Bombing Syria Won’t Make Paris Safer
The enemy France and Europe are struggling against is far closer to home.
Bomb ISIS. Go ahead. They deserve it. It certainly satisfies the primal need for visible retaliation after the Paris attacks. It may even do some good in the struggle against terrorism in Europe. Some—but probably not very much.
The enemy against which France and Europe are struggling is not centered in Syria. It receives examples and inspiration from Syria. It travels to Syria for practice and training. But it arises and is formed at home, inside Europe. It threatened Europe long before ISIS ever took shape. In 1995, for example, Khaled Kelkal, a young Algerian raised in France, played a central role in a campaign by members of Algeria’s Armed Islamic Group to place bombs at commuter rail stations, at the Arc de Triomphe, and—in a familiar pattern—at a Jewish school. The bombing campaign killed eight people and wounded hundreds more.
These “RER bombings”—so-called after the French commuter rail line they targeted—introduced France to indigenous terrorism in the name of Islam. But more, much more, was to come. Unlike the Hamburg, Germany cell that incubated the 9/11 hijackers, or the largely Moroccan authors of the 2004 Madrid train bombing that killed 191 and wounded almost 2,000, Islamist violence in Europe over the past decade has been predominantly the work of the European-born. And there’s been considerable violence. This year alone, France has been struck seven times, beginning in January with the Charlie Hebdo killings and the attack on a kosher supermarket. These are only the attacks that succeeded: This week, British Prime Minister David Cameron revealed that U.K. intelligence services had prevented seven attacks within the past six months.
It’s easy to imagine ISIS being broken up as a functioning force much as al-Qaeda has been: its leadership killed, its territory overrun, its communications disrupted. Yet even after that happens, some members of the Muslim minority inside Europe will remain disaffected, alienated, radical, and susceptible to messages of violence. It was often said during the Iraq War that we had to fight the terrorists over there lest we fight them over here. For Europe, the terrorists are already “over here”: They are among the children and grandchildren of the immigrants of the 1980s and 1990s, now endowed with the rights and liberties of citizens. For jihadists, would-be jihadists, and their sympathizers, Islam has evolved from a religion into a group identity and a system of belief that legitimates violence against state and society.
There have been many attempts to measure how widespread this ideology is. A 2006 Pew survey, for instance, found that about 15 percent of French and British Muslims agreed that violence against civilians was justified to protect Islam. Another 9 percent in the U.K. and 19 percent in France said that violence against civilians could be justified “rarely.” About half of French and British Muslims denied that Arabs had carried out the 9/11 attacks, a revealing marker of the extent to which conspiracy theories have taken hold in those communities. That same year, a survey of British Muslims found that almost one-quarter believed the 7/7 terrorist attacks on the London transit system had been justified because of Britain’s participation in the war on terror. Those attacks killed 56 people, including the four perpetrators, and wounded hundreds more. A decade later, a slightly larger proportion said they had sympathy for the motives behind the Charlie Hebdo attacks. A reporter who visited French Muslim neighborhoods after the Charlie Hebdo assault found a strange mix of justification and claims that the attacks were really carried out by Jews. Imams who preach hatred against other religions and dissidents of all kinds are features of life in a number of European countries.
The military campaign against the Islamic State, however successful, is unlikely to make much difference in curbing the violence-enabling radicalism present within Europe’s Muslim minority. The scale of the threat is overwhelming governments’ surveillance capacity. (After the Paris attacks, the Belgian interior minister described the Molenbeek suburb where some of the perpetrators had lived as a place where the authorities no longer have control.) If enlarging the anti-ISIS war in Syria won’t help, what might?
1) Focus on jobs first.
Immigrants in Europe, who include in their ranks a growing number of Muslims, are often more likely to be idle than the native population. Swedish immigrantsare unemployed at a rate double the national average. The same is true in Germany, with the highest unemployment rates observed among immigrants from the Middle East. The unemployment rate for immigrants to France stands atover 17 percent, nearly double the rate for non-immigrants.
