The ceasefire in Syria has not paused the war being waged by EU member states against Islamic State (IS) in that country. The air forces of France, Britain and the Netherlands have not been put on standby. They continue in their efforts to kill members of the group and destroy its resources and military infrastructure. At first sight, therefore, the war against IS appears to be a special case, something distinct from what is happening in Syria and indeed the wider Middle East. Is, though, the conflict against IS the only, or even the most significant, of Europe’s wars in the region that cannot be interrupted?
When François Hollande stood before the French parliament at Versailles after last November’s attacks in Paris and said, “France is at war,” which enemy did he have in mind? Who, exactly, is France at war with? Hollande did not tell us straight away; the enemy did not require immediate explanation, but he went on to set it out for us: the enemy, Hollande argued, is “jihadist terrorism” which threatens “the entire world.”
IS, and the conflict in Syria, is thus only one part of a wider world war, as conceived by Hollande. He is not alone. Hollande and France are part of a consensus of states in the EU who are fighting this war together. They are not, however, fighting a “war on terror”, a conflict against a terrorist enemy. Rather, Europe is engaged in a war to prevent terror; it is a struggle against terrorism as an ideology and practice before it manifests itself. This form of warfare requires the surveillance of all potential terrorists within the population from which, in the official mind of European policy machines, they spring: the world’s Muslims; the Ummah. This surveillance imperative derives from the belief that Islam itself creates an inherent condition of imminent fanaticism among its adherents, a notion that has been present in European political thought for centuries. In today’s global political context, this idea has led to what we can call Europe’s “war on Islam”.
This war has not been declared; indeed, it remains hidden, unspoken. However, if we look, we can find the public articulation of this campaign in current security strategy and policies across the EU. The focus is on the fight against “radicalisation”, presented as a struggle against “extremist” Islam, but if we delve into the ways in which the anti-extremist project is being pursued, and its global apparatus, we see that beneath the mask of anti-extremism is an existential struggle against Islam itself. The Middle East, along with other spaces with Muslim populations in Africa and south-east Europe, are now becoming important sites in this war. It is a conflict, however, that will continue to extend its reach across the globe, wherever there are Muslims.
Daesh: what’s in a name?
As in other moments in Christian Europe’s historic conflicts with Islam, France has led the way in recent years. In this latest chapter, like the colonial wars of the twentieth century, the naming or refusal to name the enemy has received significant attention. In France’s colonial war in Algeria in the 1950s and 1960s, as in Britain’s in Palestine in the 1930s, the imperial state refused to admit that they were fighting a political movement, let alone a sophisticated national one. Instead, the enemy were labelled as terrorists, bandits and criminals. Hollande’s government has pioneered the European move against articulating the declared name of the most visible Muslim enemy today: “Islamic State”.
In Britain, David Cameron himself has brow-beaten the publicly-funded national broadcaster, the BBC, into not using “Islamic State” without the qualification “so-called”; he made the argument for this live on air to BBC journalist Sarah Montague in January, although even a qualified reference to “Islamic State” is not enough. As per the French government, the Tories and their followers in the Labour Party prefer to use “Daesh” instead. Why?
Daesh is an acronym for Islamic State’s pre-Caliphate name in Arabic: Al-Dawla al-Islamiya fil Iraq wa al-Sham. Former French Foreign Minister Laurent Fabius initiated its European use in September 2014. Daesh is mostly favoured by the EU’s policy elite because it does away with the need to utter the word “Islamic”. Figures such as Cameron say that use of the term Daesh is essential because Islamic State bears no relation to authentic Islam; it is unjust and misleading, they argue, to label it as an Islamic entity. It is highly unusual, however, for a British Prime Minister to demand publicly, on air, what terminology BBC journalists should be using. We would be hard pressed to find other examples of Cameron or his colleagues breaking with protocol to defend the honour of Islam. It is much more likely that the hostility of European policy-makers towards the name “Islamic State” is due to how it affects their own political interests; in this case, the need for European states not to appear to be in conflict with Islam itself. The religion of Islam and all things Islamic cannot be named as an enemy.
