When Salah Abdeslam, a suspect in the Paris attacks, was arrested in a police raid in Brussels on Friday 18th March, many Europeans expressed relief. Most, however, responded with a certain indifference, jaded in the face of what had now became a routine of police interventions in Brussels’s Molenbeek neighbourhood ( or Paris’s St. Denis), false terrorist alarms in several European cities, and other security crack downs. Maybe the reaction would have been different if people knew what would happen four days later?
On the morning of the 22nd of March, two nail bombs detonated at Brussels Airport, and one at Maalbeek metro station, centre of Brussels. The attacks killed 31 people, and injured 330. The Western community once again stopped and cried, as it realised that what had long been feared, especially in light of the Paris attacks’ terrorists link to Belgium, had now become truth.
The perpetrators were – as per usual – national citizens. The two suicide bombers, the El Bakraoui brothers, both born and raised in Brussels, were known to the Belgian authorities for serious crimes. Khalid had served a sentence in prison but had never been “officially” linked to terrorism. Ibrahim’s link to ideological radical extremism was clearer, as he had been detained by Turkish authorities in June 2015 after travelling to Syria. Yet, when he was then deported to the Netherlands, the Dutch authorities, unsupported by Belgian authorities which allegedly ignored Turkish warnings, failed to establish any link to terrorism.
The first reaction to any terrorist attack in Western Europe/North America is to ask “why?”. The world has stopped wondering why more people die in the streets of Baghdad, Aleppo and Damascus in a week, than die in Europe in a year. Even the 140 fatalities Turkey had to mourn since December 2015 only, have either been overlooked or excused by some western orientalist belief that “shit happens in Arab countries”. However, if one were to follow the same logic, no one should have been so shocked by the Paris, and even less by the Brussels bombings. Belgium, with an estimated 440 citizens having left for Syria/Iraq, is, proportionately to its population, top of the Western European countries list for nationals fighting for ISIS – France does not fare much better. How come?
Belgium, similarly to France and other central European societies, has a poor record in integrating non-Christian/non-white foreigners and making them feel integrated. Not only do ethnic minorities from Africa and the Middle East live in secluded neighbourhoods, and are often portrayed by public, the media, and political discourses in a denigrating and prejudicial way. Exclusion expands into labour market integration, educational attainment and health quality. Unsurprisingly, some non-minority citizens also fall into that category – the phenomenon of formerly “Christian” or “Atheist” youth joining ISIS is not a rarity. It is, I believe, a cry of desperation, an anger towards a society which does not seem to offer any dignified future for immigrants (let alone refugees), and a deep pain one feels every time one is persecuted for being a Muslim, poor, or just anything which does not fit some societal ideal, that drives people to go seek some kind of identity and what they see as a ‘meaningful’ life, by joining a group like ISIS. I do not think that what I posit here is absurd. I joined a political party, partly to give myself some sort of identity; many uni friends go off on their Erasmus year to group with other British students, so that they belong to something. Deep engrained love for our individual colleges is common, and violent responses to one’s favourite sports team being denigrated, is not a rarity. Groups, feeling of belonging and meaning of life matter – as much to you, as to me, as to the individuals who go fight for ISIS.
Where should we then go from here? On the European front, justice and home affairs ministers held an emergency meeting in Brussels on Thursday, calling on the European parliament to adopt a law allowing the use of airport passenger data (e.g. name, home address, itinerary, baggage, how they paid for their ticket, where they sat on the plane and whether they requested halal food). Jean-Claude Juncker called to develop the European Union into “a security Union”. On the national – and far right – sphere, often hysteric debates about the refugee crisis have re-emerged, pressing to find a way of either keeping them out (or in Italy and Greece), or at least separating the “terrorists” from the “genuine poor victims of war”. The media, NGOs and individual citizens, are taking varied stances to these attacks, some engaging in an ever more widespread persecution of Muslims and refugees, whilst other go the exact opposite way, trying to defend them by differentiating them from ideological extremists. And security forces and intelligence services on their end are endlessly performing raids, collecting intelligence, and surveilling citizens.
Where we should not go from here has been outlined by Simon Jenkins in The Guardian. He asks the reader to “think like the enemy”. I am an ISIS terrorist. My end is power. “This week I had another success…I sent a continent into shock… I measure my success in column inches and television hours, in ballooning security budgets, butchered liberties, amended laws and – my ultimate goal – Muslims persecuted and recruited to our cause. I deal not in actions but in reactions. I am a manipulator of politics.” He writes, in my opinion correctly, that whilst there is no “sensible” defence against atrocity, there is a defence against its purpose. “It is to avoid hysteria, to show caution and a measure of courage, not Cameron’s [or any other politician’s] lapse into public fear. It is not to alter laws, not to infringe liberties, not to persecute Muslims.” Nor refugees. In some sense, experiencing terror propagated by ISIS should bring us closer to understanding what refugees, and those still in Syria and Iraq, have experienced on a day-to-day basis. We should be capable to empathise with them, now that we know how it feels to live in terror. And we should give them the right to seek refuge from something we so deeply seek refuge ourselves. But we remain, once again, far from any actual solution and gesture of humanity. We trap ourselves in short-term solutions, addressing the symptoms but not the causes; we enclose ourselves in prejudices, hatred and fear which satisfy ISIS, and motivate our own citizens to go fight for their causes. Unless we expand our horizons, and understand, we should expect terror to become a triviality of our everyday life.
You might think I am an idealist? I invite you to emerge out of your soon to come new home – a bunker – to face reality with me, and do something about it.