In politics, as in war, success belongs to those who can seize the initiative.
I was having my omelette and chips with a journalist friend in a greasy spoon restaurant in one of the suburbs of London last week when our discussions inevitably turned to the latest spate of violence in France. Just as I had written recently in my blog in the Huffington Post, I reiterated my arguments and concluded that we in Europe are indeed being tossed about in rough seas at the moment, but that we have not drowned yet.
I half-expected my friend to agree with me. However, I was dumbfounded when his real anger and fear manifested themselves as he argued forcibly that the only way to eradicate this brand of terrorism would be to carpet bomb the whole MENA region where such Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL) elements could be found in order to rid the world of their scourge.
As a lawyer and also as someone who knows both the EU and MENA quite well, I do not usually find myself speechless. But this was one of those occasions when I truly did not expect the vehemence of those thoughts that are in my opinion as nihilistic as those of the terrorists themselves.
World after 9/11
After all, given that radicalism is omnipresent, do we bomb everyone out of extinction everywhere? Yet, is it perhaps not inconceivable that some Europeans are now adopting this currency and believe that the only solution is to bay for blood and wipe out everybody in order to enjoy some peace and quiet?
It is almost a truism to add that the world changed after 9/11 when we woke up from our age of innocence. Mind you, 9/11 also introduced the Patriot Act and resulted in a disastrous war in Iraq whose rotten fruits we reap today.
But ever since those awful days and despite the successive terrorist waves we have witnessed in many continents, I believe this is the first time when Europe is both more resolute and also more fearful. Being resolute is good, since it is high time we pooled our efforts and fought all forms of terror – from the nascent to the institutional – fiercely and competently.
But fear is dangerous since it makes us ride roughshod over what defines our choices as a European society (admittedly, with its manifold blotches) and turns us into testosterone-driven primeval humanoids.
Successive high alerts
However, we cannot deny the successive high alerts – many of them justifiable – or lockdown of train stations across parts of Europe, nor can we disregard that France has resorted to Article 42.7 of the Lisbon Treaty to call for a common defence and security response by the 28 EU member-states.
Nor, for that matter, the fact that the UNSC unanimously endorsed a resolution to spare no effort in the fight against ISIL albeit without invoking Chapter 7 of the UN Charter that endows such a decision with military muscle.
So today, let me share with readers my perspective of our latest European ordeal.
- The first sine qua non for an operational response is to accept that we now face a grave global threat – from ISIL in Raqqa to Boko Haram in Yola and al-Mourabitoun in Bamako – without losing our level-headed edge. Creating panic is as bad as covering up the facts: the public needs to process the facts with equanimity. Threatening for instance to withdraw the passports of some French nationals renders society more fragile and is a defeatist reaction to the provocation by such terror groups whose aim is to erode our cohesion as EU citizens.
- A reform of the Schengen rules is de rigueur but it must be conducted lucidly and without turning it into a punitive tool. Free movement is one of the precious freedoms that Europe has chiselled over the years and what matters is to strengthen the monitoring of those borders rather than peremptorily sealing them off.
- The bombing of “terrorist strongholds” in Syria and Iraq alone will not remove the problem. Rather, it will further polarise the Arab and Muslim worlds and alienate them from our Eurocentric ideals. Furthermore, it could even push some people in the wrong direction. Hence, the appropriate response is neither to say that we must drop more bombs nor to complain that we do not have enough intelligence. It is to ensure that we have ample resources – human and financial – to analyse adeptly the reports our services already collect in abundance every day and help exfiltrate those outside our borders as much as the native sleeper cells within Europe itself.
- It is plausible that there are some suspects infiltrating into Europe as refugees from the MENA region. After all, Europe expects almost 1.2 million refugees by the end of 2015, and it is silly to deny that we run the risk of ending up with some terrorists or government moles who might try to wreak havoc on our respective countries. We should not allow those bad eggs to dent the sense of hospitality that has been one of our consistent principles. Hence, parroting the xenophobic mantra of some politicians in the US that we should only welcome Christian refugees and damn the rest of them is an ugly aberration of our values, our faith, and also our humanity.
- As Kahina Bouagache argued in her recent article in the Lebanese NOW portal, we should desist from pandering to dictators and vast religious-industrial complexes if we wish to defeat terrorism. We in Europe are hopelessly caught up in a vortex of what I deem are two polarities – democracy or stability. Looking around us, we are prone to conclude that democracy has failed and so stability – read, heavy-handed security a la Bashar al-Assad – is the sole viable alternative. Yet history has shown us time and again that this is a juvenile argument since the hands of dictators that we feed today will come to bite us again once circumstances alter and they get stronger anew – as they will cyclically.
- Let us understand once and for all that we must challenge the legitimacy that ISIL enjoys in some quarters of the Muslim world. We need to calibrate the strategies that work internally within Europe and those outside it too and recognise that such wholesale alienation and concomitant radicalisation by swaths of MENA men and women is due as much to religious bigotry or cyber indoctrination as it is to the poverty, disenfranchisement, oppression and injustice visited upon them daily by their potentates or else by us. It is possible to oppress and muzzle some people some of the time, but it is impossible to oppress and muzzle all peoples all of the time.
Is the EU witnessing a meltdown? I would argue that the jury is still out, but one answer surely lies in the way that we both interpret the painful challenges facing us today and how we manage them. Who knows, I could perhaps even convince my journalist friend that we need not consider draconian measures that defile our values when we are combating for our future – at least not yet.
Harry Hagopian is a London-based international lawyer, political adviser and ecumenical consultant on the MENA region. He is also a second-track negotiator and works closely with European institutions.
The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera’s editorial policy.