Can Europe Make It?

How do we win back those who sympathise with the jihadist insurgency?

The history of left-wing militancy in Europe suggests that police raids, surveillance techniques, and ‘anti-radicalization’ efforts will not end the jihadist insurgency. The more important struggle lies elsewhere.

Heiko Henkel
10 December 2015
Aftermath of the 1981 Red Army Faction bombing of U.S. Air Forces Europe headquarters. Wikimedia Commons/Public domain.

Aftermath of the 1981 Red Army Faction bombing of U.S. Air Forces Europe headquarters. Wikimedia Commons/Public domain.Everything suggests that the Sun was wrong when it announced that one in five British Muslims ‘sympathised’ with ISIS. It is important to call out those who seek to tie the Muslim community as a whole to jihadist networks and their brutal murders. But at the same time, we should avoid being drawn into demonising those who do sympathise with their cause.

They are terribly wrong, of course, but we need to win them back.

In the long run, it is in our own vital interests that all potential militants come to see that the polarizing violence of jihadi fundamentalism is not beneficial – and that sharing society with us as fellow citizens is. Those who have always felt comfortable in the midst of liberal society may find this proposition difficult to contemplate. But the truth is that, not so long ago, European societies were torn along lines that felt just as dramatic as today’s confrontation with the jihadist.

I still remember it clearly. March 1993, the Rote Armee Fraktion (Red Army Faction) – Germany’s infamous left-wing militant group – had blown up the newly-built prison of Weiterstadt. In earlier attacks, the Red Army Faction had murdered politicians, industrialists, leading bureaucrats, and security personnel. In this case, militants had overpowered security personnel before the massive explosion and no one was hurt. I knew someone who had links to the militants and I told her that if they needed a place to hide, they could stay in my apartment.

It never came to that and, looking back, I find my own enchantment with the Red Army Faction puzzling and troubling. But recalling my own entanglement with their wrongheaded militant campaign makes it easier for me to understand the tacit support that today’s jihadist militants enjoy among some sections of Europe’s Muslim minorities. 

The violent campaign that groups like the Red Army Faction, Action Directe or Brigate Rosse were waging against the state and mainstream society was premised on the analysis that the true identity of ‘the state’ was fascist, even as it masqueraded as a liberal democracy, and that it stood in direct continuity both with the Nazi regime and with US imperialism. The use of violence was therefore not only justified but necessary; and the evocation of the Nazi regime, the Holocaust, Hiroshima, Vietnam conjured up the spectre of such horrific violence that the human costs of the Red Army Faction’s own bombing campaign appeared insignificant.

They are terribly wrong, of course, but we need to win them back.

I did not agree with the Red Army Faction and its militant project. The price of escalation – the spiral of insurgency and state securitization – seemed far too high for whatever gain might be had from the murder of individual ‘representatives’ of the state. And I found the abstraction that equated west Germany with the Nazi regime, and both of these with US imperialism, unconvincing. But I shared with the militants the anguish over what we perceived to be the dark underside of liberal society, and a sense that whatever affluence and liberties we had in western Germany were directly linked to exploitation and repression elsewhere in the world.

This shared anguish – and in retrospect I can see that it was the strength of this feeling more than anything else – made it impossible for me to condemn the militants.  Much as, a generation before us, the traditional left in western Europe had had tremendous difficulty disowning Stalin’s crimes. 

To be sure, the project of the Red Army Faction (or that of the Soviet Union) was very different from that of the jihadi militants today. But not completely so. Both offer dramatic narratives of struggle, revolution, and redemption. Both link the violence of their own militant campaigns to massive violence and suffering elsewhere. Violence is thus not only justified but morally necessary. And they inscribe their own campaigns within much wider projects of social transformation and liberation which have broad popular legitimacy. In both cases, militants enjoy the tacit support of a base that does not, in fact, necessarily agree with their methods or their political goals.

There can be no doubt that many European Muslims have become part of an abandoned underclass with little or no prospect of upward mobility or of living decent lives of whatever definition. At these margins, the frustration with and alienation from mainstream society is tipping over into a sense that being Muslim sets them fundamentally apart. Here, proposing the irreconcilable difference between Muslims and the non-Muslim majority seems plausible, and embracing it seems to offer the only path to a meaningful future. When I offered to shelter the militants that blew up Weiterstadt prison in 1993, I was close to a similar tipping point.