While there is some evidence of anti-immigrant discrimination in the workforce, the most important culprit behind these statistics is the mismatch between the requirements of the European job market and the skills that migrants bring with them and that their children are able to acquire in the first generation of resettlement. This mismatch is accentuated by European labor rules that impose heavy costs on employers beyond the wages they pay. Those costs discourage the hiring of new arrivals whose skills typically lag behind those of the native-born. Generous social-welfare systems reduce the pressure on immigrants to accept low-wage employment. And all of this occurs in the context of the severe economic-austerity policies required to preserve the euro currency.
Put bluntly: The European labor model is inconsistent with a mass-migration society. And since the nations of Europe have—wittingly or unwittingly—allowed themselves to become mass-migration societies, their labor model will have to change in a more American direction. They need to create lots of entry-level jobs, while simultaneously reducing social-welfare benefits that enable people to refuse work.
2) Turn to assimilation next.
Europeans have long looked askance at America’s tradition of flag-waving. What they tend not to understand is that this tradition originated in the weakness, not the strength, of American national identity. The Pledge of Allegiance was instituted not because Americans are super patriotic, but because American leaders worried that a country recently riven by civil war—and then repeopled by the great wave of immigration to the U.S. of 1880-1914—was not nearly patriotic enough. The Americans of a century ago made a cult of Americanness precisely because they understood that Americanism could not be taken for granted. It had to be inculcated.
Europe in the 21st century faces for the first time its own version of the challenge faced by the United States in the 19th century and again by the United States today. The task is made harder because 21st-century people find it much harder than their predecessors to define and defend established culture against nonconforming minorities. Former British Prime Minister Tony Blair stoked dissent within his own Labour Party when he expounded on “British values” such as equality of respect and allegiance to the rule of law—and insisted on the “duty to integrate.”
“No distinctive culture or religion supersedes our duty to be part of an integrated United Kingdom,” Blair said. He warned those who would not accept this duty: “Don’t come here. We don’t want the hate-mongers, whatever their race, religion, or creed.”
3) Set positive examples.
It’s not enough to exhort people to assimilate and integrate: They have to be assured that assimilation and integration are achievable. Nineteenth-century America was filled with institutions that offered pathways for newcomers: the Catholic Church, the police, political parties, business success. Migrants to Europe have to feel that joining the system and playing by the rules will yield rewards. They see that in politics and the media to some degree, but—especially on the European continent—to a much lesser extent in other institutions. Systematic affirmative action on the American scale is impracticable in Europe for all kinds of reasons, not least the problem of defining who should receive it. But expending extra energy to promote second- and third-generation newcomers to visible leadership roles is feasible and necessary.
There’s a big caveat, though: There has been a tendency in these efforts, especially in Britain, to be careless about vetting the credentials of those who receive such rewards. Governments have often chosen radicals as their interlocutors, in hopes that these radicals will somehow have the credibility to dissuade the ultra-radicals from outright violence. As British Prime Minister David Cameron warned in a July speech, “No one becomes a terrorist from a standing start. It starts with a process of radicalization. When you look in detail at the backgrounds of those convicted of terrorist offenses, it is clear that many of them were first influenced by what some would call non-violent extremists.”
“It may begin with hearing about the so-called Jewish conspiracy and then develop into hostility to the West and fundamental liberal values, before finally becoming a cultish attachment to death,” Cameron continued. “Put another way, the extremist worldview is the gateway, and violence is the ultimate destination.”
Governments have to be very careful to support only responsible actors with demonstrated loyalty to state and nation. Attitudes to women, gays, Jews, Hindus, and so on are not a litmus test, but they are a useful early-warning system for who stands on the right side of the line, and who on the wrong side.
4) Curtail social-media incitement.
