The Paris Attacks and the (re)Emergence of Religious and Ethno-Nationalist Radicalization in Europe

These days, it is difficult to report from Europe without mentioning the attacks in Paris, which killed at least 129 people and wounded more than 200. The current debate is, of course, centered on the extremist militant group Islamic State (IS) and their role in planning and carrying out the attacks. Both the French government and IS claim that the attacks were masterminded by IS in Syria. However, the perpetrators, except perhaps one, were born and raised in France and Belgium. This has inspired European media and public debate to also focus on IS sympathizers and the political radicalization of European Muslims as a new threat to stability and democracy. However, the Paris attacks are broader than Islamic radicalization in Europe: They are about the radicalization of European politics and the (re)emergence of extremist totalitarian ideologies claiming to solve society’s political and economic problems through religious, ethnic and cultural purity.

The manner in which the recent killings were carried out has been used by the media to re-enforce the image of cruel, cold-blooded Islamist extremists. The perpetrators of the Paris attacks relied on semi-automatic rifles. Eye-witnesses documented at least one gunman with a semi-automatic rifle killing 11 people sitting in a café at nearly point-blank range. The killings in the Bataclan concert hall were also carried out using rifles rather than bombs. They were the first time that an Islamist militant group had carried out such attacks in Europe, and thus differed from previous major attacks (Madrid in 2004 and London in 2005) carried out by Al Qaeda affiliated groups using bombs.

In fact, the attacks have more in common with Norway’s 2011 terror attacks by right-wing extremist Anders Behring Breivik than with earlier acts of Islamist terror in Europe. More importantly, the targets of the attacks also resembled Breivik’s intended targets.

In 2008, Breivik was the man behind the most violent attacks Norway had experienced since World War 2. After killing 8 people and injuring 209 by detonating a bomb in the government district of Oslo on July 22 of 2011, he drove 38 kilometers to the island of Utøya, where hundreds of young people gathered for the annual summer camp of the Norwegian Labour Party’s youth division. Disguised in a police uniform, he killed 69 teenagers and injured another 110 with an assault rifle, shooting them at point blank range. His manifesto revealed that he wanted the annihilation of “Eurabia,”[1] rejected European multiculturalism, and wanted the deportation of Muslims from Europe. To achieve his objective, he attacked the left-progressive youth who had assembled on the island. This group of people with progressive views on gender, sexual orientation, and multiculturalism represented the ultimate threat to the Norway he envisioned: Christian, conservative, with patriarchal moral values and ethnic and cultural homogeneity. Remarkable about Breivik’s attack was that, besides its cruelty, he did not kill the immigrants he sought to export and deport, but those among his “own” people he regarded as betraying his ideals.

Despite initial views that the targets of the Paris attack were random, several commentators have argued that the selected targets were not. The Islamist fundamentalists did not target the right-wing nationalists of the Front Nationale who regard Muslims as a threat to the French nation. Neither did they target the wealthy elite. Rather, they targeted areas of the city with high ethnic diversity and left-leaning progressive views. In the French newspaper Liberation[2], commentator Didier Peron finds it striking that the attacks were not carried out at any of the Major tourist destinations or established well-off communities in Paris. The attackers went for the 10th arrondissement, a neighborhood with a large Turkish population and the 11th arrondissement known for its young social scene. In fact, both the 10th and 11th arrondissement were, in Peron’s words, “bourgeois, progressive and cosmopolitan.” Another commentator, Manu Saadia, called the areas “the land of hipster socialism”[3]. The attempted attack on the Stade de France had a similar air of symbolism. The French national soccer team, with two-thirds of the starting line-up being children of immigrants, “is one of the few places where the promise of a more integrated France is realized, if only intermittently.”[4] If these observers are right, the attacks were far from random. They were selected because they represented certain lifestyles in France – not those that vote for anti-Muslim and xenophobic Front Nationale but those that embrace a more multi-cultural Europe. Ironically, those that win politically from the attacks will be those on the right such as Front Nationale who are only slightly removed from the views of Anders Behring Breivik.

