Freedom or Terror

Wednesday, September 29, 2010

During the near decade since 9/11, Europe has oscillated through a range of stances toward Islamist terrorism. Some Europeans have fought bravely in Afghanistan, and too many good soldiers have given their lives in that most dangerous front in the war on terror. U.S. soldiers carry the heaviest load, but in addition to the important Canadian role, some European allies have made significant contributions. Europeans have also shown leadership on other fronts, especially in their domestic counterterrorism efforts, which have thwarted potentially catastrophic attacks. Intensive intelligence gathering and legislation supporting vigorous enforcement have produced successes.

However, not all Europeans have stepped forward to defend democratic modernity against the jihadist challenge. Many, in fact, have been reluctant even to recognize the special character of the threat, let alone resist it. Key political leaders of some of our traditional allies, including Jacques Chirac of France and Gerhard Schröder of Germany, mobilized international opposition to the efforts of the Bush administration to combat terror. Until recently, European governments undercut diplomatic attempts to restrain the Iranian government in order to protect their economic relations with the mullahs’ regime, and in political culture a toxic ideological mix of anti-Americanism and anti-Semitism has been brewing for some time. One of the paradoxes of the era is that while terrorist violence threatens Europe, some Europeans prefer to direct their animus toward other democratic societies rather than name their Islamist enemy.

My new book, Freedom or Terror: Europe Faces Jihad, analyzes the European ambivalence toward jihadist terror and the spread of aggressive Islamism. It is especially concerned with European responses to Islamist terrorism: it describes how some Europeans opt for appeasement and apology for terror while others stand up for freedom. Both sides of the story are crucial, as is the gray zone in between. There are many Europes, with different national traditions and with varying relationships to terrorism and radical Islamism.

Those varying responses depend on larger, competing narratives about modern European history. One story involves the defeat of dictatorships, the rise of democracy, and the emergence of free societies. To some extent, this is the American perspective: the First World War ended the Central European monarchies, the Second World War defeated the Nazis and the other fascists, and 1989 marked the victory of liberal democracies over the Soviet empire. The defeat of communism is also the linchpin of the narratives commonly held in the countries formerly under Soviet control, the world of the “new Europe,” to use former defense secretary Donald Rumsfeld’s apt terminology. Within this framework, the story of emancipation, the war against jihadist terrorism appears as a continuation of the fight for freedom. No doubt the weapons have changed, as well as the modes of warfare and certainly the ideologies, but in the end the conflict involves the struggle between forces of oppression and the opportunities for free men and women to live their lives as they see fit.

Yet there is an alternative story about modern Europe that surveys the past and sees only a series of pointless wars, enormous destruction, and loss of life, and it attributes this infinity of pain and suffering to the excesses of nationalism. This is how Western Europeans often see their past. Nations make war on nations; national traditions are belligerent and provincial. Peace will come about only if we can surpass selfish national loyalties. If only there had been more negotiation and dialogue, if only there had been less nationalism and more cooperation, the pointless killings might not have taken place and Europe would have been spared the scourge of so many wars. In this account, no ideal is worth a fight, and it is always better to appease to avoid conflict. This is a story that does not celebrate freedom and democracy but instead looks forward to a postnational world where international governance resolves conflict through good will and consensus building.

Some Europeans prefer to direct their animus toward other democratic societies rather than name their Islamist enemy.

During the first administration of George W. Bush, these two stories collided and a transatlantic divide on foreign policy emerged, especially concerning the war in Iraq. It was not universal—the worst of the disagreement took place between Washington and some Western European allies; it touched “old Europe,” not “new Europe,” and not even all of the oldsters. Bush foreign policy may have imagined extending the wave of freedom that had swept through Eastern Europe and the periphery of Russia into the Middle East; European leaders, however, had complex economic ties with Iraq and Iran and were much less eager to see even the most despicable regimes topple. One consequence of that divide was burgeoning anti-Americanism in parts of Europe.

During the second Bush term and certainly during the Obama administration, transatlantic relations have become less frosty, and on some points concerning Islamism and related topics, Europeans have even begun to speak more assertively than Washington. Perhaps this is merely a subtle shift, but we may also be seeing the transatlantic divide reverse itself. In the years immediately after 9/11, it was the United States that took an aggressive posture while some “old Europeans” seemed reluctant, congenitally predisposed to appeasement. Today, while the U.S. government is doing its best to appear non-threatening, to avoid discussions of terrorism, and to minimize the problem of Islamist violence, Europeans grow increasingly concerned about the dangers surrounding them.

