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Terrorist attacks in Brussels: a clash of what?

Here we go again. Terrorist attacks in another European capital city again shake world politics to the core.

It is worth reminding ourselves, though, that terrorist attacks are not only happening in European countries, but also in other places, most notably Turkey and Indonesia, both Muslim-majority states. Are we, therefore, really witnessing a clash of cultures and religions, or are we talking about politics?

What we can expect now

The bombs in Brussels are expected to generate an international response condemning violence and terrorism, similar to that which followed the attack against the Charlie Hebdo office in January last year, and again in Paris in November. We can also expect to hear condemnation and calls for solidarity against terrorism by leading Muslims within and beyond Europe, as well as Arab politicians.

Although we don’t know for certain, it is possible that some of the victims in Brussels may have been Muslims, and it remains a fact that the Daesh-affiliated madmen responsible also call themselves Muslims. This is going to be one of the leading arguments used by right-wing populists across Europe, who are now even more likely to shift the debate towards claims about failed integration, a clash of cultures, threats against European “Christian” values, the Islamisation of Europe, and so on. In other words, they will seek to culturalise the discourse about the terrorism crisis.

At a state level, the West will probably increase the military response against Daesh, as if no contextualisation is required and the extremist group is the sole cause of the terrorist attacks. In short, rifts in European societies due to shared alienation and victimisation, an increase in security measures, the rise of far-right voices and the continuation of old, yet unsuccessful, military options to combat terrorism are going to be the main guiding issues over the next few weeks, and probably months. Daesh is agitating the whole world with its random attacks, and the world is taking the bait.

The culturalisation of discourses

The culturalisation of discourses means to look for evidence and explanations in the culture of the perpetrators. Culturalisation dominates such debates, although most terrorist attacks in Europe are committed by individuals born and brought up in the West.

When “culture” is too broad a canvas for discussion, religion usually comes into play, albeit this is often used interchangeably with culture. Hence, the discourses about the Brussels attacks will be “Islamised” in order to discuss issues such as Islamism, integration, conflicting values, etc. However, although the role of culture and religion cannot be dismissed out of hand, equally it cannot be emphasised excessively and considered in isolation when analysing political, economic and military power relationships.

In theory, increasing people’s tendency to make inferences about others’ disposition, traits and characteristics on the basis of what has been observed of their actions correlates with the escalation of contentious practices. In other words, through observing the behaviour of out-group members, we tend to draw hasty conclusions about others’ characteristics and to find explanations for why they behave the way that they do. This is a “perceptual error” and not sophisticated enough to produce a satisfying explanation.

In practice, perceptual errors lead us to develop discourses based on people’s tendency to explain the behaviour of in-group members by looking at causes in the environment and context, while for the out-group members they look at their traits. Hence, the culturalisation of discourses, accompanied by the lack of proper knowledge, opens a space for building up generalisations and stereotyping patterns against the collective other.

“Instead of looking at ethno-national cultures and religions as identity difference-lines,” explains Professor Kira Kosnick from the Institute of Sociology at the Goethe University of Frankfurt, “there is an urgent need to understand them as politically embedded and historically changeable phenomena.”

Controversy of denial

Injustice, corruption and chaos in the world offer a perfect environment for the development of terrorism. However, the fight against terrorism can really only begin when Western and Muslim-majority countries acknowledge the fact that the problem lies mainly in religious and political governance. Every time such a criminal action happens, Muslim individuals become the first victims, not only in the Western world but also across the Middle East and North Africa in places such as Iraq, Syria and Yemen. Why is it a controversy of denial and why does it serve Daesh?

On one level of denial, some Islamic clerics incite violence, and then the same clerics condemn those who carry out violent acts. On a second level, Arab political leaders support freedom of speech against terrorism and extremism in the West but they choose to do otherwise in their own countries. On a third level of denial, Western countries base their relationship with states in the Middle East and North Africa on security, stability and economic calculations, turning a blind eye to all of the violations and atrocities perpetrated by their authoritarian allies. On a forth level, while the West has an unclear position concerning protracted conflicts in the heart of the Muslim-majority countries, it has built strong ties with states known to export extremism and sectarianism, such as Saudi Arabia and Iran.

This controversy emerges when actors are unable or unwilling to improve people’s lives in the region. Consequently, extremist groups find a fertile environment for recruitment within these structures.

Solutions in the age of Daesh

Solutions to reform Islamic thinking necessitate the willingness of political as well as religious leaderships to stop employing religion whenever it is deemed convenient to do so.

The problem is not that some terrorists have joined or learned from Daesh but rather why they were inclined to join and support the group, or Al-Qaeda, in the first place. Radicalisation is a process that takes several years to crystallise. There is hardly any evidence that people become radicalised because of a three-month visit to a Daesh stronghold. The evidence suggests that many of those who join Daesh are already prepared to embrace, learn and establish such an extremist ideology.

The newcomers to Daesh or any other terrorist organisation are more likely to have developed their radical views in their home countries. It could be at school or home, through religious books, Islamic interpretations or religious discussions. As such, the reasons given for the incitement of violence could well be found in the books held most sacred by Muslims.

We all know that bombings such as those in Brussels and elsewhere are not going to destroy the states in question, but there are consequences to these attacks. They sharpen the rifts between Muslims and non-Muslims in Western societies, although an overwhelming majority of Muslims in the West are more than likely willing to cooperate with the authorities to eliminate any risks against their home countries.

Increasing alienation helps Daesh to recruit the most marginalised and distressed individuals. Against this background, Daesh offers them the illusion of being a part of a great project in the name of God.

Hakim Khatib is a lecturer in journalism, intercultural communication and politics and culture of the Middle East at Fulda University of Applied Sciences and Phillips University Marburg. He specialises in the application of religion into political life and discourse in the Middle East and is the editor-in-chief of the Mashreq Politics and Culture Journal (MPC Journal).

The views expressed in this article belong to the author and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of Middle East Monitor.

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