Jihadist networks have struck again in Europe, this time in Brussels. After the terrorist attacks that shook France in 2015, European societies are once again confronted with their high vulnerability to Islamic terrorism. As after the previous attacks, we vow to never give in and stand united against those who want to divide us. As after the previous attacks, we vow to keep going and change nothing, or as little as possible. As after the previous attacks, we will slowly get back to thinking about something else. As after the previous attacks, and as usual.
As usual, we are left in shock. We are, once again, stunned by the violence and savagery of the attacks at Brussels airport and at a subway station of the European district on the morning of March 22, 2016, which left 31 dead and over 300 injured. Scores of stolen or broken lives, traumatised men, women and children, inconsolable families. Horror scenes getting stuck forever in the minds of those who experienced or witnessed them. Anxiety and fear suddenly gripping a city that had so far not been struck by terrorists and lived, like so many other European cities, in a sweet illusion of security.
As usual, we struggle to understand. How can human beings do such things in the 21st century? For what reason and what purpose? What leads them to hate us so much? Were they targeting Brussels, this city that is not really a city but where so many nationalities live together in a joyful and seemingly peaceful disorder? Were they targeting Belgium, this country that is not really a country, but that cultivates freedom and self-referential humour like no other? Were they targeting the European Union, this somehow poorly assorted group of democracies that are increasingly struggling to agree on their common purpose? Did they want to punish the people from Brussels for their openness, the people from Belgium for their love of life, the people from Europe for their policies in the Middle East? Did they really think they would change any of those? And what did they hope for themselves? Are these people crazy enough to believe that Allah will open up the gates of heaven for them, and in addition give each of them 72 virgins as a reward for their ‘martyrdom’? Are they so sexually frustrated and repressed down here that they imagine heaven as a big brothel, and their God as a celestial pimp ordering them to kill as many infidels and ‘crusaders’ as possible to earn the right to deflower dozens of ‘pure’ and submitted females?
As usual, we boil with anger. Anger at so much crass stupidity, at the blind violence and the barbarism that impose themselves in our lives despite being uninvited. Anger also at the inability of public authorities to prevent this new massacre. Why, oh why, were the Belgian and European political and security leaders so quick to congratulate themselves of the arrest on March 18 of Salah Abdeslam, one of the author of the Paris attacks last November, promoted since then to the rank of public enemy number one? How did they dare praising his capture as a great achievement that demonstrated the effectiveness of intelligence services, even though the man had apparently remained hidden for months in the heart of Brussels, maintaining contacts with relatives and accomplices without being caught? Are these not those same accomplices who caused mayhem only four days later, the same jihadist cell that struck Brussels after Paris? What has been the point of the massive deployment of police and military forces in the Belgian capital that followed the absurd “lockdown” of the city last November? Wasn’t it supposed to protect such emblematic places, such obvious potential targets as the airport or the subway system? How on earth could a member of the terrorist commando who had been arrested in Turkey and deported to Belgium several months ago so easily evade the surveillance of security services? And why was the resignation of the ministers of the Interior and Justice refused as soon as it was presented? Is it prohibited to even only think of taking responsibility in the Kingdom of Belgium? Anger again when contemplating the amount of incompetence and political cowardice that has made the Brussels region – and the municipality of Molenbeek in particular – a hub and a rear base for Islamic radicals and European terrorist networks. Did we really believe that these networks would never act on Belgian soil? What have been the reasons or compensations for accepting these very unreasonable accommodations for so long?
As usual, we remain defiant. Terrorists can sow death in our midst, but they cannot destroy our way of life or intimidate us. “Not afraid,” we repeat again and again, in the streets but especially on the so-called social media. We will continue to live as before, we won’t budge, we won’t bend, we won’t bow and we won’t break – or so we pledge. Of course, we hesitate to go down in the subway again, and we apprehend our next trip to the airport, but we will surely get over it. Meanwhile, we light candles in public squares, we post defiant words and pictures online, we perform acts of ‘resistance’ on Facebook or Twitter. It doesn’t make any difference, but it doesn’t cost much, and our virtual ‘friends’ like those consensual messages, which is a cheap and easy way to start feeling a bit better.