Part of this shift reflects changing political personalities—Merkel rather than Schröder, Sarkozy instead of Chirac—and part of it Europeans’ assessment of their greater vulnerability to Iranian missile development. The core issue, however, is growing public recognition in Europe of the Islamist threat. No wonder that after the 2004 train bombing in Madrid, the 2005 explosions in London, the riots that spread across France in 2005, and the failed bombings and thwarted conspiracies in Germany, the European public has awoken to the dangers. Added to European trauma was the murder of Theo van Gogh in the streets of Amsterdam and the anti-Danish riots throughout the Muslim world after publication of the Muhammad cartoons. And so today, just when liberal parts of the American political elite would like to pretend that the “war on terror” is obsolete or that jihadist terror is only a random series of criminal acts, just as some Americans might prefer to sound the retreat, a critical mass of Europeans is prepared to start getting serious about the threat.


If September 11 shocked Americans about the potential for attacks from abroad, the European anxiety is a fear of homegrown terror, the violence that might emerge from the disaffected immigrant population in isolated quarters or segregated satellite cities, within social systems that foster integration poorly. And for many Europeans, the encounter with Islamist terrorism operates on at least three levels: the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq, the counterterrorism measures and police powers Europeans are prepared to tolerate, and a range of issues pertaining to the integration or exclusion of largely immigrant Muslim populations. Each country addresses these issues in light of its institutions and national history.

One strain of European history refuses to celebrate freedom and democracy—rather, it yearns for a postnational world of good will and consensus.

The landscape of Europe facing jihad is of a war of ideas and a competition of values. We know there are Islamist radicals who want to inflict harm and use violence in the name of religious claims and extremist goals; the question is whether Europe has the will to resist. What is the character of contemporary European culture? Can it muster the strength to defend its democratic institutions? Or will it succumb to its own self-doubts and the anxieties of cultural relativism? Of course, the erosion of traditions and values is an old story in Europe, diagnosed extensively by Nietzsche in the late nineteenth century. Since then European and national identities have come under additional pressures. National cultures have had to face their crimes from the colonial era or the world wars, and this has burdened them with self-doubts. Established religion has eroded in large secularist swaths of Europe even as consumer culture has spread. Globalization and the submersion of individual nations into the European Union bureaucracy have further weakened traditional value structures. The result? A postmodern culture of relativism, with few shared values and diminished symbols of national community, replaced by an ethos of multiculturalism and a reluctance to make “value judgments.” Can a Europe tied up by so many hesitations find the strength of will to face a determined enemy?

Nietzsche called the Europe that had lost its values decadent, and the description surely holds. The paradox remains, however, that despite this cultural enervation and the erosion of identity, there are somehow forces afoot, even in “old Europe,” that do find the strength to resist: the soldiers who fight in Afghanistan, the security forces who carry out counterterrorism strategies, and the intellectuals who defend modernity and uphold freedom of speech against those who would crush it in the name of appeasement.

Today, just when liberal parts of the American political elite would like to pretend that jihadist terror is only a random series of criminal acts, many Europeans are getting serious about the threat.

While Europe suffers from a values deficit, Islamists benefit from their fanatical commitment. They follow an ideology that seeks to destroy modernity at all costs and establish a universal Islamic rule. Clarity is absolutely necessary here. The world religion Islam has existed in multiple forms and cultures, in different times and places and in rich and capacious ways. The Islamist strain, a narrow and dogmatic call to violent jihad with the agenda of a re-established caliphate, is only an extremist and not particularly intelligent interpretation of Islam. It is at best a crude literalism, though there is little evidence that jihadists even command the literacy to read the texts themselves. Claiming to represent the original truth and the authentic tradition, Islamism is in fact a product of a modernizing compulsion that reduces complexity and manipulates the faith to its own ends. While it invokes ancient texts, it integrates them into structures of ideology and repression borrowed from twentieth-century totalitarian movements. It is the new communism in its vision of a repressive social utopia, and it is a new fascism in its militarization of life and its chiliastic desire for death. The term Islamofascism names this derivation and this brutality.

