The attacks in Belgium have been a cause of sadness and outrage for many, but this has not prevented obligatory politicking on the part of western politicians, and those like minded, in one way or another. The support for sustained military intervention in the Middle East remains a widespread nuisance, being almost universally agreed upon, despite ISIS making it very plain as to why they routinely resort to murder. Certain conservatives recognise the expediency in continued scaremongering over the influx of refugees, despite the threat this poses being relatively low. Beyond that, is the additional political capital to be gained in the business of Islamophobia, made possible by the lack of any real understanding of Islam and Muslims on the part of wider society. So long as these now expected political trends repeat themselves, we can only expect to intensify extremism at home and abroad, which will inevitably lead to more atrocities in the future.
Following the attacks, a series of political statements subtly expressed the need for intervention, with the UN Security Council emphasising: “the need to intensify regional and international efforts to overcome terrorism,” which will invariably include the continued bombing campaigns of its members. Dmitry Medvedev expressed similar sentiments on his Facebook page, stressing “coordinated efforts by the international community”. Barrack Obama promised “to go after terrorists who threaten our people”. Manual Valls was more strident in his expressions, stating “We are at war. Over the past few months in Europe, we have endured several acts of war.” David Cameron oversimplified the problem by focusing solely on the hatred of European values amongst extremists, to the exclusion of anything else. As Cameron put it: “…although they attack our way of life and they attack us because of who we are, we will never let them win.” US presidential nominee Hilary Clinton followed suit, again focusing on how extremists: “seek to undermine the democratic values that are the foundation of our alliance and our way of life,”. Yet despite unwillingness on the part of some, it must be acknowledged that a correlation between intervention, civilian deaths, and the growth of terrorism does exist, and has been proven many a time over. In the most recent statement issued by ISIS, Belgium is cited as a nation “which has not ceased to wage war against Islam and its people.” The statement continues: “We promise black days for all crusader nations allied in their war against the Islamic state, in response to their aggressions against it, and what is to come will be more devastating and bitter by Allah’s permission.” One might doubt the legitimacy of such an expression given Belgium’s eventual cessation of its Operation Desert Falcon in Iraq last year, however it has been understood from local reports that the civilian death toll from Coalition bombings had ranged from 459-591 by the time of Belgian withdrawal on June 30th. As of last month, it has been reported that the death toll has risen to a range of 1010-1517 based on reliable accounts, which ought to have prompted a reassessment of political claims that intervention does not endanger civilians, and is somehow not a propaganda boon for ISIS recruiters.
Whilst its aversion toward western liberalism is obvious, the point remains that ISIS will be well-manned in their belligerency until they are unable to recruit. According to Terrorism Studies scholar Arun Kundnani, the “official narrative” that terrorism is caused by the hatred of western values alone “does not stand up to scholarly scrutiny.” Offering a more nuanced perspective, Kundnani states: “The factors which lead someone to commit acts of terrorism are complex and cannot be reduced to holding a set of values deemed to be radical. There is little evidence to support the view that there is a single cause to terrorism. Accepting this analysis has significant implications for the development of policies to reduce the risk of terrorism.” However, whilst accepting the more complex and multifaceted nature of extremist motivations, even Kundnani makes the recommendation that western governments “Publicly acknowledge that foreign policy decisions are a significant factor in creating political contexts within which terrorism becomes more or less likely.” Lest we forget, when former CIA analyst Graham Fuller was asked about the origins of ISIS, he cited America’s interventions, including the Iraq War, as “the basic causes” for its emergence.
Some have also pounced upon the refugee crisis to disastrous effect, erroneously linking the attacks, and terrorism in general, to the influx of refugees. On Fox News, Donald Trump reiterated his intentions to ban Syrians, and Muslims in general, from entry into the United States, stating: “I would close up our borders to people until we figure out what is going on.” Trump also restated the often made claim that terrorists may pose as migrants, saying “they could be ISIS, they could be ISIS related”, before predicting future attacks, boldly claiming: “I’m a pretty good prognosticator, just watch what happens.” Whilst such statements will inevitably boost his popularity amongst certain conservatives, the point remains that any future attacks in America are unlikely to come from this avenue. Estimates vary regarding the number of refugees who have posed a threat to date, with research from the Migration Policy Institute finding that 784,000 refugees have been resettled in the United States since 9/11, yet only three have been arrested on terrorism related charges. According to data compiled by the New America think tank, only 10 refugees have been counted amongst those having engaged in violent activities over the same time period. The threat posed to Europe is no less minimal in this regard, though too many assume otherwise. For example, the UKIP defence spokesman Mike Hookem claimed the attack proved “…Schengen free movement and lax border controls are a threat to our security.” He also claimed that 5000 extremists were “at large in the EU having slipped in from Syria”, citing a recent statement from Europol head Rob Wainright to that effect, but without mentioning his further clarification: “There is no concrete evidence terrorists are systematically using the flow of refugees to infiltrate Europe,”. Lest we forget, all of the known Paris attackers were also EU citizens bar one who may have been a refugee, though even this is disputed. Likewise, both Khalid and Ibrahim el-Bakraoui were born in Belgium, and Laachraoui was born in Morocco, but raised in Brussels. It should be conceded that both Obama and Clinton have been more agreeable on this issue, which is to be expected given their need to consolidate appeal amongst American liberals. According to Gallup research from last November, 57% of democratic voters reasonably support accepting Syrian refugees, with a higher portion of 74% in December reported by Quinnipiac University. Even so, both essentially contribute to the refugee crisis when encouraging intervention in the Middle East, therefore increasing regional instability.
