I know it sounds preposterous: making sense of Paris. Making sense of senseless, mindlessly brutal attacks. Impossible, it seems. But I do believe that the terrible events in the French capital hold some lessons for us to learn, and if we want to effectively tackle the root causes of terrorism, we better learn those lessons.
A year of aerial bombings in Syria has only had a superficial effect: loss of territory for ISIS, a number of senior terrorists eliminated and so on and so forth. But has that stopped the victorious butchers of ISIS? Has it made us safer? No, it hasn’t.
Because terrorism cannot be defeated with bombs and tanks..That is what the West still has to learn. Terrorism is hatred, it is an ideology of intolerance. And ideologies aren’t destroyed with bombs. Never has the Western world attempted to actually win the ‚battle for hearts and minds‘. We need to understand what makes terrorists do what they do.
We must realise that all too often, the roots of terror lie in Western foreign policy in the Middle East, which has consistently marked by failure, hypocrisy and aggression. If we want to have a real chance of tackling the causes of terrorism, we must consider our own actions.
Terrorists often state that their crimes are a reaction to what they see as structural injustice in our Middle Eastern policy (the shooters in the Bataclan concert hall yesterday referred to French involvement in. the military coalition bombing Syria; the Charlie Hebdo attackers were reportedly radicalised by the 2003 war on Iraq). Western occupation, our support for authoritarian regimes and the human rights abuses in the ‚War on Terror‘ have boosted the recruitment efforts of radical Islamist terror groups. We are often oblivious to this and that distorts our perception of terrorist attacks.
It is entirely a matter of perspective: we see 9/11, for instance, as starting point and the War on Terror as logical and reasonable reaction. But what if 9/11 itself was a reaction – a reaction to Western policy in the Arab world. This is no terrorism apologetic – these terrible crimes can never be excused or justified. My motivation for writing this, in fact, is my desire to end this brutal terrorism, and my conviction that to achieve that, we need to critically look at our own actions.
The same is valid for the radicalisation of Muslim youth in Western countries. We only pay attention to young Muslims when they turn violent – and ignore the marginalisation and discrimination that plague the Muslim minorities in many Western societies. I am not trying to say that terror acts like the events in Paris are homemade, but there are certain structural factors that lead to this kind of violence and we need to analyse them.
We need to win the war of values – and persuade young people at risk of radicalisation that our societies are ultimately the better choice than joining the murderous terrorists of ISIS an al Qaeda, that plurality, democracy and equality are preferable to the medieval barbarism of radical Islamists. But this requires that we stop looking at young Muslims as threats, instead of perceiving them as potential allies for humanism. We need to do more against the right’s hateful Islamophobia, because it risks alienating moderate Muslims.
In the end, it’s not about who has the deadlier bullets (ours and Isis‘ are equally deadly anyways), it’s about who has the better ideas. In the end, we can kill as many terrorists as we want, but as long as we don’t face the real causes of hatred, the killers will be a renewable resource – if we kill one, the next one will stand in line to succeed.
Bombs and drones will not touch the hearts and minds of those we need to reach. Some in the West will now respond to intolerance with more intolerance: they will demand more bombings, less diversity, less plurality. They are dead wrong. To quote Martin Luther King:“ Darkness cannot drive out darkness; only light can do that. Hate cannot drive out hate; only love can do that.“