Our concern, therefore, with Europe’s response to Islamist terrorism necessarily involves this Europe of multiculturalism and post-traditionalism as it faces a frenzied, fanatical, and ideological Islam. Sophisticated self-doubt faces vitality and violence. It is a war of ideas but even more a war of values and of will.

But it is also a confrontation in which specific security and social problems require realistic policies. Not only is it crucial to distinguish between Islam and Islamism, it is at least as important to avoid confusing the broad Muslim population with the small cadre of extremist Islamists and their supporters. Such confusion would be wrong. It would be unjust to most Muslims and play into the hands of jihadists by driving moderates into their ranks. (It would also play into the hands of anti-immigrant activists by impugning the loyalty of all immigrants.) It would distract from the genuine security agenda: identifying Islamist networks and preventing terrorist violence.

While Europe suffers from a values deficit, Islamists benefit from a fanatical commitment.

To offer a historical parallel: in the United States (and elsewhere), the economic and industrial upheavals of the early twentieth century and the social strains of the Great Depression produced widespread activism in the industrial working class, particularly in the union movement. An extremist element, the Communists, who masked their international agenda and their allegiance to a foreign power with rhetoric of social change, tried to manipulate the much larger working-class movement. Their agents sometimes succeeded in working their way into positions of influence in the unions and elsewhere. There were, however, plenty of unionists who resented the subterfuge. That era came to an end when they eventually succeeded at expelling the Communists.

That historical lesson is relevant to Europe. The Muslim immigrant communities face a range of social and economic challenges and the European welfare states have failed to provide effective paths to integration. Disaffection results, offering a foothold to radical jihadist ideology. Not surprising, this ideology is particularly appealing to young men. (A gender dynamic is at work: while young men experience Europe’s traditionally high unemployment rates, young immigrant women experience European society in terms of new opportunities and the equal rights their mothers did not enjoy. This asymmetrical experience angers young men and makes them even more susceptible to manipulative recruitment networks.) Recent news reports describe a growing number of such recruits—both children of Muslim immigrants and converts from the European population—making their way to jihadist training camps in Pakistan. This is the fatal connection between issues of immigration policy and terrorism.


My book focuses on certain countries as they confront jihad. It begins with three large nations, the core of “old Europe”: Britain, France, and Germany. Each has experienced terrorism differently.

Britain suffered from the London bombings of 2005, and it was the first country to grapple intensely with homegrown radicalism. It is also the European country most involved with the paradigm of multiculturalism and the issues involved with accommodating multiple traditions. It is not surprising that the question of integrating sharia law first emerged in Britain.

It would be unjust to most Muslims not to draw clear differences between moderates and jihadists.

France presents a different model with its legacy of strong republican values, the importance it gives to national identity, and its tolerance for a highly centralized state. On one hand, France’s experience with counterterrorism is exemplary; there is much to be learned from its success. On the other, its management of immigration has produced grievous problems that have erupted into unrest and contributed to the perception of a breakdown in law and order. All this has been complicated by France’s traditional trans-Mediterranean foreign policy opening to the Arab world, which makes explicit critiques of Islamism a sensitive matter (with consequences for the intellectual debates of the past decade).

Germany, as so often, lives in the shadow of its past, and the encounter with Islamist terrorism regularly awakens the specters of the Nazi era. For some, that past should make Germany least willing to participate in military enterprises; they support the limits on the role German forces play in Afghanistan. For others, memories of the erosion of the Weimar Republic by paramilitary extremists give today’s Germany a strong motive to put an end to terrorism. Politicians leading the Interior Ministry, from both the center-left and the center-right, have been among the toughest advocates of domestic security measures. Nonetheless, still other Germans draw the lesson from the Nazi era that they should refrain from any criticism of other religions and cultures, even if practices in immigrant cultures fail to live up to modern German law. It is telling, though, that in Germany, as elsewhere, some of the most articulate and dogged critics of abuses in the immigrant communities are themselves Muslim immigrants—progressive, democratic, and dedicated to the ideals of free societies. They articulate the demand that Europeans live up to their own laws and apply those laws equally, to immigrants and everyone else.