The attack on Weiterstadt turned out to be the last bombing by the Red Army Faction. The group declared its own dissolution five years later and other western European left-wing militant groups ceased to exist around the same time. In their struggle with these militants, European states built an enormous arsenal of surveillance infrastructure, counter-terrorism agencies and legislation. Indeed, many militants were arrested and tried; but the end of left-wing terrorism in Europe came not as a military defeat. The end came because the violent campaign that was the hallmark of the Red Army Faction and its sister organizations made less and less sense even to those who shared in their anguish about the darker sides of liberal democracies.

The broader political commitment to social justice in Europe and elsewhere continues, of course. But the proposition that killing a high court judge would somehow nudge the oppressed masses towards revolution today sounds not only wrong but ludicrous. The sharp line that once divided the far left from mainstream society has since been eroded by the left’s lack of confidence in its own once messianic clarity. And although deep ideological differences remain, they are overlaid by an uneasy ‘we’ that today ties former sympathizers, and even many of the former militants, into a broadly shared sense of citizenship.

Police in Paris. Demotix/Cesar Dezfuli. All rights reserved.

Police in Paris. Demotix/Cesar Dezfuli. All rights reserved.In the face of the murderous attacks in Paris I have no doubt that the state needs to hunt down the militant networks that plan and perpetrate them. But the history of left-wing militancy in Europe suggests that police raids, surveillance techniques, curtailing civil liberties and state sponsored “anti-radicalization” efforts will not end the jihadist insurgency. The more important struggle lies elsewhere.

This is not a struggle that pitches us against ‘them’.  It is a struggle for a future with a plausible, broader ‘we’. This future will not do away with the memories and legacies of colonialism, nor with Islamic revival or even with ‘radical Islam’. But if societies can offer those Muslims in Europe who feel that being Muslim puts them outside of a shared citizenship, a formula that allows them to pursue meaningful futures within it, the chances are that the murderous violence, which is today the hallmark of jihadist militancy, will cease to make sense to those who are tacitly supporting them – and ultimately to the militants themselves.

Even those deeply disaffected with European mainstream societies and drawn to religious projects resonating with those of the jihadi militants are not monsters or creatures from another planet. They may be dreaming of futures very different from those we aspire to, and just as we tend to imagine them as radically different from us, they imagine themselves as radically different from us. Yet still, there are many ties that could be mobilized and fastened to create the vital bonds of a shared ‘we,’ a European citizenry, if perhaps a tacit and contingent one.

There is, however, one feature that sets the current wave of jihadist militancy apart from the leftist insurgency. While the leftist militants and their sympathizers mostly came from middle-class backgrounds, which generally provided them with the means to eventually re-engage with mainstream society, this is often not the case of today’s jihadist militants and their sympathizers.

This is a struggle for a future with a plausible, broader ‘we’.

Therefore, winning – or winning back – those who sympathise with jihadist insurgency requires an ambitious double act: a double act for which the majority of European society desperately needs the full commitment and resources of established Muslim minorities. They, with resources of kinship, friendship, shared religious traditions, can – and often do – pull those who sympathise with jihadi violence into a shared future. But in order to bring these resources into play more fully, non-Muslim Europeans must change tack and actively and emphatically endorse their Muslim fellow citizens.

The Muslim communities that I know best in Germany and Denmark are already playing a major role in this. But in a bitterly ironic twist, the most peaceful and well-integrated sections of Europe’s Muslim minorities are today under increasing pressure from the relentless suspicion concerning their loyalty and belonging. Only if we succeed in embracing them as fellow citizens – even if their ways of living do not always appeal to us – can Europe’s Muslim minority play the part of extending the European ‘we’ far enough that, one day, it may extend to those who today sympathize with the jihadist insurgency.

Building such a shared future with angry and alienated Muslim activists seems like a tall order today. And it is. But the main challenge does not lie where those fomenting today’s moral panic about the apparent monstrosity of jihadist ideology locate it. After all, not so long ago, it seemed for many of us that what separated us from mainstream society were nothing less than the combined evils of capitalism and colonialism, fascism and American imperialism.

Most of us who allied themselves with this radical tradition, for better or worse, eventually found a place within society – not by actively denouncing this tradition but by living lives in which re-engaging came to make more sense than pursuit of a total break. The truly monumental task for European societies today is to offer their angry and alienated Muslim youth that choice. 

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