It has been quite a year for extremism. We have seen the expansion of Islamic State territory in Iraq and Syria, the Brexit referendum and its aftershocks, and now perhaps the greatest surprise of all – President-elect Trump. In one way or another, these events are all the result of radical shifts in worldwide public mood that, even a few years ago, would have been unthinkable. People are turning to extremists and radicals to solve their problems as belief in previously supported ideologies diminishes, and it is becoming increasingly clear that neither the mainstream media nor our governments know how to deal with this. Almost a year on from one of the worst atrocities caused by extremism this century, it seems an appropriate time to reflect on how European nations have reacted to this, and what they should be doing.
13 November marked one year since the attacks that rocked Paris, Europe and much of the world. The terrorist attack was unique not only in its tragic enormity – it was the deadliest act of terror in France since World War II and in Europe for over a decade – but also in that the attackers were, in a sense, local boys. The perpetrators all held EU citizenship and the plans and preparation were largely carried out in Belgium and northern France. Most of the attackers had been in Europe for some time before the current refugee crisis. While some went back to Syria briefly in late 2014 and then returned to Europe amongst the migrants flooding into the Schengen area in 2015, there is no evidence that stricter border controls would have kept them out, as all the men had Belgian passports. The men had been radicalised or remained radical even away from ISIS territory. All evidence shows that online propaganda and a sense of disillusionment with western civilisation made them do what they did. Closing the borders would have done nothing to stop this, just as preventing more refugees from entering the European Union now will likely not prevent future acts of terror. The real evil to be defeated is the radicalisation and hate being stirred up in people throughout the West – in university campuses, via computer screens and on mobile phones. So what has been done about this?
Essentially, Europe has reacted in two ways. Painting with very broad brushstrokes, here I will simplify these as the “Merkel reaction” and the “Farage reaction.” German Chancellor Angela Merkel, despite her conservative politics, has led the argument in Europe for tolerance and tact in the way we deal with these extremist attitudes. The day after the attacks, she declared solidarity with the people of France, saying of the member countries of the EU that ‘We know that our life of freedom is stronger than terror.’ As if to underline her point, a few days later she attended a rally for Muslims who opposed the dogma that had led to the attacks. Her message of tolerance toward refugees has been consistent through similar attacks in Cologne and Munich linked to migrants. Her message of freedom would suggest that she is wary of creating regulations or guidelines on the distribution of extremist propaganda. This makes sense: Germany’s tarnished history means any politician is automatically wary of limiting free speech to any group. Just as there is no suggestion of putting government bans on the far-right anti-Islam political party Alternativ für Deutschland (AfD), for Merkel there is no suggestion of banning extremist anti-West websites or distributors.
The other side, however, have branded this approach as dangerous. It was the work of the right-wing politicians in the European Parliament, such as Nigel Farage, that saw stricter border controls around key entry points to the Schengen area, such as Austria, introduced this spring. These right-wing, anti-Islam groups believe that preventing free travel from the countries of origins of ISIS will stop the events in Paris being repeated. Marine Le Pen of France’s far-right Front National party said last week that having a multicultural society opened a door to ‘fundamental Islam.’ Nationalist politicians across Europe would go further than this and introduce legislation to educate against Islamisation in their countries, with Austrian presidential candidate Norbert Hofer saying last month that Merkel’s tolerant approach makes her ‘The most dangerous woman in Europe.’ This reaction comes from the same school of thought that culminated in the Brexit vote: fear of outsiders. True, the reason behind the Paris attacks lies in a group in the Middle East. The hope of the Farage reactors is that making this group as far removed as possible from us will make them simply go away. They hope that segregating themselves from the rest of the world will guard against all the monsters that lurk there.
These two reactions are dividing the European media and governments, but many commentators say that the events of 2016 have shown that fear – the Farage reaction – is winning. I believe that a middle approach is necessary. You can’t just ban people or ideologies because you disagree with them and maintain a working democracy. When there was a debate at Westminster of disallowing Donald Trump to enter the UK because of his radical anti-Muslim politics, Labour MP Paul Flynn, while condemning Trump’s comments, called the move ‘totally illogical.’ We in the EU live in countries of free speech where anyone has the right to make their view heard and be listened to or else ignored. A country where radical or extremist views are censored is no democracy.
However, this is where the middle ground comes in. In being a part of a democracy, we, as citizens, are signing a social contract to take part in this democracy. In simple terms, we have a responsibility not to be ignorant. If we are going to allow extremist preachers to speak in our universities, we must make sure our students are being educated to be critical enough to analyse the information given to them. If we are going to allow parties like UKIP and the AfD to stand in elections, then we need to ensure that the public knows which of their policies are based on lies. If we are going to allow all people to have access to Twitter accounts run by ISIS and Youtube videos with instructions on how to make bombs, then we need to make sure that our countries can offer something to stop the disillusioned and disenchanted looking at them.
I have no answers to how this can be achieved. But a year on from the murder of over 300 innocent people on a perfectly ordinary November evening, we simply must find an answer soon.