What Went Wrong Again?


Liberty. Equality. Fraternity. France and Europe, and its three pillars have been shaken. Or rather have been shaking for at least a decade, but few wanted to admit this and to take action. In the last couple of days we have heard and read a lot about liberty. Liberty of speech, liberty of expression. In our Western thirst for unlimited freedom without consequences we forgot about the other values: equality and fraternity. The main truth coming from the French Revolution of 1789 and its “Declaration of the Rights of Man and of the Citizen” has been forgotten.

Liberty consists in the freedom to do everything which injures no one else; hence the exercise of the natural rights of each man has no limits except those which assure to the other members of the society the enjoyment of the same rights. These limits can only be determined by law.

How do we know whether our actions injure someone? After all, everybody has a different pain barrier and accepts more or less suffering and offence, hence we need to understand that people may get hurt with the amount of offence or indelicacy that we wouldn’t even feel. They moment they claim they are hurt by our actions is the moment when we should stop doing what we have been doing. Period. 

Liberty of acting towards others has a lot to do with equality. Living in a multicultural society, representing different religions, ethnical backgrounds and value systems, we need to know that equal should be understood not as identical, but as appropriate. We think and feel differently and there is no need to impose our value system on others. Charlie Hebdo protested, in their opinion, against such imposition. On the other hand, many protested against their imposition of images lacking respect, good taste and even promoting racism. This article is not the right place and the timing couldn’t be worse to bash the dead journalist for the way they expressed their opinions. January 7th was one of the darkest days in the European journalism and hopefully the last one of the sort. I believe, however, that the freedom of expression was created in order to protect citizens from the abuse of power and not in order to offend them. 

Killing journalists (or anyone, for that matter) is always an act of barbarism and of cowardice. The shooting at Charlie Hebdo was therefore a barbarian act, for which there will be no pardoning. Hence, we need to learn from it and from the events that led to it. 

Firstly, we must not define Islam through the acts and the barbarians that abuse Islam without having studied it properly, and misinterpreting it for their hunger for power they would never otherwise have.

Secondly, we need to understand the problem and blessing of multiculturalism, the variety of values in a society, of religious and ethnical diversity. We cannot keep on believing that this attack was an isolated event and has its origin in the Middle East. This happened in Europe and this barbarism was born in Europe. We need to critically look at our society and honestly answer questions about our perception of “the other”, about our understanding of liberty and of fraternity. Otherwise, it might be difficult or at least only partly efficient to work out an efficient security strategy.

The problem of terrorism in Europe is complex and should be analysed in both the international and national context, and its existence in Europe is possible due to the support and inspiration from the conflict territories, like Syria, Iraq, Pakistan, Afghanistan or Yemen. However, it has some very fertile soil to grow on in Western Europe that I´d like to shortly describe.

In Europe we talk about the phenomenon of multiculturalism, but we hardly ever ask the question what it really means. Is multicultural a society, in which a significant number (say 10% or 20%) or citizens are of foreign descent? Does multiculturalism mean welcoming cheap work force of a different skin colour and religion and forcing them to adapt to the Western society? Or should it mean accepting “the other” as he or she is, and profit from his and her cultural richness they bring? We need to find a middle ground that would encompass different values in respect to the legal system and allow us to coexist. If we cannot do it, we cannot call ourselves truly multicultural. We cannot be multicultural and in the same time expect “the other” to completely “convert” into our system of values. We need to create a society, where everybody is equal and there is no marginalization of certain social groups.

The media in Europe emphasize the perfect French or English of the terrorists. Is the language all that defines integration and coexistence? Does a foreign accent indicate barbarism? Are we so shocked that those people were raised by our schools, they lived next to us completely unintegrated?

A potential extremist might be a young man of North African descent living in the Parisian banlieues (poor suburbs), residential districts full of large blocks of flats, built for the immigrants in 1970s and 1980s. In so called “sensitive urban zones” the unemployment of people under 25 years of age was 40% (in 2012), while around also 40% lived under the poverty line (2009). Descendants of African immigrants are susceptible to unemployment three times more than children of native French. There´s a mix of reasons for this including of course poorer education, place of residence and simply lack of opportunities as well as discrimination. Young men can start taking or even dealing drugs, as this seems to be one of few occupations in les banlieues. An average boy there is a French Muslim, but this mix seems incomprehensible to those who always need to create divisions into “us” and “them”. He´s not accepted in the native French environment, and he doesn’t belong to the world his parents came from. Instead of having a dual identity, he might end up feeling he has no identity and no sense of belonging. This is how he can become a potential victim to extremists, calling him for jihad either in Syria or in Europe.

It´s hard to speak of statistics on how many Muslim French men follow the path of a jihadi, but the trends are frightening. According to le Figaro around 700 Frenchmen joined the jihad in Syria until September 2014. This number can be twice as high now. Those who don’t kill, but support extremists, pose danger to the integration process and they are grist to the extreme right´s mill. Their stance must be contained by improving the integration processes through education and social involvement, which can prevent further radicalization. Therefore, it´s crucial to track and identify any signs of radicalization. The state institutions and security agencies should cooperate with schools, religious centres as well as sensitize the Muslim community about potentially dangerous behaviours in their community. The Muslims of France and Europe have to play an instrumental role and to take a great responsibility, probably the greatest in their modern history: to prevent members of their community turn into extremists, to identify potential traitors of their religion and to contribute with their knowledge and cultural sensitivity to build a better society, based on coexistence.

Last, but surely not least, Europe needs a better prevention strategy and practice, as well as increase its surveillance on the sensitive fronts. It it unacceptable that people who had previously been to Yemen or Iraq and are blacklisted by the American security service, can freely function on our continent and kill people. It´s not the cartoons that were the reasons for this massacre, it’s not the tragically inefficient protection in the magazine´s offices. The only direct reason is the inefficiency and poor intelligence analysis of the security services, its lack of vigilance, corporatization of state institutions and bureaucracy. Moreover, it seems that the secret service didn’t pay enough attention or is not sufficiently trained to monitor and analyse jihadi websites and forums. Most of the recruiting takes place online and it is worth the effort to follow and analyse what’s going on on the internet.

European volunteers going on war to far-away lands are not a new phenomenon, however, due to globalisation the scale has increased and for the first time in history the war is not an ultimate goal, but a training. On the positive note we must notice the testimonies of people who, once they got to Syria or Iraq, got disillusioned with the Islamic State and might eventually contribute to combating terrorism.

In early 2014 president Francois Hollande made a significant step forward and announced introduction of a new strategy that would help fight home-grown terrorism. Municipalities, national education centres, as well as the French Council of the Muslims, have been involved in awareness campaigns to enhance critical thinking on aspiring jihadi fighters. The results of this step must be tangible, though!

The base for combating all kinds of extremisms is a truly multicultural society, with liberty, fraternity and equality as its main components. We must not forget that these need to be distributed equally in the whole society and that we cannot have our liberty without equality and fraternity.