This impulse among European states can be seen as far back as the First World War. The French and British empires, gripped by an imagined fear of Islam and its revolutionary, fanatical potential, did all that they could to show that they were friends of Islam, as they fought the Ottoman caliphate and its call for jihad. From the sponsorship of the Arab revolt against the Ottomans to respect for Muslim Holy sites in Jerusalem, the Entente Cordiale strove to present a picture of intimate friendship with Islam. This project of friendship was riddled with problems and conceptual inconsistencies. Not only was the last caliphate the Entente’s enemy, which it destroyed, but the entire edifice of the European empires’ embrace of Islam also derived from an existential fear of Islam as a global enemy in waiting.
Refusing to Name the Enemy
The French and British governments’ insistence on the term Daesh is only one manifestation of a systematic attempt to avoid using the words Islam and Muslim in their articulation of the enemy. The European Agenda on Security, published in April 2015, is an instructive example. The document sets out the EU’s security framework until 2020. It cites “terrorism” as Europe’s number one priority, alongside “organised crime” and “cybercrime”, threats that the European security establishment often conflate with terrorism. In reference to fighting terrorism, the agenda focuses on “radicalisation” prevention, stopping the development of “extremism”. Despite this, the document does not tell the reader what form of extremism it wishes to prevent; it does not identify who might become radicalised, to what end, or even what being radical means. The words Islam and Islamic do not appear in its 21 pages. The only invocation of the word “Muslim” is in relation to a proposed method for helping to solve the conflict, the establishment of “a Round Table of Eminent Persons from Europe and the Muslim world, to encourage intellectual exchanges and a wider dialogue between societies.” The European Agenda on Security does not tell us why a dialogue is needed, or what it might have to do with “the Muslim world”. The introduction to the document tells us obliquely that “instability” in the EU’s “immediate neighbourhood” is the source of “[m]any of today’s security concerns.” But neither the “neighbourhood” nor its problems are identified.
The reluctance to declare the Muslim enemy stems from the nature and extent of the phobia of Islam among Europe’s policy-makers. If the EU and its member states were to enunciate their war on Islam and Muslims, their policy establishment would expect — I would like to suggest — the materialisation of the very outcome that they are fighting to prevent: the collective fulfilment among Muslims of their perceived inner potential for “extremism” i.e. opposition to Western liberal secular democracy, and the interests of its governments. The EU’s prevention project is required because this feared outcome of Muslim self-realisation is, policy-makers judge, always imminent. Each individual Muslim possesses, they believe, the potential to become a fanatic. This imminent fanaticism results in a doubling exercise in which a war needs to be fought against an enemy that must not be antagonised by being identified. Often, European governments attempt to solve this problem by bifurcating the Muslim Ummah into “moderates” and “extremists” within a worldview in which only the minority “extremists” are the problem. David Cameron, the current French Foreign Minister Jean-Marc Ayrault, EU Counter-Terrorism Coordinator Gilles de Kerchove and their colleagues will never admit that, for them, Islam itself and its tendency towards fanaticism, as they see it, is the underlying problem.
The EU’s apparatus, and that of its member states, for fighting terrorism, which was extended dramatically in 2015, reveals the operative premise that all Muslims in the population need to be surveyed; that no discrimination can be afforded. Hence, the Europol Internet Referral Unit; the Radicalisation Awareness Network (RAN), linking more than a thousand practitioners; the RAN Centre of Excellence; the proposed Passenger Name Record directive for sharing data on flight passengers; the preoccupation with intelligence and data sharing; and the raft of surveillance laws that member states have brought in and are strengthening. This is an infrastructure designed for monitoring the entire population’s communications and movement. Every Muslim is the unnamed target.
The prevention imperative is furthered by other state tools, alongside surveillance: propaganda, incarceration and killing. In terms of incarceration, the most obvious and notorious example of locking Muslims up as a preventative measure is Guantanamo Bay, which has long been criticised across the political spectrum on this side of the Atlantic. In Europe today, though, we can see the expansion of preventative detention. When the French government introduced in November 2015 a state of emergency, which is ongoing, it changed the law so that individuals can be placed under house arrest if there are “serious reasons to think that their behaviour constitutes a threat to security and public order”. From 14 November 2015 until 3 February 2016, the French authorities placed 407 people under house arrest. The state desire for prevention has also meant that, in the state of emergency, the judicial procedure for searching premises is reversed: a judge is now informed of the decision to undertake a search, rather than being asked for approval based on evidence of activities that have already taken place.
Taking Europe’s war into Muslim lands
The IS attacks in Paris last November appeared to remove the perceived political border between Europe and the Middle East, in which one zone was hermetically sealed off from the other. Europe’s war in Syria had come home; the nightmare scenario that European policy-makers had warned of in relation to European IS recruits had been realised.
