Abu Dhabi, UAETuesday 20 August 2019

The post-Paris madness will stop ... and then what?

We are in for a long battle against bigotry, writes HA Hellyer.
Belgian soldiers stand guard in front of the Liege Justice Palace as the city is put under highest security alert following the Paris attacks. Nicolas Lambart / AFP
Belgian soldiers stand guard in front of the Liege Justice Palace as the city is put under highest security alert following the Paris attacks. Nicolas Lambart / AFP

The so-called War on Terror began in the aftermath of the September 11 attacks in 2001. More than 14 years later, the enemy has not been overcome. If any thing, it has multiplied and diversified – and we must now recognise that we live in a new kind of world.

There is the temptation to think everything starts with the Paris attacks, but that would be a grave error.

It did not start with Paris, even if we limit the definition of “terrorism” to the use of vigilante violence against civilians and leave out the acts of illegal violence and brutality by state forces. Neither did it did start with New York in 2001. On the contrary, as well as Paris there was Beirut, there was Baghdad, there was Mali, there was Tunisia – and the list goes on. Before New York, there were other heinous acts of terrorism.

The real difference isn’t about whether terrorism actually took place. Rather, it is about a large-scale security breach that took place against a modern, developed Western state, and one which claimed the lives of large numbers of people.

The concern, therefore, around terrorism as it affects the lives of citizens in the West, is really what the raising of the tempo is all about. Citizens of France and Belgium today are feeling what the people of Beirut and Tunis have been feeling for years. But unlike Tunisians and the Lebanese, the West has the political clout to make things change.

But how will they change? And here, there are choices to be made. This type of terrorism will not last forever. That is the nature of history: the Cold War eventually gave way to something else. Other epochs in human history, regardless of how dominant they appear at the time, eventually transform. What they change into, nevertheless, is as much about the surrounding circumstances and political realities, as it is about the choices that leaders make. So, what sort of choices are we making?

Well, here are a few. In the Middle East we are making a choice, for example, that will force ourselves into a binary decision between order on the one side and fundamental rights on the other. But no real and sustainable order exists without the upholding of fundamental rights.

And what choices are being made in the West?

For many people in the West, the choice about the Arab world is the same as mentioned above: order over rights and freedoms. But within the West’s borders, choices are also being made.

Republican presidential candidates are making their own policy statements: for example, the discourse around Syrian refugees, where religious tests are being considered for entry. The narrative around Muslim Americans, as though they are some sort of foreign and troublesome element in the midst of law-abiding citizens. We can try to laugh this off – as though it means nothing but the rantings and bigotry of a marginal fringe – but this sort of talk is not marginal at all. On the contrary, much of this chatter is now found in the mainstream.

In Europe, there is continued and deep discussion around Muslim communities, as though they are not also Europeans. Rather, they are seen as time-bombs, waiting to go off at the slightest provocation. So say the polls, it seems – regardless of how flawed and utterly unreliable such kinds of exercises actually are in reality. Nevertheless, bigotry never needed accuracy to flourish.

All of us need to be aware that this is a long struggle we are in for, and we need to identify where we want to be at the end of it. The end of this particular era will come, but where will we be at its conclusion?

Will we be in societies that are defined by their respect for the individual’s rights, responsibilities and freedoms? Or will we have sacrificed so much of what we are on the altars of security and populism?

It’s a cliché to say this, but so true it is that this is precisely what the darkest forces in our world seek the most.

We are entering a period that will be difficult and a time when hard choices will be made. We need to ensure that when we come out at the other end, that we are stronger as a result – not weaker on our principles and our values.

Our children and our grandchildren already have enough of our problems to clean up – they will not need any more.

Dr HA Hellyer is an associate fellow at the Royal United Services Institute in London, and a non-resident senior fellow at the Rafik Hariri Centre for the Middle East at the Atlantic Council in Washington DC

On Twitter: @hahellyer

Updated: November 26, 2015 04:00 AM