Call for urgent rethink on EU policies aimed at tackling extremism

2016 began as 2015 ended, with several Islamist-inspired attacks, both in the Middle East (Egypt, Syria and Iraq), as well as in Europe and the US, writes Magnus Norell.

By Magnus Norell

19 Jan 2016

There is no reason to believe that this pattern will change in the foreseeable future. Added to and compounding the problem is the ineptitude of the EU to act as the unified Union we constantly hear we have.

Examples abound, from the failures to foresee (despite the many voices sounding the alarm) and handle the migration crisis, to delivering a common policy towards the very real threat of thousands of volunteers joining Daesh, with some of these returning home and launching terror-attacks in Europe.

These two problems are connected, as demonstrated for example in the Paris attacks in November last year.


One of the major reasons for this is the inability or perhaps unwillingness on the part of Europe's political elites to explain what exactly it is we are facing as democratic societies. Militant Islamism and also the (physically) non-violent political Islamism nurturing the militants are at the core of this conflict.

Instead, endless energy is spent on avoiding this ‘elephant in the room’ and repeatedly uttering statements to the effect that what every Islamist says is the most important reason for their actions – namely their interpretation of Islam – is rendered moot and brushed aside.

The effect of this is two-fold; firstly, it leaves many brave and courageous Muslims who have taken up the fight against the Islamists in the lurch. Instead of supporting these individuals, both in the Middle East and here in Europe, we leave them fighting a battle on two fronts.

Secondly, by avoiding calling out and naming the kind of threat we’re facing, we make it harder for our police and intelligence agencies to introduce effective counter-measures as well as having an open and honest discussion about the threat.

This also leads to a somewhat schizophrenic situation whereby the public can easily see and feel what the problems are while at the same time the political discussion we ought to have as a result is studiously avoided by politicians experts, pundits and, in some cases, even the media. This is not the way mature democracies ought to behave.

Fear can be the only explanation for this phenomenon. Fear, on the one hand, of fuelling xenophobic and even racist forces and, fear of actually triggering more attacks by facing up to the Islamist threat. By giving in to this fear we lose on both accounts.

Firstly, by not actively taking the fight to the Islamists themselves and openly admitting, as the many brave and largely isolated anti-Islamist Muslims do, that Islam has some fundamental house-keeping to do (see for example the writings of Kenan Malik, Maajid Nawaz, Sarah Haider and Hanna Gadban), we only add fuel to the fire and are, in effect, leaving it to the real xenophobes to exploit these dilemmas.

Secondly, by throwing in the towel and not standing up (again out of fear) for the freedoms and rights we in the West have shed so much blood, sweat and tears to achieve, we are actually letting the Islamists win.

What is urgently needed is for politicians and regulators to push the reset button, think more outside the box and look at the reality of life in Europe in 2016.

Some considerations could include engaging more with Muslim groups and individuals that are unambiguous in espousing their support for the universal values of the Enlightenment and amplifying the voices of Muslim grass roots campaigners and activists who work within vulnerable communities.

This would help to promote the primacy of the individual and their rights within Western democracies where religion is a private matter.

We should also support organisations that work to provide platforms for diverse, hitherto largely unrepresented, Muslim voices to work with EU policy makers and politicians so they can hear a different narrative.

Magnus Norell is a Senior Fellow, at the European Foundation for Democracy