However, the European policy elite had long jettisoned the notion that there was a political dividing line between the Middle East and Europe. From early 2015, they had already agreed on a policy that extended the war on Islam to the Middle East in cooperation with the governing elites of their allies in the region, along with other territories with significant Muslim populations outside of the EU.
After the January 2015 attacks in Paris, the European Council, the heads of state and governments in the EU, announced their strategy for reinforcing “action against terrorist threats”. This plan included a focus on working with “international partners” in Muslim-majority zones, or those with significant Muslim populations, in Western Asia, Africa and south-east Europe. The words Islamic and Muslim were not used in the statement. Instead, the council used the geopolitical short-hand for these spaces in which the Muslim presence sits out of sight, but is understood by all: the Middle East and North Africa, the Sahel (the belt of territory that sits to the south of the Saharan desert) and the Western Balkans.
As de Kerchove reported to the Council of the EU towards the end of 2015, the EU has since sent counter-terrorism “experts” to a number of states, including Morocco, Iraq and Saudi Arabia, with others planned for Algeria and Egypt. €9 million euros have been allocated for the prevention of “radicalisation” in Jordan, €2.5 million in Lebanon, €5 million in the Maghreb and €1.675 million in the Sahel. The largest amount, €23 million, has been given to Tunisia for “security sector reform”, it being the location of the first Arab Spring uprising and neighbour to conflict-ridden Libya, which has been infiltrated by IS.
De Kerchove emphasised to the Council the importance of securing further resources and rolling out more “comprehensive CT [Counter-Terrorism] assistance packages” like that given to Tunisia. Action plans are also in the pipeline, or already agreed, with Jordan, Lebanon and Tunisia, and de Kerchove has recommended exchanges between the RAN, the Middle East and North Africa region, the Western Balkans and Turkey. Planning for the intensification of EU law enforcement, judicial, and police training cooperation with governments in these spaces with regard to CT has been set out by de Kerchove for the EU’s Standing Committee on Internal Security.
Europe’s prevention agenda has thus moved into Muslim lands. This expansion was an inevitable consequence of the thinking behind the war on Islam; all Muslims need to be surveyed and prevented from realising their inner self. Every individual Muslim is a potential time bomb.
‘Countering violent extremism’
The acute preoccupation with this notion among the European policy-making elite, and their colleagues in the global West, has led to the invention of a new political discipline and associated range of weaponry: “Countering violent extremism” (CVE, as the security policy-making elite like to call it), which now sits alongside “counter-terrorism” in EU policy documents and initiatives. CVE is the distillation of the prevention imperative; it is a step beyond preventing acts of terrorism and is, instead, the project of preventing a psychological condition — the state of thinking as a potential terrorist — which is the current definition of an “extremist”. This imagined process, of cognitive transition, is the new target. “The EU is mobilised on addressing the underlying factors of radicalisation,” declared Federica Mogherini, EU High Representative for Foreign Affairs, to the White House Summit on CVE on 19 February 2015.
Figures such as Mogherini consider that there is a cognitive revolution, spreading like an uncontrollable deadly disease, ravaging the Muslim Ummah; “this metastasised terrorist threat,” as she described it in Washington DC. Just as most metastatic cancers cannot be cured, the Muslim turn to fanaticism en masse is feared as a fait accompli, which needs to be fought. Success, however, is unlikely. The odds against survival are slim. The war is unavoidable, and will only become more desperate.
Mogherini’s choice of words reveals much about the European political establishment’s conception of its war on Islam. That war is shaped by centuries of Islamophobic thought in Europe. Europe’s war on Islam is, therefore, different from similar and related enterprises elsewhere. On the publication of his “Plan of Action to Prevent Violent Extremism” in January 2016, UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon said: “We… know the critical elements for success: good governance; the rule of law; political participation; quality education and decent jobs; full respect for human rights.” This is not the answer in the corridors of power in Europe. The answer therein is war, but do not expect it to be announced any time soon.
James Renton is Reader in History at Edge Hill University. His research focuses on racism, particularly anti-Semitism and Islamophobia; empire; and the genealogy of global politics. With Ben Gidley, he is co-editor of Anti-Semitism and Islamophobia: A Shared Story? (Palgrave Macmillan, forthcoming)
The views expressed in this article belong to the author and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of Middle East Monitor.