Muslim citizens across America and Europe are also made to feel less welcome, with the marked increase of enduring Islamophobic sentiments having very real consequences. In contending with Trump for the Republican vote, Ted Cruz called for increased surveillance of Muslim communities, stating: “We need to empower law enforcement to patrol and secure Muslim neighbourhoods before they become radicalized.” When later pressed on the practicality of this policy, Cruz responded with the supposed success of surveillance programmes in New York, which has since been denied by the NYPD. With both Paris attacks last year, came an already tense climate for Muslims in Europe, as has been shown by the recently published European Islamophobia Report for 2015. The report poses a difficult but necessary read which surveys the European Union in its entirety, detailing a series of discriminatory political statements and measures, both official and unofficial, in addition to verbal abuse, death threats, violent attacks and, in certain cases, even murders. Even so, we presently face the rhetorical disregard of conservative writers such as Douglas Murray, who in recently describing the European “standard response” to terror attacks, trivialised European Islamophobia as “consisting mainly of stares and horrible things written on social media”. One might say the same of racism, which is generally observed around the dinner table or online rather than in the open, but that does not mean it should be regarded as trivial as opposed to a serious social problem. If that is not enough, then Murray should read about the alarming reports of violence and harassment of Muslims in Europe and North America following the Paris Attacks, not mention the reports of a Muslim woman being run over in Brussels, chants of “death to Arabs” in Brussels, harassment of Muslim women in London, and “All Muslims are scum” graffiti in Dublin, all of which clearly herald the coming of a more hostile environment in the future. For this reason, it is important that moderate sentiments in European societies remain stronger, for that is what led an anonymous Dubliner to change the aforementioned graffiti into “All Muslims are sound”.
One might have hoped that preserving such sentiments would have been an easier task than it has been. After all, we have once again been confronted with supposed “Islamic” terrorism conducted by semi-religious lay people and irreligious miscreants, following the general trend previously conceded by MI5. In the words of journalist and former ISIS captive Nicolas Henin: “most of the jihadis I know, either that I met during my time in captivity or that I followed on the social media or exchanged with on the social media afterwards, are just “new” Muslims. I mean, they either converted, or they are kind of born-again Muslim.” Naajim Laachraoui was said by his brother to have been religious, but there was no mention not of his qualifications as an Islamic scholar. Instead, it was reported that Laachraoui graduated in electromechanics. From what we know, both el-Bakraoui brothers have a confirmed criminal history, with Khalid having committed four carjackings and a bank robbery in Autumn 2009. In September 2011, he was convicted of criminal conspiracy, armed robbery, possession of stolen cars, possession of weapons, being imprisoned five years before parole. Ibrahim aided a robbery attempt in 2010 and fired on police in the process, being sentenced to 9 years for attempted murder, before also receiving parole. Interestingly enough, security officials have acknowledged “multiplying links between Islamic State militants and criminal gangs, ranging from Balkan mafias supplying guns to petty drug dealers.”
Such tendencies clearly stand in contrast with the religiously educated. As with all previous attacks, Muslim scholars have made their condemnations quite clear, having also articulated reliable arguments to refute ISIS with Islamic tradition in the past. The value of such efforts cannot be overstated, as even the aforementioned MI5 analysis mentioned “…evidence that a well-established religious identity actually protects against violent radicalisation.” Regrettably, such efforts are rarely acknowledged by the mainstream media, leading to a heightening of general misunderstanding and prejudice. If the public is allowed to understand a more authentic expression of Islam as championed by Muslim scholars, it can then be hoped that ISIS propaganda regarding an inherent western enmity toward Muslims will be rendered illegitimate. Interestingly enough, when Henin contrasted ISIS tendencies with the broader practice of Muslims, he concluded that: “…religion seems to be always almost a vaccine against terrorism, because a good religious people will never become a terrorist.”
The attacks in Brussels have not been the first to highlight major problems in how western governments deal with terrorism, and how others suffer as a result. In all likelihood, it will not be the last given how entrenched the preferences for belligerent foreign policy and social discrimination have now become. If the state of western politics is to improve in its addressing this issue, there must be a radical paradigm shift in the matters discussed. Politicians such as Bernie Sanders represent a potential reprieve from the usual formula, but the lack of support for such figures continues to be discouraging. Perhaps in the end, the means of preventing attacks rest not only in what the west can do for the Middle East, but vice versa. If Muslim scholars are able to succeed in their fight against ISIS and help produce sound policies for good governance in the Middle East, then a meaningful counter-weight to extremism could finally emerge within the region, drawing away the appeal of extremist recruiters. Perhaps then, we might see the long-awaited death of excuses for intervention, not to mention the needless populism which exploits foreigners and local Muslim communities. Of course, this is a long-term solution, and one that needs to be detailed thoroughly as a topic in its own right. For now, it seems that necessary conclusions will remain elusive, and that bad policies will oblige us to suffer more of the same. Even so, if one cannot expect much from political leaders, one can still hope for better attitudes in society.