Europe’s Big Choice on How to Beat Militant Islam

Europe’s Big Choice on How to Beat Militant Islam

We’re now “post-Paris” exactly as we were “post-9.11” 13 autumns ago. And Europeans face the same vital question Americans did then: Militant Islam manifests itself as a crisis in our societies. How will we weight civil liberties and security in our response to it?

We’ve tumbled tragically into a moment of opportunity. Post-Paris, all more or less open societies can redefine their understanding of militant Islam and hence their counter-strategies. Finding the correct balance between democratic rights and security policy is key to a successful outcome.

Related: Why France Failed to Prevent the Charlie Hebdo Massacre

It’s essential to recognize this chance and grasp it for one reason: It goes without saying that democratic nations can do better than the anti-terror record compiled over the past 13 years. In a lot of ways American got it wrong post-9.11, and in two we’re worse off:

• Militant Islam is far more activated, and Western societies feel less secure than they were in 2001.

• The thought that Islam as a religion is the problem, rather than a perverse abuse of it, is prominent if not prevalent. That this is unbecoming of democratic nations is only a small part of the problem. The bigger part is that if you can’t define your enemy properly you’ll never defeat it—not least because you’ve distanced good allies.

Instantly after the attacks on Charlie Hebdo two weeks ago, the talk among world leaders and senior intelligence officials turned to stronger security measures in Europe and the U.S. “We will give the security services whatever they need,” British Prime Minister David Cameron declared. Simultaneously, the head of MI5, Andrew Parker, told Britons that the threat of a terror attack had worsened.

French police began a sweep of arrests, post-9.11 style, within days. Valérie Pécresse, a cabinet minister during the Sarkozy presidency, said France ought to adopt its own version of the Patriot Act, which gave the federal government new authority to collect intelligence domestically and began whittling away at civil liberties.

Related: After Charlie Hebdo, There’s One Good Way Forward

Well, there are two dangers abroad in Europe now: One is the apparent tactical shift among radical Islamists toward small, deadly hits in urban centers. The other is over-reaction, and it is now just as real.

Europeans will do everyone a big favor if they do two things:

• Recognize the big mistakes Americans made after 9.11. We’re a long way from living down Guantánamo, the Snowden revelations, the torture report, and all that. American society is palpably uneasy because of the Patriot Act’s claims on civil rights and privacy. Unease is not a productive place to be.

• Avoid making the same mistakes. The balance has to lie closer to strict preservation of the very rights democracies are called on to defend. Don’t lump large Muslim minorities together and then proceed to alienate them. Sooner or later, and we’re finding out sooner is more likely, this can produce the very danger we’re trying to deflect.

President Obama can do Europeans a favor this Tuesday, in turn. When he takes up the cybersecurity question in his State of the Union address to Congress, his posture—hawkish or more thoughtful—could go a long way to encourage one or the other of these two currents in European thinking.

Europe’s direction hangs in the balance at the moment. Leaders such as Cameron come over forcefully and carry a good deal of public opinion.

Related: German Groups Say Paris Attack Shows Islamist Threat

On the other hand, Obama stood with Cameron in Washington last week and carefully countered the British prime minister’s hardening line  on the new need to monitor more or less all private communications. In France, Valérie Pécresse’s call for a French Patriot Act—La Loi des Patriotes?—was instantly and loudly shouted down.

Europe can’t afford a repeat of the American mistakes for a few reasons. First, its Muslim populations are more prominent than America’s, and furthering their already unhealthy isolation will prove very dangerous very quickly. The perpetrators in Paris made this point plainly.

Second, and related to the above, Europe’s Muslim communities are allies in this fight. Post-Paris, Europeans have begun distinguishing between these communities and the militant Islamists hiding within them. This is a big, important advance, and Europe needs to hold the thought.

Finally, Europe’s political balance is already fragile due to post-crisis austerity policies and the looming threat of recession, as Fareed Zakaria described it on CNN Sunday. The Continent’s social democrats may be “in crisis,” as a Sorbonne professor observed after the Charlie Hebdo tragedy, but they’ll prove a powder keg waiting for a match if political and civil rights are put in play. Europe can’t afford that kind of trouble now.

Related: Paris Attack Boosts Support for Dutch Anti-Islam Populist Wilders

A lot of post-Paris comment dismisses religion altogether—a pox on all their houses being the thought. This activist atheism is a radically wrong read and Europeans must avoid it. Jürgen Habermas, the noted German philosopher, argued in his book, An Awareness of What Is Missing, that religion is part of 21st century life, Modernist expectations notwithstanding,  

“Among the modern societies, only those able to introduce into the secular domain the essential contents of their religious traditions… will also be able to rescue the substance of the human,” the high priest of Enlightenment rationality wrote.

This is the way forward, and it is a particular problem for France, which elevates laicité, an especially vigorous commitment to secularism to a national principle. As a scholar put it in Foreign Affairs the other day, “We need a secularism that encourages religion.”

The paradox is apparent, not real. Altogether, we all have to be a lot more subtle in our thinking now.

I see several leaders to watch as to where Europe steps next. Obama is one, given his potential for influence. François Hollande is another: The French president governs Ground Zero at the moment. Cameron is a third, for reasons noted above.

The fourth is Angela Merkel. Remember the picture of the 40-odd leaders at the Place de la République last week and the German chancellor’s place in the lineup? It said it all in a single image: She’s Europe’s de facto leader now, and where she tips her hand on post-Paris policy so Europe could well go.

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