In the wake of the horrific Charlie Hebdo attacks in Paris, we need to think more about how we can prevent some young citizens from being drawn to the anger and hatred of radical Islam.
Jailing people for their terrorism sympathies is demonstrably counterproductive; Chérif Kouachi and Amédy Coulibaly, two of the home-grown French terrorists responsible for the Paris attacks, both spent time in prison and came out more radical than they were going in. Prisons are a breeding ground for radicalisation. Young men, angry with society and with an inclination towards violence, jammed together in a confined space without access to mass media or the balancing influences of friends and family. It’s the wet dream of any Anjem Choudary or Abu Hamza.
Another option, often favoured by populist media pundits, is preventing travel to Syria or other Islamist hot-spots by jailing travellers before they go, or alternatively preventing their return by revoking their passports. Gilles de Kerchove, the EU counter-terrorism co-ordinator, estimated last year that more than 2,000 European citizens have travelled to Syria, with the largest numbers from Belgium, Denmark, Germany, the Netherlands and the UK.
Aside from the legal problems of this approach, it brings up another, more fundamental question – are we a society that punishes people for their thoughts and opinions? And even if we do, would it work? While inciting or planning a terrorist attack is a crime and is punishable by law, travelling to an Islamic country or merely sympathising with an extremist doctrine is not.
Realising this, many European countries are struggling to establish effective de-radicalisation programs, meant to engage at-risk youths and teach them that Islam is, in fact, a religion of peace that outlaws the murder of civilians. This is important. However, compelling arguments have been made that radical Islamism is a political movement more than it is a religious one. Its followers are drawn to it because of its fury and its uncompromising ruthlessness just as much as, or more than, because of its misinterpreted religious affiliation. In order to prevent recruitment to radical groups, we must also counter their political reasoning. We must take away the power and sting of their arguments. Not by giving in or changing our society’s principles, but by making sure that we are living true to those principles.
Radical Islamists argue that the Western world is in a long-standing and continuing cultural war against Muslims. One of the main talking points revolves around Western support for Israel.
Pictures of dead families in Gaza feature heavily on radical Islamist internet forums. The U.S. and Western European countries, they tell their followers, are enabling Israel’s harassment and murder of Palestinians in Gaza and the West Bank through their unquestioning support of Israel, regardless of its well-documented human rights violations. In a recorded exchange with one of his hostages in Jewish supermarket Hyper Cacher in Paris, hostage-taker Amédy Coulibaly declared: “… We are the ones who will make peace in Palestine.”
The problem with countering this argument is that it has some truth to it. Last autumn, more than 2,300 Palestinians were killed in the Gaza strip in a matter of a few short weeks. UN figures show that the vast majority of them (1,462) were civilians, including 495 children and 253 women. Imagine a terrorism campaign in London or Paris where 500 children were killed. Anger wouldn’t begin to describe our reaction. So far, Israel has faced no consequences, and this is only the most recent example of excessive Palestinian bloodshed at the hands of Israel from the many decades of conflict.
According to statistics from the Israeli human rights organization B’Tselem, which has been tracking death tolls on both sides of the conflict since September 2000, 7,065 of the conflict-related deaths since then have been Palestinian, while 1,101 have been Israeli. That means that out of every 15 conflict-related deaths, 13 are Palestinian and two are Israeli. The figures become even more disproportionate in recent years, with the same figures showing that since 2005, 23 out of every 24 deaths have been on the Palestinian side.
In addition, claims have been made that the Israeli military is deliberately targeting Palestinian children in Gaza. A UNICEF report from 2013 documented patterns of ill-treatment of children during “arrest, transfer and interrogation of child detainees in the West Bank”. This issue was also raised in an Australian TV documentary from 2014.
When Western governments stand idly by and allow the violence, occupation and Apartheid-like conditions in today’s Israel to continue, and, at least in the case of America, refuses to do anything other than mildly criticise Israel for its human rights abuses and indiscriminate killings in Gaza, we are showing a double standard to the world. This is costing us. It damages our moral authority, and it gives credence to the extremist idea of a Western culture war.
Groups working for a boycott of Israeli goods through initiatives such as the BDS movement or by putting pressure on their governments to take a firmer stance are often faced with accusations of anti-Semitism. This logical fallacy, which equates Judaism to Zionism by claiming that criticising Israel is the same as attacking Jews everywhere, is the exact counterpart to those holding all Muslims accountable for the extreme political views of a minority. It doesn’t add up.
Ultimately, nothing can justify the murder of innocent civilians. No aggravation or provocation in the Middle East can ever make it acceptable to kill civilians elsewhere. And even when Israel’s human rights abuses do come to an end – as history has shown that they inevitably will, as with slavery in America and Apartheid in South Africa – there will still be extremist forces and old-fashioned practices within Islam that will need to be countered in Europe by other means.
So our approach to Islamist extremism needs to be multifaceted. We need strong community relations and de-radicalisation initiatives. We need well-equipped and effective security services, nationally and internationally. We need to effectively and repeatedly communicate and evaluate our reasons for intervening in Middle East conflicts, as well as face up to the disastrous mistakes and consequences of the Iraq war. We need to look at issues of discrimination and economic mobility. We need to put pressure on the U.S. to close the illegal Guantanamo Bay detainment camp.
But one of the most important steps towards discrediting the worldview that radical Islamism is presenting to European youth is also to correct our governments’ double standard on Israel’s human rights abuses.
This post first appeared on Jon Kindberg’s site.