Europe and terrorism: the wrong path

Mats Engström
7 November 2007

The police car blocks my way on the small gravel road. At first I don't get it. Then I back off, into a glade in the darkness behind.

The young policeman drives a bit further, preventing me from getting back onto the road. He rolls down the window while his colleague observes me carefully.

"What are you doing here?", he asks.

It is not a strange question. We have stopped in the middle of the night, in a dark forest between two of Stockholm's poorest areas. The two loudspeakers clearly visible in the back of my car make it clear that that part of the vehicle is full of stuff.

"We have been to a party and are transporting some equipment back home", I answer.

At the same time, my thoughts are about what the Swedish legislation says. Should I let the police search my car, without any clear suspicion of a crime?

The policeman looks unconvinced, so I add: "There is a house over there which is often used for parties."

He observes me some more seconds, and then says something to his colleague.

Finally, we can drive through.

The Kurdish man sitting beside me has kept silent during the whole episode. It takes a long time before he makes a comment. Then he asks if it is necessary to have police permission in Sweden to celebrate a birthday party.

I explain that it is not necessary. Then I give some thought to our reactions. For me the episode was a question about what the police are allowed to do. For him it was a fear that we had done something illegal, something that could create problems.

Mats Engström is editorial writer at the Swedish newspaper Aftonbladet. He was special advisor and deputy state secretary to Anna Lindh from 1994-2001, and is author of Rebooting Europe: Digital Deliberation and European DemocracyForeign Policy Centre, 2002). His website is here

Also by Mats Engström in openDemocracy:

"The European Union and genetic information: time to act" (28 July 2003)

"Remember Anna Lindh" (24 September 2003)

"Democracy is hard, but the only way" (5 June 2005)

"The European Union's anti-terror plans: lift the secrecy" (28 November 2005)

"The fear haunting Europe" (25 May 2006)

"Europe's green power" (25 May 2006)

"We still love the Swedish model" (19 September 2006) (

The story would not be much to write about unless it was part of a pattern. I have heard so many times how Muslims I know are treated differently than people with a traditional Swedish name and appearance. Stories about trying to find a job but never getting one that corresponds to one's merits. A large number of official reports confirms widespread discrimination, both in Sweden and in the European Union as a whole.

The policemen that night did their job; there is nothing for me to complain about. It was a tiny episode. But I continue to think about it when I try to follow the intense work being conducted in the the European Union to "counter terrorism".

In the shadows

How can the fight against terrorism and its wellspring - militant fundamentalism - succeed when so many Muslims in Europe feel that authorities in general and the police in particular regard them as security risks? When discrimination is part of everyday life?

The answer would be easier if all kinds of terrorism were treated equally. If the EU and national governments did more to stop the daily insults to many Muslims.

Such strategies are included in some of the public documents on the fight against terrorism. Unfortunately, the real work has another bias.

At a meeting on 6 November 2007, the European commission presented a fresh "counter-terrorism package". The vice-president Franco Frattini proposed a number of new measures, such as control of air-passenger data and restrictions on and monitoring of the internet. Frattini also plans to widen the framework decision on terrorism to include "incitement".

The commission also proposes measures aiming at a better preparedness to handle terrorist attacks when they occur. No tough measures on discrimination are put forward in the package, which will be discussed at a meeting of the European Union's justice and home affairs (JHA) council of ministers on 8-9 November.

The commission proposals are part of the European Union's wider strategy against terrorism, one of its main priorities in recent years. Measures against radicalisation and recruitment to terrorism play an important role in this overall effort.

After the London bombings of 7 July 2005, EU ministers of justice and home affairs increased their efforts to prevent further acts of terrorism. One of the main priorities was preventing the radicalisation of young men and their recruitment into networks of violent extremism. In public, governments talked about dialogue and about cooperation with the large majority of Muslims against terrorism. At the same time, negotiations on the action plans were undertaken in utmost secrecy.

Two years ago, openDemocracy was able to publish the draft strategy against radicalisation and recruitment to terrorism (see "The European Union's anti-terror plans: lift the secrecy", 28 November 2005). The text showed inter alia that governments promised to enact laws forbidding "incitement to violence" and to inform each other about such activities. The general definitions of incitement it contained were criticised for their vagueness, leaving suspicions that they could also be used to stifle legitimate criticism of, for example, the United States's and Israel's policies in the middle east. Frattini's 6 November proposal on the framework decision against terrorism contains the same vagueness and potential conflicts with freedom of speech.