Modernity failed at Srebrenica, and it is no mistake that jihadists list the persecution of Bosnian Muslims in their litany of examples of Muslim suffering.

My examination of Islamism then travels through three small countries on Europe’s north coast: Belgium, the Netherlands, and Denmark. Complex histories frame their different responses to Islamism.

Belgium, with its late but brutal colonial history, has become home to a largely francophone immigrant Muslim population. Belgium also has the dubious honor of having produced the first female European convert to Islam to have carried out a suicide bombing.

Turning to the Netherlands, we see one of the most liberal, tolerant cultures of Europe buckling under the pressure of Islamism. At the center of the Dutch story are two friends and collaborators: Theo van Gogh, the cultural critic and gadfly filmmaker, assassinated in the streets of Amsterdam by an Islamist radical with ties to international terrorist networks; and Ayaan Hirsi Ali, the Somalian refugee who, with determination and intelligence, made her way into a seat in the Dutch parliament, promoting the rights of immigrant women and criticizing the patriarchal character of Islam. She has faced death threats and was forced into hiding.

The itinerary continues in Denmark—on a per capita basis, Danish forces have suffered, after Canada, the greatest losses in the Afghanistan war—with a look into the 2005 publication of the cartoons depicting Muhammad. While the initial reaction to the cartoons was nil, a group of Danish imams took them, along with unrelated material, to the Middle East and drew attention to them. Violent riots ensued. Yet it was not only Muslims who objected to the cartoons; many multicultural Europeans also tried to distance themselves. The Danes nonetheless stood firm, and the government insisted on free speech. In Denmark, the integrity of a Western institution was upheld despite the clamor of voices calling for appeasement.

A final case study looks at a very different country: Bosnia. Here the Muslim community is indigenous, with a history stretching back to the days of Ottoman rule. In that sense alone, Bosnia is quite different from the other European cases, in which Islam is nearly exclusively an immigrant phenomenon. Yet Bosnia is different in another crucial way: the shadow of the wars that followed the breakup of Yugoslavia and especially the genocidal campaigns against the Bosniaks (Bosnian Muslims) that culminated in the 1995 killings at Srebrenica. That experience not only still overshadows Bosnian culture and politics but also embodies aspects of the international issues at stake. To talk about Islamist terrorism in Europe—the Madrid bombing, the London bombings, the efforts to bomb in Germany—also requires attention to the genocide in Bosnia. That genocide represented in many ways a failure of Europe, of Western Europe, to live up to its own post–World War II credo: no more genocide. The modernity that jihadists have been attacking since 9/11 (and before) is the same modernity that failed at Srebrenica, and it is no mistake that jihadists list the persecution of Bosnian Muslims in their litany of examples of Muslim suffering—Chechnya, Kashmir, Gaza, Iraq—to justify their own violence.

That the Bosniaks themselves have yet to succumb to the jihadist seduction is a testimony to the integrity of their tradition. Nonetheless, the battlefields of the Balkans have been more than literary references in jihadist propaganda: they have also served as way stations in the bloody pilgrimages of international Islamist fighters, from the anti-Soviet resistance in Afghanistan, through Bosnia, and into Western Europe. My book looks at the complexity of the Bosnian responses to the war and genocide, and studies the redefinition of Muslim identity in postwar Sarajevo through examples from contemporary Bosnian culture. Bosnia is not London, Paris, or Berlin, but its mixture of violence and religion, modernization and tradition, is a useful mirror. It too is part of the story of European responses to Islamist terrorism.


The view of European history as a trajectory to democratization is not wrong: the kaisers are gone, the führer is gone, as are the Soviets. The military and political accomplishments of the twentieth century built on a cultural tradition that, in different ways in different countries, gradually placed ever greater value on the individual and freedom of choice. While individuals nowhere live in isolation, and obligations and responsibilities define our lives in communities, there remains a specific Western legacy of individuality, autonomy, and freedom. Today that freedom finds its expression in the ideas and structures generally associated with modernity, no matter how much traditional forms also contribute to our culture.

Modernity and freedom are under attack by the agenda of jihadist terrorism. That is but a clear restatement of their goals. How is Europe responding to this challenge? Will it defend freedom against terror? And with what urgency? Does it intend to win? Whether Europe is truly up to the challenge will become clear only in the struggles of the next decade.