image of jerusalem 2016

Does Europe need to batten the hatches?
Much as it is an understatement for me to say that I was shaken by the terrorist attacks in Paris in November 2015, so is it the case with the terrorist assaults on Brussels last month.

31 March   |   2016   |   Subject  Middle East & North Africa (MENA)

This is indeed a trying chapter for Europe that is being jolted by a host of numbing internal and external challenges. So much so that our politicians have increased their high-decibel statements as they try - not always successfully mind you - to reassure our troubled psyches and to counter our growing suspicion of strangers in our midst.

However, despite these murderous attacks and the high state of alert in many EU countries, as well as the tireless and at times frankly thankless job of our overworked but brilliant intelligence services, let me posit a few sparse and exigent thoughts about those events and how they attach themselves to the troubling realities of the MENA region.

  • An immediate - almost axiomatic - first thought comes to mind. Those assaults have shown once more how vital it remains for EU member-states to pool their resources together. Much as I accept that such sharing of intelligence could also be done bilaterally, it makes much more sense to work together from inside the European tent rather than camp outside it. This was stressed again only last week by Dominic Grieve MP, a lawyer and Chair of the Intelligence & Security Committee at the British Parliament, when he suggested on BBC HARDtalk in rather diplomatic language that EU mechanisms of cooperation would be helpful.
  • However, more significant is that our gut reaction to those attacks highlights at times the ‘us’ versus ‘them’ stereotypes. Looking at social media alone, I have come across numerous messages from the MENA and Gulf regions suggesting - correctly in many instances too - that we in Europe get exercised emotionally only when such dreadful attacks target our continent. We do not show comparable degrees of angst, solidarity or empathy when people are killed or maimed in equal or larger numbers in other parts of the world.
  • This was made abundantly clear for instance by many tweeps from Iraq to Algeria late last month when a suicide bomber triggered a deadly explosion in a crowded park following a football match that caused 41 deaths and 105 injuries. The attack took place in the Babel province village of Al-Asriyya near Iskandariyah. This is a largely Shi’i town, previously dubbed the ‘triangle of death’, that is some 20 miles south of Baghdad. But why was this incident not even reported in Western media channels, some writers soliloquised sarcastically and loudly? Was it because the victims were Arabs and also Muslims, even though the atrocity was worse than that outside the Stade de France football pitch north of Paris?
  • This is quite true, and I am the first to say mea culpa for such Eurocentric and tribal reactions. After all, we in Europe have dealt with the IRA, ETA, Baader Meinhof and other groups that have at one time or another attempted to undermine our institutions. We have reacted calmly and with due diligence, not erratically or recklessly, with a focused and almost plodding methodology. Today, though, when the enemy is alien to our borders, we revert to our shrill instincts. Secular and religious leaders turn into instant know-it-alls and come up with half-baked directives in order to impress their constituencies. In the process, they terrify us too.
  • However, I would like to play devil’s advocate by inquiring why MENA citizens are not also coming out in larger numbers to remonstrate against such attacks? In many of these MENA countries that are bruised by such execrable terror, whether perpetrated by Daesh / ISIL, Al-Qaeda or the various State apparatuses that prey upon, muzzle and ‘detain’ their own citizens, there are not enough Je Suis … identity-affirming badges. Instead, there is fear, impotence, fatigue, pain or indifference. Some readers might well bristle at my observation, but is it natural that Europeans would be more empathetic to the MENA than its own residents?
  • Finally, let me fingerprint another key issue. We in Europe seem to have somehow lost our resolve to stand up for those values that define the European ideals and underline human rights and fundamental freedoms. The sacrifices made by Europe during the two Big Wars were costly, but we seem to find ourselves these days increasingly in a rut of our own making. We tinker with the Schengen borders and criticise our porous frontiers but are unable to take firm decisions. We blame destitute refugees for being terrorists but overlook that it is Europe-born and Europe-bred men and women who are the culprits. (For more on this, simply read Nahlah Al-Shahal’s relevant Arabic article entitled Redefining the humanitarian concept in Al-Hayat, 27 March). We also intimate there is a vast difference between Islam and its isms but we do not fully believe it. We make noises over Syria, Iraq, Lebanon and Libya or over rights-based issues in the Arab World but do not show any interest or gumption to act upon them. And of course we pretend to oppose Israeli settlements of Palestinian lands but choose inaction and bluster. Has Europe gone soft: are we spoilt or obsessed with money-making and consumerism, or are we merely scarecrows who no longer impress the birds?

If the actions and reactions of a dissonant group of 28 EU leaders over the past few years is a benchmark, we need to take a leaf from Plato’s Apology and examine ourselves and the rootedness of our hard-fought values. It is after all much easier to blame others for our contemporary ills, but our intellectual indolence and wanting political rigour remind me of other isms such as Nazism, Fascism and even communism that Europe fought against in the past.

So does Europe need to batten the hatches? In fact, after the carnage in Lahore (in the Punjab province of Pakistan), are decent values and mutual tolerance under sustained attack? I do not fully accept this argument, at least not yet, but we are at a critical crossroads and we have in some of our politicians a clutch of men and women who are far more invested in their power-based bubbles or one-upmanship ploys than they are in true leadership. As Europe falters, maybe we should learn anew to court prudence and recall the Malagasy proverb that urges us to ‘Move like a chameleon, look in front, and watch behind’!

Image is from the "You Blew Me Away" bronze sculpture series by Penny Hardy. A slightly expurgated & edited version of this piece appeared earlier as an Opinion in Al-Jazeera (English).

© Dr Harry Hagopian   |   2016   |   31 March


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