Right wing nationalist parties, which are rapidly winning national elections across Northern and Eastern Europe have used the Paris attacks to demand a complete ban to asylum seekers and refugees from the Middle East. The newly elected right-wing nationalist government in Poland announced only days ago that as a consequence of the Paris attacks, they will no longer accept refugees under the EU refugee distribution agreement. Denmark is treading the same path with new severe restrictions on refugees despite the lack of connection between refugees and increases in terror attacks. Yet, the attacks have fueled the far right’s anti-Muslim and anti-immigrant agendas all over Europe, an agenda which has now entered mainstream politics. The attacks in Paris, Norway, and the hundreds on refugees and immigrants across Europe every year, are used to bolster both sides’ argument that peaceful co-existence between Muslims, Christians, and atheists is impossible. This helps swell the ranks of right wing nationalists and Islamic fundamentalists. The space for those advocating for multiculturalism and progressivism shrinks. German politicians who call for accepting refugees as part of our human responsibility have received death threats. Only a few weeks ago, a mayoral candidate in Cologne was stabbed in the neck because of her pro-refugee stance[5].

French President Francois Hollande has said numerous times that the attacks in Paris were an attack on French values and way of life. There is nothing particularly French about diversity, tolerance and intercultural peaceful existence. It is more accurate to state that the attacks in Paris – and Norway – were attacks on a tolerant and fair Europe. Neither right wing nationalists nor Islamist fundamentalists cherish the values of liberty, equality and brotherhood: Freedom is a threat to their vision of ethnically, culturally, and religiously pure societies; equality cannot exist since their views, by definition, are superior to others. Brotherhood is limited to a small exclusive group of like-minded people, not society and the people at large. A Danish Member of Parliament from the right wing nationalist party Danish People’s Party recently argued in an interview that the Christian concept of “Love thy neighbor” should be interpreted narrowly: Refugees from Syria were not her neighbor, and hence she saw no need to care for them[6].  Such views are becoming more mainstream everywhere in Europe: Poland, the Czech Republic, Slovakia and Hungary only want to accept Christian refugees[7]. The “other” as a polluting influence is not limited to the right. IS’ official strategy in Europe is to drive a wedge in between Muslim minorities and the Christian-secular majority[8]. The attacks by IS affiliates were intended to provoke overreaction by Europeans and their governments that would further alienate and marginalize Muslims in Europe – thus “destroy the gray zone” (read multicultural tolerance and co-existence) that will leave Muslims in Europe no other choice than to either reject Islam or emigrate to the Islamic State.

Islamist fundamentalists and right-wing nationalists in Europe both essentially desire the same thing: purity - whether ethnic, cultural, religious, or ideological. Those that reside in the gray zone become the target of their aggressions. Both fundamentalists force people to choose a political extreme and thus reject co-existence. This explains why the victims of both the attacks in Norway and Paris end up belonging to the progressive segments of society - those that argue for and live in respect of diversity and tolerance. In the eyes of Breivik, and the Paris attackers, the main obstacles to their utopian pure societies are the segments of European society that actually seek to live in peaceful co-existence or at least tolerate each other’s presence.

We must stop asking how radicalization is eroding European (or French) values of freedom, equality and brotherhood. Instead, we must ask ourselves: Why does Europe continue to provide such fertile grounds for totalitarian ideologies that demand the lives of innocent people in order to achieve a utopian social order? Europeans like to think of themselves as defenders of values such as peace, democracy and human rights, but Europe also has a long and sordid history of fomenting totalitarian regimes that find solutions to political and socio-economic problems in genocide and ethno-religious purification.  From Fascism and Nazism to Stalinism to Milosevic in the former Yugoslavia, the list of radicalized regimes and mass genocides is long. Those who think that totalitarian ideologies are a thing of the past must wake up to the current reality of rapidly growing political religious and ethno-nationalist radicalization. It is time to reflect on why in times of crisis, Europe turns to such radical ideologies rather than embracing diversity and tolerance, supposedly at the heart of European values.

[1] Likely a portmanteau for Europe and Arabia, indicating a Europe with a strong Arabic influence.