The recent attacks in Paris by the Yemen-based Sunni Islamist al-Qaeda group came as no surprise given their precursors in France and other Western countries in previous months. The Paris attacks demonstrated the ability of assailants to act with the methodology of autonomous micro-groups. Alongside the symbolic character of the attacks, both in terms of place (against the birthplace of secularism) and time (during the celebration of Muhammad’s birthday), they mark the intensification of the conflict between Islam and the West and force Europe to face the dilemma of jeopardizing long-held freedoms. What went wrong?
The causes of the conflict are multifaceted and concentrated in three areas: first, the socioeconomic crisis in Europe and the social marginalization of Muslim communities; second, the cultural element, due to the general persistent ignorance in Europe about Islamic civilization and the world view of Muslim residents in Europe; third and equally important is the issue of geopolitics in Europe and the European decision to adopt active and aggressive policies in the Middle East. This decision led to the destabilization of Mesopotamia and the Levant, by supporting the fall of Saddam in Iraq and the Syrian opposition in the civil war against Assad. This attitude of the West favored the emergence of the Islamic Caliphate, a point of reference for most Sunni Islamists worldwide. However the main geopolitical dimension of the recent events of Paris is the unresolved Israel-Palestine conflict, which is the pinnacle of political Islam in the region, inspiring Islamic holy war.
In terms of urban asymmetric warfare, France and the rest of continental Europe are facing now a new situation, much more threatening than that faced by the US and Britain a decade ago. The threat is more akin to what Russia experienced with Sunni Islamists in the North Caucasus region. In this context, Europe has to take action and act in much the same way that Russia did in the past, a way Europe had rejected and a situation that few European analysts imagined could arise in Europe. The effectiveness of the Russian policy vis-a-vis the same asymmetric threat is expected to be a reference point for Europeans from now on.
Addressing the above causes is the means of resolving the crisis. Particularly more threatening is the danger of a clash of civilizations. However the principal means to address the threat and prevent a clash of civilizations is for Europe to cultivate its understanding of Islam and for the European political elite and public opinion to be familiarized with Islam in order to strengthen confidence building with moderate Islam, and thus the majority of European Muslims. So far the leaders of European countries have shown no readiness in this regard – e.g. during the demonstration in Paris, President Hollande and other leaders did not visit the Grand Mosque. However, Europe should immediately change its attitude toward Islam because the clock is ticking: Without mutual cultural respect, the dialogue of cultures will disappear, and conflict will emerge.
*Dr Evangelos Venetis is coordinator of the Middle East Research Project of the Hellenic Foundation for European and Foreign Policy (ELIAMEP).