” account for only 0.7% of terror attacks in Europe since 2011. While this fact alone seems to negate the very assertion of terrorism being the specific specialty of a single group i.e. Muslims yet an entire global faith is maligned as a security threat and incompatible with “European values” by a few.

However, this does not hide the fact of the threat Daesh or Al Qaeda pose to Europe. Europe seems to be facing a spillover from the violence of the wars in Iraq and Syria. However, limiting this resurgent wave of violence on a single factor would be erroneous. The rising militant violence in Europe can be derived from ideological, short term and long term factors.

A long-term factor is the role of an identity crisis among the Muslim youth of Europe. Often Muslim youth have to choose between their nationhood and their faith which should not be a problem in Europe that so freely claims to be a bastion of human rights and freedom. However, in Europe, the state does practice what could be called religious oppression of religious minorities particularly Muslims in order to “integrate” them or protect “secularism”.  As early as 1989, Muslim girls were punished for wearing headscarves in schools leading to the passing of an anti-Hijab bill in 2004 in France that banned “religious symbols” in educational institutions.

This law paved the way for the “anti niqab” law that was initiated by France and picked up as “Burqa bans” by the rest of Europe. Belgium the current state to be hit by militancy also enacted a Burqa ban on 28th April 2011 which was condemned by Amnesty International as “being presented as an act to combat discrimination against women, whereas it is an act of discrimination in itself”. On May 31, 2015, 30 Muslim schoolgirls were banned from entering a school in Belgium because they wore long skirts. This interference in the personal affairs of individuals coupled with low financial opportunities and routine racial discrimination has helped push some vulnerable individuals into the arms of extremism.

In the short term, geopolitical crises such as the brutal Syrian and Iraqi civil war are indeed playing a major role. The atrocities costing the lives of hundreds of innocents specifically the killing of civilians by Western airstrikes has caused a “retaliation” by local radical militants. According to 2008 court documents, the Charlie Hebdo killers, Said and Cherif Kouachi, were radicalized by the US invasion of Iraq and the abuse of detainees at Abu Ghraib. CNN reported that the Kouachi brothers were avenging the death of al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula leader and US-born cleric Anwar al-Awlaki, who also self-radicalized not through his religious belief, but rather by the US war on terror. In the days after the 9/11 attacks, al-Awlaki denounced the 9/11 attacks. “There is no way that the people who did this could be Muslim, and if they claim to be Muslim, then they have perverted their religion,” al-Awlaki told journalists.

Amedy Coulibaly, the gunman who held and killed four hostages in a Paris kosher supermarket on 9th January 2015, was recorded speaking to several hostages. In justifying his actions Coulibaly gave only one reference to Islam, and that was when he claimed his actions were based on “an eye for an eye,” which is also found in the Bible. Coulibaly said he attacked because the French military has attacked Muslims in Syria, Iraq and Mali. He also cited Israel’s occupation and oppression of Muslims in Palestine as one of his primary motives. “I was born in France. If they didn’t attack other countries, I wouldn’t be here,” he said to one of his hostages.

Most of the violence caused by these extremists are heaped onto Salafism or Wahabism as it is commonly known, a religious school of thought in Islam. That is an oversimplification in itself. Most violent militant groups subscribe to Salafism, but the vast majority of Salafis actually denounce violence. The first priority of Salafis is personal purification and religious observation, and anything hindering these objectives such as violence is to be shunned.

Indeed, the nearest ideological reason alongside political grievances is Khwarjism, a deviant Ideological strain that has existed since the time of the Holy Prophet (PBUH). Centering on the belief of having spiritual superiority and the preference for using violence to “purge evil”, Khwarjism has been responsible for the emergence of quite a few violent movements throughout Muslim history from the early Kharijites who fomented rebellion against the Caliphate and assassinated the fourth Caliph of Islam to the modern groups of TTP, Boko Haram and Daesh. Saudi Arabia’s Grand Mufti Sheikh Abdulaziz Al al-Sheikh, the highest religious authority in the country, has compared both Daesh and al Qaeda to the Kharijites.

Europe will now face a steady increase in militant violence not only from groups like Daesh and Al Qaeda who will operate through local youths radicalized by Western atrocities in the Muslim world and propelled by local conditions such as state oppression, unemployment, and Islamophobia but rightwing militants as well. These rightwing militant extremists could and are attacking Muslim targets throughout Europe and are creating a cycle of violence that is increasing each day which could lead the continent to a scenario faced by the Middle East today.