As usual, we feel outraged. Outraged at those we suspect of wanting to use these attacks for political purposes, those who dare to see this new drama as a confirmation of their bias and prejudices, or those who want to bring suspicion on the entire Muslim community. This has “nothing to do with Islam”, we keep hearing all around. Of course, the jihadists claim to act in the name of Allah, and the one and only thing that they have in common, despite their apparently very varied profiles, is the Muslim faith. But aren’t Muslims the main victims of terrorism around the world? Wasn’t there Muslims among the victims of the attackers in Paris and Brussels? These terrorists cannot be true Muslims, we are being told, they can only be fools who have no nationality or religion. Besides, isn’t our Muslim friend or neighbour an adorable and perfectly peaceful person? And haven’t we seen our Muslim maid, nanny, doorman or cab driver be as genuinely appalled by these attacks as ourselves – just like the vast majority of European Muslims, we want to believe. Muslims cannot be held collectively responsible for the actions of jihadist terrorists, no more than Catholics are responsible for the depravity of some paedophile priests, we assume. What the terrorists want to destroy, supposedly, is our “living together”, and it is therefore essential to pretend that we remain united, even if we suspect that our hypocrisies are not fooling anyone anymore.
As usual, all kinds of experts and specialists are flocking to the media to explain us the meaning of what just happened. Some say that these terrorist attacks are the result of the West’s inability to end the terrible civil war in Syria, which has allowed ISIS/ISIL/Daesh to grow like an ugly tumour on a rotting body. Many explain that ISIS is not an ‘Islamic state’, or not even an Islamist network, but rather a self-destructive apocalyptic sect that usurps the Muslim religion, an aberration of history that is doomed to end up in its garbage. Moreover, the jihadists are already in retreat in Syria and Iraq, and plans to ‘defeat ISIS’ – in five points, sometimes six – abound in newspapers and magazines. Once ISIS is defeated, the terrorist threat will abate, no doubt, as jihadist networks lose their rear base and their capacity to act. In the meantime, however, experts warn us that there will probably be more attacks, as thousands of activists are already present in Europe, many cells ready to strike, which are capable of acting independently and without having to wait for orders or even support from the ‘Caliphate’. According to many European intelligence services, terrorist networks have actually used the flood of refugees that has been overwhelming the continent for months to ‘infiltrate’ a number of fighters. Why wouldn’t they do it, by the way? Are they not waging a ‘holy’ war and pursuing an end that justifies, in their eyes, using all available means? Other experts however warn us that defeating ISIS will not be sufficient to root out terrorism from Europe. They remind us that terrorism is the weapon of the poor, and that it is only a response, not that surprising if you think about it, to the West’s interventions and domination, to the evils of colonialism, the exploitation of the resources of the global south by the north, but also the discrimination and racism that persist in European societies. Most of the terrorists that waged attacks in Europe were actually born and raised in Europe, and they often held the nationality of the country that they struck. They benefited from the largesse of European welfare states, yet they apparently wished to disintegrate the societies in which they lived rather than integrate into them. To tackle this problem, say the experts, we need to better accommodate the legitimate demands of our fellow Muslim citizens, to give them a better place in our societies. We probably have to invest and spend more to support and promote them, and maybe also to enact new regulations that will constrain our reluctant societies to better integrate their minorities. We should probably also urgently invest in the development of a ‘de-radicalisation’ industry, which will complement the work of our long-established integration industry – and will obtain, hopefully, better results. Then maybe we can all live together in love and peace, Insha’Allah.
As usual, politicians pretend that they are in control and can solve the terrorist ‘problem’. In Belgium, as in France a few months ago, they urge their citizens to remain united and to act responsibly. They quickly call for an urgent European ministerial meeting, which will probably adopt new ‘measures’ to strengthen police cooperation within the Union. In Belgium and beyond, they once again vow to strengthen a security apparatus that has so far failed to prevent the terrorists from striking. Belgium apparently does not intend – not yet at least – to enact an emergency law similar to the ‘state of emergency’ that France instituted over four months ago and is in the process of including in its constitution, but the Flemish nationalists that dominate the Flemish regional executive and participate in the federal government are already calling for a crackdown. Just like in France last year, national unity seems to be fragile, and the adoption of tougher security policies is likely. Terrorism, under all latitudes, is a slow poison that always and almost inevitably leads to move the cursor established between freedom and security. Belgians, just like others before them, will probably agree to giving up some of their civil liberties in exchange for hypothetical security gains, which will not prevent the terrorists from striking again but will enable politicians to pretend that they ‘act’ and exercise ‘leadership’.
As usual, we will end up thinking about something else, we will get on with our lives and we will fly and use the subway again. We will re-start posting pictures of our children, our pets, our holidays or our meals on Facebook – in between our vain ‘selfies’. We will re-start tweeting insignificant short sentences, most of which serve no meaningful purpose and are poised to be immediately forgotten. We will fall asleep thinking that we can resume a ‘normal’ life.
As usual, and until the next time.