A loss of balanceAlso in openDemocracy:

Johnny Ryan, "Europe, terrorism and the internet" (6 November 2007)

The strategy and the associated secret action plan to implement it were agreed in December 2005. Since then, interior ministries and police authorities across Europe have maintained a high level of cooperation. The strategy against radicalisation, meanwhile, has been made public, but the action plan is not available for scrutiny. However, the research and campaigning group Statewatch was able to publish one of the regular follow-ups. This document, from March 2007, lists the measures agreed to in the secret plan and what has been done so far to put it into practice.

Some of the measures are:

- countering radicalisation in prisons

- exchanging information on expulsion of radical imams

- surveying the internet

- taking action against "illegal extremist literature and other media"

There are also some actions listed under the category "broader measures". However, follow-up seems to be limited. On "integration and the fight against discrimination", the document refers to the EU's general (and rather weak) policy. No follow-up is listed under the heading "dialogue with the Muslim community".

In addition, a number of repressive steps has already been decided. The data-retention directive recommends storage of information on telephone calls and emails. The European arrest warrant makes it possible for the authorities in one member-state to call for the arrest of a suspect in another member-state. The same principle applies to the recent decision on a European evidence warrant. Member-states have also agreed to cooperate on surveillance of the internet, through the Check the Web initiative.

Further measures are coming. In Germany, the authorities are pushing for online surveillance of personal computers. The European commission has put forward a code of conduct for NGOs to prevent money being transferred for the purpose of what are regarded as terrorist activities. The code is voluntary, so far, but it could become more restrictive during negotiations in the council.

The imbalance does not come as a surprise. The responsible member of the European commission, Franco Frattini, often speaks about the threat from terrorism and the need for repressive procedures, such as blocking internet sites. Fighting social injustices is not a frequent theme, neither in his speeches, nor in substantive policies. In a number of EU member-states, politicians are trying to win voters by portraying Muslims as a threat.

At the same time, laws to protect citizens' legal security at the EU level are few, and negotiations on strengthening them have been slow. The reform treaty ratified at the Lisbon summit on 18-19 October 2007 will not improve the situation much. It gives more power to the European parliament, a good thing for transparency. But the United Kingdom has an opt-out which makes it possible for the British government to choose to take part only in repressive measures, while ignoring common legislation to protect the individual. Furthermore, the charter of fundamental rights will not be binding for the UK and Poland (see Katinka Barysch & Hugo Brady, "Europe's ‘reform treaty': ends and beginnings", 18 October 2007).

There is a real threat from terrorism. Terrible acts such as the London and Madrid bombings have been inspired by a perverted form of Islam. EU member-states must cooperate to prevent further murders. One important part of this task is to prevent extremists to gain more supporters.

The question is not whether to try to counter violent radicalisation and recruitment to terrorist networks. The decisive issue is how to do this is the best way (see Johnny Ryan, "Europe, terrorism and the internet", 6 November 2007).

At an EU seminar on 11 September 2007, national experts discussed the reasons why young men (it is mostly men) are drawn into this kind of networks. There is still much research to do in this area. However, a number of experts claim that there are similarities between the roads to different types of extremism. The route is specific for each individual, says one expert in the Swedish security service. But a common factor is often a sense of being left outside.

Extremists draw on such feelings and promote them, shaping a picture of society where all others are against them. This is common whether extremists are inspired by rightwing, leftwing or Islamist fundamentalism, says this expert. Discrimination reinforces this perception in the individual, who as a result is pushed further down the road to violent radicalisation.

The trust strategy

Against the backdrop of such insights, the European Union's present approach to radicalisation might well be counterproductive. By focusing only on Islamist extremism, the feeling among Muslims that they are treated differently could be strengthened, in fact confirming the worldview that extremists are trying to communicate. By demonising Muslims in general or talking about tensions between cultures, populist politicians are playing a dangerous game. By moving quickly on measures such as controls on imams and television channels from the middle east, but slowly on legal justice for individuals, governments are losing confidence among young men who already feel that they are being treated as second-class citizens.

Decision-makers have to show that they take issues about discrimination and social inequalities seriously and that they are ready to act as decisively on such issues as on cross-border police cooperation. Building trust and legitimacy is crucial for an effective EU strategy against violent radicalisation.

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