ISIS is to al-Qaeda as Web 2.0 is to Web 1.0. An anthropologist who has closely studied ISIS recruitment observes: “There are nearly 50,000 Twitter hashtags supporting ISIS, with an average of some 1000 followers each. They succeed by providing opportunities for personal engagement, where people have an audience with whom they can share and refine their grievances, hopes and desires … creat[ing] the intimate social networks that dreamers need.” Nobody intended this of course, but social networks like Twitter and Facebook have evolved into the most powerful terrorist recruiting tools ever conceived, offering susceptible users instant access to a vision of terrorism as glamorous, exciting, and meaningful. In the words of former CIA Director R. James Woolsey: “One can hardly imagine the development of the global jihad movement to its present proportions without the Internet—and at the heart of the jihadi organizations’ strategy are U.S. social-media companies.”
The prime targets for today’s terrorist recruiters are young people who are divided between two worlds—their parents’ home country and their own new land—and who feel at home in neither. Social media can offer an alternative and more thrilling home—and visions of causes worth killing and dying for. This is dangerous stuff for people who have slipped the hold of ancestral rules, but not yet accepted as their own the liberal values of the post-Enlightenment West.
Facebook’s own rules forbid the posting of images “shared for sadistic pleasure or to celebrate or glorify violence.” But the corporation is determined to avoid assuming the responsibilities of a publisher, and so it relies primarily on other users to flag offensive content. It’s important that all media err on the side of maximal freedom. But ways have to be found to put a stop to recruitment to murder—ideally by the social-media companies themselves rather than by government.
5) Prevent Western-born ISIS fighters from returning home—and imprison them if they do.
Bearing arms for an enemy country has long been regarded as a basis for depriving people of their citizenship rights. In an era where enemies can be non-state actors, however, this ancient provision of law has become ineffective. A Briton who returned to Germany to fight for the kaiser could logically be seen as reverting to German nationality. But what nationality has an ISIS fighter become? ISIS claims to be a state. Nobody accepts that claim, and international law forbids rendering persons altogether stateless.
What can be done is this: Dual nationals who bear arms for ISIS can be deprived of their Western passports and right of re-entry. Canada already does this for persons convicted of serious terrorism offenses. (The new Liberal government of Justin Trudeau proposes to reverse this element of law.) In his address to the French nation on Monday, President Francois Hollande urged a similar measure.
Even when stripping Western ISIS fighters of citizenship is impractical, countries can recognize adherence to a foreign terrorist entity as a serious crime in itself. This will in some cases deter ISIS fighters from returning home, and in others enable the returned fighter to be imprisoned if he tries.
6) Don’t make the problem bigger.
Europe is coping poorly with its large population of alienated, under-employed, and in some cases radicalized Muslim immigrants and their children. It seems then the zenith of recklessness to make that population larger still. Yet that’s what’s been happening over the past three years. The migration is not only Syrian; it comes from the greater Muslim world, extending from Senegal to Pakistan. This summer, Europe’s border controls collapsed under the pressure of this migration.
The risk is not primarily that a few people already committed to terrorism will slip into Europe along with this vast movement of people, although that is a risk. The greater risk is that this new wave of Middle Eastern immigration will repeat the experience of prior waves: more failure to adjust, more under-employment, more alienation, more extremism, more violence.
It will be the work of many years to successfully absorb and acculturate the new population that has arrived in Europe since the 1970s. Yet many European policymakers seem to be following the bureaucratic rule: “If you don’t know how to solve a problem, make it bigger.” This course is endlessly justified by invoking the experience of Jewish refugees fleeing Hitler. There’s considerable irony in that analogy, since one immediate effect of the new migration has been to drive some of Europe’s last remaining Jews into a new exodus, with 7,000 departingFrance for Israel in 2014. But the real error of the analogy is that it fails to reckon with the economic and cultural realities of two very different populations and two very different migrations. History isn’t repeating itself.
The refusal of Barack Obama and other world leaders to reference the Islamic character of the Islamic State is probably tactful. But it’s one thing to refrain from provocative words, another to suppress true thoughts. You can’t act against a problem you won’t acknowledge. Which may be why the West appears headed to a bigger war in Syria, in response to killers who came from Belgium.